In the heart of Manhattan, a small statue that once stood in the center of an atrium fountain inside a stately Fifth Avenue mansion has become the center of an international mystery. The home was built in the 1920s for a private family and was sold to the French Embassy in the 1950s. Along with the house came this quaint, but neglected marble carving of a young boy carrying a quiver of arrows. For years, it was ignored by thousands of visitors and dignitaries alike, all headed somewhere else in their busy lives. Then, one fateful evening in 1997, Dr. Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, a New York University art professor, was invited to a social event there. She was instantly captivated by the statue. As she looked closer, she saw what others had not recognized for almost a century: its composition bore the mark of genius. She suspected this piece was from the hand of a young Michelangelo.
Naturally, the professor did not announce the statue was the authentic early work of Michelangelo without doing some homework. She discovered it had been listed for sale by auction as an original Michelangelo just after the turn of the 20th century. However, it did not sell and was later bought by the architect of the home, who purchased it from a European dealer as an “artifact of antiquity.” The professor then brought to bear her considerable expertise in the art world and, in looking at the work itself, pronounced its authenticity.
When Dr. Weil-Garris Brandt shared her findings regarding the statue now called “Young Archer,” her conclusion was initially met with disbelief. Could it be? This fountain centerpiece turned priceless masterpiece had suffered decades of neglect. More experts were called in, most of whom concurred that the work was, indeed, likely the result of the master’s hand. It is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the only known Michelangelo sculpture in America.
There All Along
What intrigues me about this story is that the masterpiece was there all along—hidden in plain sight less than a block away from the Met. What it took to draw it out of hiding was the trained eye of a student of the arts. At our home, we love I Spy books and Where’s Waldo?, but it makes us crazy once we realize what we were looking for had been there all along, staring us in the face! (I do this with my keys, by the way—hide them where one would least expect to find them, like on the mantle or in a drawer.)
My question is this—what else are we missing? As a medical student learning about how the body works, I thought it is fascinating to understand how we fight off disease, how the brain responds to stress and how we reproduce, how we perceive vision and memory—the list goes on and on. These, too, are miracles in plain sight. Regardless of how you believe these everyday miracles came about, they speak to an underlying order and bedrock physical principles that we can only contribute to an eloquent genius. Without the predictable, physical laws that order our universe, none of these miracles could happen. In fact, we would not happen. But how soon we forget the mystery of beauty and the joy of being able to breathe and to think! Like the thousands of people hustling by the “Young Archer” for decades, we scurry past God’s most wondrous creations on display every day. And in doing so, all too often we miss the miracle hidden in plain sight.
God, the Artist
In Romans 1:20, we are told, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal purpose and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse.” In other words, God’s invisible qualities show up in the visible universe. This is really amazing when you think about it. We can learn about God by studying nature? Yes, it is true and biblical. The more we learn about our universe, the more examples we find of physical laws that mirror spiritual laws. There are these consistent physical laws and principles that allow us to exist, all of which are orderly and consistent. The Bible teaches us that the spiritual world and the natural world are inter-related, and as we learn more about the natural world, we better understand its Creator.
My belief is that this Creator, like Michelangelo and all artists, has a distinctive style—and it shows up in the most unexpected places. I first noticed this while studying the brain cells responsible for coordination, the Purkinje cells. I’ll never forget the night I realized how much they resembled oak trees. See for yourself in the accompanying photographs. Then I started seeing these “design copycats” everywhere, in places one would least expect them. Next, a sunflower that looks like a silicone crystal. And the branching of a bronchial tree that reminds me of a river flowing into the sea. Really, if you look, you can find thousands of examples every day. In fact, they are so common that we often fail to notice them. For example, take the endless variety of spirals: from roses, to seashells, to your inner ear. These patterns are at once mysterious and beautiful. Much has been studied about this pattern, termed the “Golden Ratio,” but no one understands why we are drawn to it.
I think I have a clue. God is an artist, and we are endowed with His sense of appreciation for beauty. These repetitive themes represent God’s signature on His work, His calling card, if you will. These themes show up in what’s been referred to as the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” and are often strikingly beautiful. They are scattered throughout creation for our pleasure, yet are often so commonplace that we often overlook them. I invite you to reawaken your sense of wonder, and I guarantee if you look, you will find evidence of the Author of Beauty in your everyday world.