When you think of spirituality in painting, visions of the Madonna and Child or the Crucifixion will likely come to mind. This story is about a worshipful painting of another kind – a landscape that conveys celestial wonder. It's a story that began with a KPMR broadcast from Missouri on Dec. 13 announcing that the St. Louis Museum of Art, which specializes in German modernism, purchased a small oil on canvas by the 19th-century artist Caspar David Friedrich at a Sotheby's auction for $2.75 million.

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Making a difference

And unlike the usual press coverage for an artwork selling for millions, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, focused on the painting, not the price, contributing mightily to the cause of art appreciation – in this case, the ethereality of the picture. Titled Sunburst in the Riesengebirge, it refers to a mountain range between Poland and the Czech Republic that the artist hiked.

But the newspaper informed its readers that the painting is about more than geography by quoting museum curator Simon Kelly who said that the image “sums up Friedrich's approach to landscape as symbolic of the wider themes of life, death and the promise of eternity.” And with that, the dollar amount for the picture took its rightful place as secondary.

When an auction house is about more than sales

The newspaper also cited Sotheby's catalog description of all of Friedrich's picture parts and what they may mean: the rocky foreground symbolizes the transience of earthly life; the solitary hut is a reminder of the smallness of humankind in the universe; the upright fir trees stand for “the faithful who will inherit eternal life”; The brightening sky is “a harbinger of divine sanctuary.”

Value system on display

How unusual is a mainstream newspaper's up-close look at art? Very. When the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was robbed in 1990 of its Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet, and Degas - a combined loss of $200 million, that amount became the story.

Even The Boston Globe, the museum's hometown paper, ran a headline that said, “$200 million Gardner Museum art theft” and never talked about the significance of the artworks in the story that followed.

When art history is not always about art

Kudos to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for digging out the details. Of course, there are details that enlighten and those that mire in minutia. I'm thinking of art historians who get stuck in their research and miss the big picture. Albert Boime of the University of California, Los Angeles did that when he contended in Colin Eisler's 1999 book “Masterworks in Berlin” that the figure in Friedrich's “Monk by the Sea” was the artist.

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That's like guessing who modeled for, say, Da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks. Biome even went further, saying the cliffs that the monk walked were where a Protestant mystic built a church for fisherman far from home. None of which speaks to the painting's evocation of awe a lone figure imparts as he stands before a vast sea.