The World’s Great Museums with the World’s Best Tour Guide

Ever have one of those moments when you didn’t think life could get better…and then it did?  Well I just had one!  It turns out that Rick Steves and Google have been conspiring to make my spiritual life (and by that I mean my life life), tremendously richer, happier, more meaningful…and I just found out about it.  Allow me to explain…

I have been a fan of travel guide Rick Steves for years, ever since he first introduced me to the world of art in my early 20s.  Yes, I had beheld art before then.  But for whatever reason I was not ready to connect with it.  Then, in 1993 I was invited to spend a week in London with a friend.  I had been to Europe several times by then (mainly to eastern Europe to teach English) and had toured the occasional castle here, museum there.  But I was so ignorant of art history that the experiences were more to put photos in my album than to be truly affected by what I saw.  But something changed with my trip to London; for the first time I was curious about art.  So a mentor – seeking to encourage this –  loaned me two books:  Europe 101 and Mona Winks…and they changed my life.

If you have not read them, Europe 101 remains one of the finest short-courses on European history and art I have ever found.  And Mona Winks is a guide to the great museums of Europe, literally walking you from room to room explaining what you are seeing, what to look for and why it matters.  Together, they are an immersion course in all that is amazing about western culture, written by a wonderful man (and his not-to-be-forgotten co-writer, Gene Openshaw) whose never-overt Lutheran faith subtly fills his writing with a richness and warmth that draws one into the divine encounter that all great art offers.

That week in London did more to open my eyes and my heart to the beauty of human creativity than every humanities course I’d ever taken, and, in all truth, played a pivotal role in my call to theological study and to ordained ministry (and the visual arts now play a deeply important role in my spiritual life).  It also made me eternally grateful to and a zealous fan of one Rick Steves.

So imagine my delight when, a few years ago, I stumbled upon a series of Rick Steves’ audio tours on iTunes!  Want to have Rick guide you through the Sistine Chapel or the Uffizi?  Click here.  Want to tour the Louvre, Versailles or the Orsay?  Click here.  The episodes are  excerpts from his guidebooks and meant to heard while actually touring the museums.  But the descriptions are so beautifully crafted you can have 90% of the experience while sitting in traffic or winding down at the end of a long day.  Thanks to Rick, I’ve toured many of the great sites of Europe in my mind’s eye dozens of times, though I’ve only been – physically – to a few of them.

So there I am, happily touring museums in my head, when, a few weeks ago I discover the Google Art Project!  (How did no one bother to mention this to me???)  Hundreds of the world’s great works of art offered in such incredible resolution that you can see the brush strokes.  But it gets better still.  Not only has Google made these works available for pleasure and for study, they’ve actually photographed the museums themselves and created a sort of “street view” of the galleries (as in Google maps).  In other words you can not only see the art, you can tour the building.  Yep, you can walk the hallways, choose your location in a room, look from side to side and up and down…all in high def.   How insanely cool is that???  (Click the photos to the right and left to see for yourself.)

In short:  with some earbuds and a laptop you can match Rick step for step as he guides you through the great museums of Europe explaining the masterworks found within them.  And as he speaks you are free zoom in on the details to scan the room to see what else is nearby.

Got an 80-inch plasma?  Do you really want to see one more episode of Survivor?  Really? Why not connect it to your computer and spend the evening with Botticelli or Van Gogh or Raphael instead?  It might just be better than actually being there – all the art with no lines, better A/C, a cold Diet Dew…and heck, no sore feet.

But seriously, this combination of instruction and visualization is a gift to be cherished.  At last anyone with an internet connection has the opportunity to stand before some of the greatest art ever produced and  have them explained with eloquence and charm.  With a few clicks on a touchpad, we can be richly nourished by the best humanity has to offer, and in the process be drawn nearer to the God who is, above all else, an artist:  “In the beginning, when God created…”

If you are one for whom art is a meaningful part of your prayer life, get the podcasts and check out Google Art Project.  And if you are one who doesn’t think art is your thing…get the podcasts and check out Google Art Project.  You may just change your mind…and find your soul quite touched as well.


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