The Hillwood Museum, Estate and Gardens has a motto, “Hillwood, where Fabulous lives.” Enjoying this typically DC experience through the eyes of faith yields a far deeper reflection. I humbly submit that Hillwood could well amend its motto to, “Hillwood, where Magnificence lives.”
Hillwood is the home of Marjorie Merriweather Post. Heiress to the Post cereal fortune, Mrs. Post had a passion for collecting French decorative arts. When her husband Joseph Davies became ambassador to the Soviet Union in the 1930’s her taste expanded to include Russian imperial art, both decorative and liturgical. In 1955 Mrs. Post made Hillwood her home. It also became home to her vast collection of French and Russian art. Everything from icons to paintings to furniture to jeweled easter eggs (Faberge) and gold-thread liturgical apparel is displayed in Mrs. Post’s neo-Georgian mansion. Throughout her life Mrs. Post was dedicated to philanthropic works. She gave generously (often anonymously) to the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Kennedy Center, and the Washington Ballet Guild, as well as other charities. Mrs. Post was also a patriot and opened her home to wounded Vietnam veterans from Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital to ease their convalescence. She wanted Hillwood to be a place where true beauty could be experienced in a livable atmosphere. To this end, she arranged for Hillwood to become a functioning museum after her death. At first the museum was privately run by her heirs, and later established as a public institution.
The estate’s gardens, greenhouses, gallery space, even its cafe can only be described with superlative adjectives: sumptuous, splendid, opulent. Its latest exhibit displays Mrs. Post’s personal collection of Cartier jewels; each piece fit for a queen. Where do such overwhelming riches fit in a Christian vision? Where can such overwhelming riches fit? Here we arrive at the core of our reflection: the virtue of magnificence.
Magnificence is the virtue of doing of great things (cf. Aquinas, ST II-II,134), which St. Thomas describes as participating in the greatness of God. St. Thomas asks very specifically (art. 3) if this “doing” requires great expense, and the answer is “yes.” Expense is not always a matter of money, but it is a matter of overwhelming, total gift. One can be magnificent in love, magnificent in humility, magnificent in humor and joy. Money may not be necessary to magnificence, but it can help, as we see at Hillwood. The joining of Mrs. Post’s exceptional wealth and her exceptional generosity, as well as her life-long commitment to beauty make Hillwood a truly magnificent gift to our Washington community. Experiencing such a total and gratuitous gift, walking through it, letting that gift dazzle the senses, I want to be generous myself, to be a doer of great things within my own circumstances.
Experiences of splendor, like Hillwood can inspire us to virtue… then we can say with regard to our own hearts, “here is where magnificence lives.”
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