My Favorite Painting?

A former student emailed me, asking–among other things–for advice about things to enjoy during her upcoming visit to Montréal. One of the things I suggested was to visit the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, and I couldn’t help but mention my favorite painting there, which, unsurprisingly, is of a teacher. Here it is:

the painting
“Eratosthenes Teaching in Alexandria” (c. 1635) by Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644) From the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts website.

I know, hopelessly old-fashioned of me. I like more modern artists too, believe me! Kandinsky! Dali! Escher! Er… look, among my bundle of posters–now in storage in a warehouse someplace in Koream waiting to be shipped to me eventually–are at least a few prints much more avant-garde and challenging than this one, and that’s to say nothing of the prints long-lost when I left Montreal–especially all the Dali I had on my walls.

Still, when ask myself what my favorite painting is, I know my answer should be as it is for books: there are too many wonderful ones for me to pick just one, and there are. I’ve seen haystacks that were gorgeous, I’ve seen assemblages that fascinated me but looked like nothing in this world… and yet I can’t help but think of this one, even though I haven’t seen it in many years.

I don’t even know who Strozzi is, or whether I like his other work. But this painting, for me, sums up everything wonderful about teaching, about learning, about studying, and about the sacredness of places of learning: the shared excitement, the attention to some detail, the love of books, and the importance of the world to one’s studies. It reminds me of the first time my parents took me to a library, and I saw all… those… books! And then, I was told to find some that I wanted to borrow!

Eratosthenes is famed for all kinds of discoveries in a number of fields: he calculated (with surprising accuracy) the circumference of the Earth and the tilt of its axis (which is why there is a globe of the Earth pictured beside his pupil, who holds a compass in his hands); he invented a “sieve” in mathematics used to find prime numbers; he studied astronomy, music theory, and geography–inventing much of the terminology used in geography today, even. He refused to specialize, and he also became the chief librarian at Alexandria.

Notably, his critics called him Beta (implying that he was a perpetual second-place runner in every field). However, those who thought highly of his achievements–achievements at least as formidable as any of his critics, note–instead called him Pentathlos (because, like a pentathlete at the Olympics, he demonstrated knowledge in every field).

Not that I knew any of that when I sat staring at the painting. For me, it was all just a perfect encapsulation of how I felt then about teaching and learning and books and knowledge: that thing that is so crucial to all that human beings have achieved–that sense of wonder that led to the questions and observations that, ultimately, built a world where you are reading this on a screen far distant to the one upon which I am writing this.

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