Confession Stories

The Greatest Forger

It was perhaps the greatest hoax in art history. Han van Meegeren was an artist with a grudge. Painting in the Netherlands pre World War 2, critics mercilessly panned his exhibitions. One critic described him as “A gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school, he has every virtue except originality.” Stung, van Meegreen decided to strike back. He painted a work with flourishes of the style of the great Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer, titled it “The Supper at Emmaus”, and submitted it to the prominent critic Abraham Bredius. Bredius took the bait, writing that “It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master… And what a picture! We have here a – I am inclined to say the – masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft.”  The art world gasped, the painting was sold for the equivalent of millions of dollars, and displayed in  the Boijmans Gallery in Rotterda.

Han van Meegren planned to expose the forgery at the opening of the Gallery’s 400 Years of European Art exhibition, in which his forgery was given pride of place. His critics would be humiliated and their reputations shattered. Greed, however, got the better of him. Rather than exposing the forgery, he made more, raking in millions more dollars. When the Nazis swept through Europe, he even managed to sell The Supper at Emmaus to them.

This almost proved his undoing.After the war the victorious Allied forces were determined to return the artworks collected by the Nazis to their previous owners. A receipy led two soldiers from the Allied Art Commission to the studio of vm Meegren. They wanted to know from whom van Meegran had bought the artwork. Unwilling to divulge the truth, van Megreen was arrested on charges of treason and faced the death penalty. Confined in prison, facing death, van Megreen had a change of heart. He confessed, but no-one believed him. Experts testified that the work was indeed an original by the Dutch master Vermeer. The only way to prove his innocence was to produce another fake, anfd so he did, spending weeks literally painting for his life!

The final twist to the story is that van Meegren was not only acquitted, but became a national hero, for he had fooled the Nazis, shown them to be the corrupt regime everyone knew they were.

Source: information found in “The forger who fooled the world” The Telegraph, Aug 5, 2006

St Patrick & Confession

Confession to a priest in the confessional booth is one of the well known practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Most Protestant churches reject it on the grounds that we should confess to Christ not a priest. Nevertheless the story of how it came into existence is instructive.

Throughout the Middle Ages sins were not confessed in private but in public. To sin was to sin not only against God but against the church. Thus it was a public matter and confessed publicly. Even where confession was made in private the contents of the confession were often made public. What’s more penance was usually seen as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sin after your confession and penance and you were lost forever. Sin could be forgiven only once.

St. Patrick of Ireland changed all this. Growing up in Britain he had experienced the humiliation of having his sin made public and the terror of believing it could be forgiven only once. When he went to Ireland as its first Christian missionary he established a new practice. Confession would now take place in private and be kept private – the sin was no one else’s affair. It was between the sinner and God alone. What’s more confession would be repeatable as necessary, acknowledging the fact that everyone sinned pretty much all the time and that God’s forgiveness was always available.

Whatever we make of the practice today, Patrick’s innovation highlights important realities surrounding sin, confession and forgiveness. Yes we all sin regularly; yes we are called to confess our sin to God; yes God’s forgiveness is freely available; and no, people should not be publicly humiliated for their sin.

Source: Reported in T Cahill, How The Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder 1995)