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  • Writer's picturePaul Cho

A Tapestry of Life and Light at the Port of Honfleur, the Home of the Impressionists

During our visit to France last year, on our way to the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, we stopped by a small town, the city of Honfleur. I will never forget the surreal experience the moment Esther and I stood on the city’s port. Looking at the constantly changing colors of lights reflected on the water was truly a sacramental experience, a touch of heaven on earth, in itself. I saw people taking photos and painting, trying to capture the scenic moment of reflection of beautiful architectures and lights on calm and quiet water.

While visiting the town, I learned that the city of Honfleur was where the 19th-century art movement of Impressionism began. This was the very place where artists and musicians like Gustave Courbet, Eugene Boudin, Claude Monet, Johan Jongkind, Erik Satie, and others once lived. Impressionists were people of the time who took the arts out of studios and into nature. Instead of following the traditional rules established by the French Academy of Fine Arts, which had deep roots in ancient Roman Greek art of idealized images, Impressionists sought to paint outdoors, capturing the landscapes, urban scenes, and ordinary lives of the people in the city. To them, all subject matters, nature, outdoors, and scenes of everyday life became the subjects of their paintings. More than anything else, they were fascinated with capturing momentary and transient effects of light in their paintings.

As I was gazing at the beauty of the port, deeply immersed in the world of Impressionism, remembering Monet's beautiful paintings which we saw in Musée de l'Orangerie and Musée d'Orsay a day ago, and at his home in Giverny, humming Erik Satie’s music piece on Gymnopédies & Gnossiennes, I was truly enjoying the moments of grace in the home of the Impressionists.

While meditating on the reflections of lights on the glimmering water, Esther said to me, "Paul, let's walk around the town." As we walked into the town, we found ourselves immersed in the world of medieval times. Our walk led us to the top of the village, where the Sainte Catherine Church, one of the oldest and largest wooden churches in France, stood. There, a happy couple was getting married, and all their local friends and neighbors came to celebrate this special moment in their lives.

Watching the couple get married in the church building, right in the center of the medieval village, I felt that this was truly a moment of grace. In the village of Honfleur, reflecting the world of medieval times, there was no separation between the church and the world, no divide between sacred and secular. The life of the church and the lives of ordinary people came together in one seamless, beautiful moment on the day of a beautiful covenant. Moments like this, the lives of the people in the city, were what the Impressionist artists were trying to capture. They saw the sacramental beauty of life and light interwoven in the moments of life, as gracefully reflected in the world around them.

As we descended from the top of the village, I once again saw the port. The city was filled with the life of people working, painting, walking, eating, and living. All these ordinary moments of city life were beautifully and gracefully reflected against the backdrop of the still water, as constant movements of light in the port. There, standing on the port again, I reflected on what I had seen in the town: the seamless life of a medieval village, weaving the lives of the church and the world into a moment of grace, and the world of the Impressionists who tried to capture the beauty of transient moments of light and life onto canvas. Later, I also discovered that the port of Honfleur was not only a world for impressionists but also for tradesmen and explorers like Samuel de Champlain, who began his expedition from the port of Honfleur in 1608 to discover the New World, a world of Quebec.

During a brief two-hour stay, I truly experienced sacred moments of encountering common grace. I saw the seamless life of a medieval village that wove together the lives of the secular and sacred into a beautiful moment of covenantal grace. I also experienced the world of impressionists who sought to capture these ordinary moments of grace, as seen in everyday life, and beautiful scenes of the world, as expressed in the reflection of lights in the world of common grace.

Reflecting on the beautiful art of the Impressionists, while observing the changing colors of light and the reflections of the port glimmering on the calm waters of Honfleur, I felt a tranquil moment of grace again. It was like the dawn of a new world. A world where life and light weave together most beautifully in the presence of the one who embodies the true light.

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