Along the banks of the Neva River, nestled in the magnificent Winter Palace of Saint Petersburg, is one of the oldest and largest museums of art and culture in the world: the State Hermitage Museum. It was founded by Catherine the Great, who in 1764 purchased the first two hundred and fifty-five paintings from an art dealer in Berlin. Today, it would take eleven years to merely glance at every one of the three million works of art that live there. We may not have that much time, but we do have enough for an afternoon stroll.
From room to room through the elegant doors, to different times and places. Ancient Egypt and post-impressionist Europe. Byzantine icons and Russian supremacists. Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Raphael and Titian. Rembrandt and Rubens. Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet, Pissarro. Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin, Rodin. A historical panoply of eternal works, millions of moments of captured beauty that have far outlived the men who created them. And will outlive us too.
‘Remember how fleeting is my life,’ Psalm 89:47 reads. Everything is forever, until it is no more. Including us, especially us, all of us. Immanuel Kant called us specks of sand in an infinity of time. The scientific study of the universe confirmed it. Kings, presidents, and tyrants; art makers and collectors; brick layers, bread bakers, and flower pickers. One day we’ll all be gone.
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
Actually, it was Hippocrates who said it first: ‘Life is short, art is long.’ If we cannot live forever, at least let our names. In memory, carvings, newspapers, and books, in paintings, statues, palaces, and gulags.
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Even fleeting men can leave footprints, and history remembers those who do. The good, and bad. Like Cretan architect Cherisiphron, who designed the colossal temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. And Herostratus, who set it ablaze two hundred years later.
Like Leonid Brezhnev, who ‘took Afghanistan’ in 1979, leaving about one million civilians dead, five million exiled, and two million displaced internally. And Freddie Mercury, who that same year sang ‘Don’t Stop me Now,’ the most feel-good song ever written.
Like Empress Catherine II who created the Hermitage, and German Field Marshal Ritter von Lieb who flooded it. Albert Einstein, who developed the theory of relativity. Harry Truman, who put it in a bomb. Pol Pot’s killing fields, John Lennon’s strawberry ones. Yuri Gagarin who went to space, David Bowie who sang about it.
The verdict is still pending on the rest of us. Presidents will make speeches, dictators will rename cities. Architects will build towers, artists sculptures. Explorers will discover islands, scientists cures. Men will write books and sing songs and climb mountains and walk on Mars, hoping that perhaps, just perhaps, they will leave something behind worth remembering.
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life
And we… will walk out of the Hermitage Museum, past the Madonnas and the landscapes, the crouching nudes and dazed portraits, the soldiers in battle and women in gardens. Through the gift shop, around the palace, and into the small garden on the side. We will carve our initials on the bark of a tree. And leave them there.
‘. . . rags, a dog, eternal people. Live and go on living, you’ll outlive them all.’