A couple of months ago, I tour-guided a very respectable Indian couple living in the United States. He was a CEO; she was a doctor. They told me they wanted to see as much as humanly possible in a two-hour tour’s time. And that’s what I did. I remember them very well. It was a sunny afternoon. I took them up the Saint Michael’s bridge, down to the harbor, to the castle. We crossed the Friday market. We tasted chocolate. We even talked to locals, and, yes, he asked a million questions, and she took a million pictures. All went well, actually, until we reached the cathedral.
“Do we really need to visit this, Kristel?” he said, “We are not so much into churches, you know.”
“Well,” I said,” you don’t have to, but, you know, this is the place where you can see the world-famous Ghent altarpiece. This is a must-see in Ghent.” They looked at each other. I could tell they hadn’t the faintest idea what the altarpiece was about, but most of all, they worried that the visit would eat up too much time of the tour. But, hey, I convinced them anyway. And there we were, in the dim chapel, facing the massive Ghent altarpiece. It had been painted by van Eyck – or “van Ike” in English – about 500 years ago. I could tell they were impressed, and so I briefly introduced them to the symbolism, the technique, and the wonderful detailing van Eyck is famous for.
“Kristel, can we take a picture?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said, “but you know what? You can take your time – all you need – and I will wait for you outside the chapel.”
Now, when they finally came out, everything about them had changed: He was in thoughts, with his arms around her shoulders, and she was is in tears. “Thank you so much for bringing us here,” she said through her tears, “It all came back, you know. We thought we coped, but now, here …” And then they shared with me how they lost their child the year before. You can imagine the rest of the tour was different. They were more open, more relaxed, more connected; they were a couple.
Now, the point I want to make here is that the transformation of the couple was visible, it was substantial, and it was real. And I wondered whether this would have happened if the Ghent altarpiece would have been put up in a museum. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go to medieval rooms in museums all over the world, it always strikes me how they tend to attract very few visitors. I took a picture – the picture you see here is the medieval art room of the museum in Princeton, but it could have been any other museum, because it always comes down to a collection of exquisite, single pieces that clearly belong to a very specific place, as most medieval art is, by the way. It is as if by disconnecting the art from the place it is made for, it loses its attraction, its inspiring value, its soul.
Believe it or not, the same terrible fate awaited the Ghent altarpiece, especially since it undergoes a very expensive restoration. There were some policy makers in Ghent who were coming up with the idea that we should have a museum just for it. You can imagine, in what a state of shock I was. But also, how happy I was the day I found out that the tide has turned, and that the decision was made that the Ghent altarpiece will stay in the Cathedral, no matter what, and that money, time and effort will be invested to accommodate it even better. So, that’s good news for you because now you will be able, as the Indian couple, to fully enjoy its power, its inspiring value and its soul.
Now the key question, of course, in all of this is the following: Can places have a soul? Take the cathedral: Over a thousand years, a place where people come to mourn, to pray, to celebrate. Is this cathedral nothing more than some mere, albeit beautiful and impressive, square meters? Or is the consolation, the inspiration and the reflection that people clearly experience in it just as a real as the ancient stones it is built with? And if so, what is the value of that?
What is the value of a square meter of soul? You know, when I walk from my apartment to my office, I often take a shortcut through the cathedral. I always enter by the green wooden door at the side and then exit through the main entrance. I used to rush through it with my laptop in one hand and my smartphone in the other. But one day, I slowed down my step and sat down for a minute. I looked up and let my mind run free. When I arrived in my office later, I experienced that those couple of minutes really empowered me, grounded me, relaxed me; and it turned out to be a perfect morning workout.
Now, I’m sure you all know places like that, and it doesn’t have to be a religious place. It can be any place you are intuitively drawn to. You know, those places with a vibe. It can be the bench in the park you love to read on or these typical, old cafes where people, for generations sometimes, come to meet. Or those small, iconic shops in the city, you know, where you enter, and you really smell the history in it. You know, these kind of places – the places that sit and feel right, you know. These places are valuable; these places are the heart and the soul of a city, and still, too often, we take them for granted.