The story goes that the old woman in this painting was a former nun who, at age 70, had been defrocked, lost her faith, and fled the convent. The artist, Paul Cézanne, found her wandering aimlessly in the streets and took her in as his maid, out of charity. This painting was discovered in 1896 at Cézanne’s family house, lying on the floor in near ruin with water dripping from a pipe onto the oil painting.
Knowing the backstory helps us feel this woman’s pain, and also helps us see a hint of hope. She may be in deep thought, but is she in deep regret? Perhaps the raised eyebrow and the clutched rosary beads give a glimmer of redemption. Her faith may have been tested but it was not thrown out. Cézanne became a devout Christian late in life and maybe knew from his own heart how despair of the past can meet a future of hope, in spite of it all.
A thread of redemption runs through this story. The painting itself was saved from destruction by someone who recognized its value. Something discarded now hangs in a famous museum and is worth millions. Cézanne himself was redeemed by becoming a follower of Christ and sharing his God-given talent with the world. And the old woman was redeemed from a life of despair on the streets to a second chance. It appears she has found faith again. Or maybe faith found her.
In Jesus, God takes each of our broken and discarded lives and transforms them. He makes all things new. He sees the worth of each of us, even if others—or ourselves—do not. Fr. Paul Anel says, “In his own way, Cézanne performs an act of mercy. ‘I was naked and you clothed me,’ said Jesus; but in Cézanne’s case, the verse should read, ‘I was sitting in darkness and you brought me color and light.’” God says to each of us, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Is. 43:1).
Being Human connection: May you be bathed in color and light in this new year.
Featured art: Paul Cézanne, Old Woman with a Rosary, 1895-96, National Gallery, London.