Walking through Tradition in Rijksmuseum

by Haley Littleton June 12, 2014


 While wandering through Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, slowly counting my steps on the tile, I wish it were quiet. Shifting uncomfortably from one hip to another, slowly making my path through the crowd, I rail in my mind against the noise and the people and their flashes. People hurriedly bustle from picture to picture with audio sets and digital cameras; someone yells for their lost child. They hover around Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” not because of some emotional connection but because a travel book said it was a “masterpiece.”I felt the same way when I viewed the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel – had all our praise cheapened it? By turning it into a “must see,” I couldn’t help but think we divorced it from its meaning.

I came intentionally to be alone, to wander for hours through the halls and think. I wish I could pause all of this around me, but time and tourism don’t stop for emotional processing.  Looking at their cameras, I wonder how I would feel walking around this museum if I knew I had no way of taking pictures, if I knew I was incapable to capture the moment for later. Would I pause more? Soak it in? Remember it? I think back to a book, The Madonnas of Leningrad, where the main character walked around creating a “memory palace” of all the things she'd seen.  Perhaps this is why there are all these paintings: people incapable of photography felt the need to capture the moment.


I walk to the second floor and observe the ornate mantles, dressers, and statues that placards tell me were curated from one Dutch home or another. It's hard for me to imagine that at some point all of these things were in someone's home or palace, that they were private property, personal attachment. A sign tells me that a 16th century Dutch family would have prized this dresser as their sole furniture investment and spent years saving up for it.

Has our public society, in making these things communal viewing property degraded the special attachment the people had to it? How much life occurred in one of these dressers that I am examining for its ornate carving? Does removing it from its tradition, place, and family lose that?  These people were real, and they lived with hopes and dreams and failures and one ostentatious dresser. I can imagine that the dresser was preserved and passed down through the family as an heirloom that carried with it stories of the ordinary, yet joyous, act of living. I realize that I am moored to no tradition, and I grieve that. The cry of the postmodern man is to shirk any tradition that tries to lay claim of him, yet, as I’m looking at a family heirloom passed down until it reaches the museum, I long for a tradition to be anchored in. I long for something as simple and yet as poignant as a dresser.

Maybe our museums are not taking away from tradition but, rather, are a struggle against forgetfulness. As people who are so prone to forget our past, we place it all in a museum in our fight to remember and honor. One plaque reads the dates of a painter’s life: 1890-1970. What a transition of modern life this man must have seen: from horses to cars, the printed word to televisions and computers. Will I see that much change in mine? Or will I be conscious of it? Was he?


In a museum filled with layers of beautiful things, it’s easy to see that we still chronicle beauty. I find hope that there is still a remnant of us who cherish beauty and history. There’s something to be praised in a material object created with the ability to last through the ages, unlike our degenerative building materials today. 

Continuing a commitment to craftsmanship is not cheap, quick, nor easy, like we have come to expect of the world. The Rijksmuseum shows that craftsmanship is what we will show off in museums to come. Even the simplest of things here, a teapot or a barometer, are beautiful and ornate. The hours upon hours of precious human life and time it took to make everything in this museum were not a waste. What the human hands are capable of is astounding, and perhaps a little terrifying. That God would enable our hands to do these things is a sign of image bearing and trust.


 Christianity has a history, a rich tradition, that presses itself upon me as I sit in the religious art wing of the Rijks, thinking of how many people who have called Christ Savior. Somehow, I am connected to them. They are my tradition, not buildings or land or country; Christ is my tradition. The Christian art here is astounding; the attention and detail given to it are meticulous and breathtaking. Sitting on a small bench in front of a woodcut of the crucifixion, I am reminded that I am a small piece in a large, beautiful movement. It is humbling, but comforting to know that one belongs to something larger, something of grandeur and beauty. I am not unique; many before me have wrestled through art, faith, craft, grief, pain, trials, joy and worship, and we remember them for that.

My craft is not in vain, and my struggle is not in vain; I am surrounded by a long tradition of those who persevered in creating, though they felt that they were not of worth. They believed, created, and died. This quells my own illusions of grandeur. I sit here, gazing at their art and remember their struggle. There is something bigger than my own individuality, and in that I take refuge. I walk through the wings surrounded by Him who has continued constant and loving through centuries, impressing himself on an 11th century artist and myself. This is a glorious tradition.

Haley Littleton
Haley Littleton


Haley Littleton is a second year Master’s student at the University of Denver in Literary Studies. A former intern for Ruminate Magazine, Haley writes here and there between her studies and exploring. With an interest in environmental criticism, climbing, and love of craft beer, Haley finds it doubtful she will ever be pulled away from Colorado.

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