Awakening to a Lost Masterpiece

by Dr. James Willingham

From Jan.1967-Dec.1969, I served as a Social Worker I with the Kentucky Division of Public Assistance with a case load of about 260-270 or more of ADC, PTD, GR, and OAA cases, mostly the latter (Old Age Assistance). In order to determine continued eligibility for assistance, the worker had to make a visit in the home of the client on a regular basis. One of my clients had a painting hanging on the wall of her home, It was a picture of a peasant couple standing in a field, praying over a potato harvest. The painting was greasy, stained, with a rip in it that some one had repaired by sewing. The client’s story was that one of her ancestral relatives had performed a service for the son of the artist who had recently come to America, and he had given the painting to that relative as payment for the service rendered. He also told the relative that this was the original, that the one hanging in the L’Ourve was a copy. Seems that the officials did not have a space for the artists larger painting, so they requested a smaller copy. The artist complied with predictable irritability. According to the Client, the son had said his father had made some changes in the copy, because he was upset over their rejection of his masterpiece. I saw that painting in 1967 and 1968 during my visits to determine continued eligibility. The painting was always mentioned in the case record, but no one knew the value of it, and the client did not have the money to get it to a place where experts could determine its authenticity and value.

In the Summer of 1971 while attending Columbia University in New York, I had the opportunity to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While there I went to the catalog section where the Museum kept photographs of the art works in other famous museums. In the section on the L’Ourve. I viewed the photograph, mentally comparing it with the painting that hung in the home of a woman on welfare. Her painting was a rectangle, possible 36″ by 48-56″, if memory serves me correctly for an educated guess as to the measurements. The one in the L’Ourve was more like a portrait, according to the information available by googling it is 21.9″ by 26″. The one in the L’Ourve showed a few potatoes still lying on the ground instead of being in the basket as one would normally expect. The painting in the home of the welfare client had all the potatoes in the basket.

The famous painting is titled, the Angelus, and it portrays the peasants giving thanks for their harvest at the time of the tolling of the bells for the evening prayers and worship known in Catholic services as the angelus. I went back to Kentucky sometime in the seventies only to find the home of the woman had burned down. There is an irony here as the artist, Jean Millet painted the poor, and it seems appropriate that his original masterpiece should wind up hanging on the wall of a poor woman.

The story of a lost masterpiece reminds us that there are stories of lost masterpieces of theological understanding and interpretation. During the Dark Ages the knowledge of Justification by faith alone was lost, only to be rediscovered by Martin Luther with the consequent revolution that the call the Reformation which, in conjunction with the renewal of learning and knowledge that we call the Renaissance, wrought a vast change in the civilization of the world.

The continuation of that rediscovery culminated and climaxed in the period from 1720-1820, in what we call the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions or the Modern Missionary Movement. This great outburst of theological renewal and cultural transformations can be traced directly or indirectly to the recovery of truths in Holy Scripture which had long been hidden from sight or forgotten. We hope to say more about The Lost Masterpiece, the biblical theology of the Great Awakenings, some of which can be traced to the awakening that we call the Reformation,

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3 comments

  1. Christiane

    Hi Dr. Willingham,
    thank you for sharing that interesting story about Millet’s painting . . . it is a shame that the poor woman’s painting could not have been checked, as it might have been Millet’s work, yes . . . now we won’t know.
    If it is permitted, I’d like to share a recent insight I found to do with ‘faith alone’ and ‘ justification’, this:

    “To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.”
    And it is because of this, the Bishop of Rome continued, that Luther’s expression “by faith alone” is true “if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love.”
    (Pope Benedict XVI)

    http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/pope-clarifies-luther-s-idea-of-justification

  2. dr. james willingham

    Dear Christiane: Thank you for your response. The quotations from the pope are very thought provoking and insightful. However, I have always in my memory of the time, when the local RC folks threatened my church members with physical violence over a state school bus bill. This was back in the 60s. And a friend of mine’s father was tortured in an Iron Maiden in another country, This was early twentieth century or late 19th, I am not certain of the date. One steps gingerly around the 800 pound gorilla in the room, wondering if he is truly peaceful. One also worries about infiltration and leaders in one’s own denomination that might be agents for some outside influence (a reality I became acquainted with through my study of history and being trained by Black Historians to think and do research outside the box). It is not that I am totally opposed to a uniting of believers. I’m not, but I am, if it is union at the expense of truth or union with a hidden agenda. I am not exactly comfortable with the thought that one of the recent popes was head of the organization that received its name change in 1906 or thereabouts. The original name was “The Office of The Holy Inquisition.” Reading the histories of that institution, like the holocaust camps, and the racism and slavery in American can give one nightmares, and in my case they did. And my reading often included original sources, especially in the latter case and in translations in the two mentioned previously along with photographs in the second taken by a member of my church, when our neighbors threatened us with physical violence.

  3. Christiane

    Hi DR. WILLINGHAM,
    Thank you for responding. I’m so sorry you have been through so much of trouble and I pray that you will forgive those who knew not what they did, and pray for them that they will realize the harm they did and repent. You are a good man, and a Christian man, and I ask your prayers on behalf of my family and myself who are grieving the sudden loss of a close family member this week. My faith is strong, I have hope, and there is so much love for the one has who passed into the loving arms of Our Lord, but the pain of loss cuts very deep and we are asking for prayer from those Christians who believe deeply in the power of the Resurrection. Please pray for us if you would, and I should be very grateful.
    It is Easter Sunday. I hope you celebrate the beauty of this Day of the Risen Lord with your family around you. God Bless you.
    Christ Is Risen!
    Alleluia

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