You can have your Prado, your National Gallery, your Hermitage. The Met is not only the finest encyclopedic museum of art in the United States; it is arguably the finest anywhere. Unlike the Louvre, it is comfortable and easy to use: You can get to the work without navigating hot spots of tourists, and you never feel like you’re in someone’s former palace. Here’s a tour of some of my favorite things, including easy-to-overlook items along with the can’t-miss ones. No matter what you seek out, the Met will turn you into a perpetual student, visiting the self as well as the entire world.
1. HEADDRESS EFFIGY (HAREIGA)
From Papua New Guinea (late nineteenth–early twentieth century)
Made by the Chachet Baining people of New Britain, Papua New Guinea, this object looks like a tree trunk with a massive swollen head, tattooed eyes, eyebrows, and a gaping mouth. She presides over this hall like an extraterrestrial empress emitting waves of visual, psychic, and erotic power.
2. ALLEGORY OF THE FAITH
By Johannes Vermeer (1670)
Of the Met’s five Vermeers, this is the weakest, if there is such a thing. But it is easy to miss its real point: Everything in the picture is set up. Artifice and breaking with reality are the content; the woman symbolizing the church is obviously a posed model. It’s seventeenth-century Cindy Sherman.
3. ETHIOPIAN ILLUMINATED GOSPEL
(Late fourteenth–early fifteenth century)
This Bible contains 24 full-page illuminations. In one, showing the entry of Christ into Jerusalem, the Apostles hover around him as he is poised at the still center; their Picasso eyes pull us in. Flat and Byzantine, visionary and captivating, all at once.
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