“And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all his mad adventures . . .” — G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
She hangs solemnly above the emerald chest in my bedroom. The bottle of Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio rests alone on the chest, a gentle grey snow dusting its heel. Her gaze is pensive, faraway eyes that spire into my own. She’s La Meditazione (The Meditation) by Francesco Hayez, the nineteenth-century Italian painter belonging generally to the Romantic Movement. Sadly, I can find very little written about this magnificent painting.
The painting has been known by three titles: The Meditation; The Meditation on the History of Italy; and The Meditation on the History of the Old and New Testaments. To what degree this was intentional or just a happy historical fortuity, I do not know. Nevertheless, the trinity of titles alludes to the multiple perspectives it embodies. The erotic, aesthetic, historical and religious are each laced within the other.
Behind the initial erotic draw of her face and figure lies hidden the visage of a Christ Pantokrator icon; particularly the venerable sixth-century icon at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Her eyes are subtly, but unmistakably, dissimilar. Her left eye is fiercely melancholy. The other more gentle and calm. Her entire face descries the Old and New Testament difference and unity. Her left is dark and shadowy, hidden in a whirlwind like some mysterious form in a fiery Babylonian furnace. Her lips curve downward in the shape of divine kenosis, a crescent moon in the garden of Gethsemane. The right side of her face, along with her right breast, catch an infinite light. Her lips soften in shape and the fixture of her eye has motion in it.
Instead of holding the New Testament in her left hand like St. Catherine’s Pantokrator, she holds the cross. In her right arm she holds a book, The History of Italy: the child of Christianity. She is the mother of Italy, her nourishing breast of life, the lactation of Christendom. The allusion to previous Madonna paintings is obvious. (Perhaps a mix of Boticceli’s The Madonna of the Book and Bartolomeo Veneto’s Madonna Che Allatta Il Bambino.) But the Christ child is absent from her right arm, and Christ is absent from the cross in her left. The Christian revolution has taken place. The Christ child is now the history of Italy. The crucified and risen Christ is off the Roman cross and now hidden and manifest in the concrete face of each man, each woman. Her face is her own, yet also Christ’s.
She reminds me of Jorge Luis Borge’s Dantean short story Paradiso, XXXI, 108:
“Perhaps some feature of that crucified countenance lurks in every mirror; perhaps the face died, was obliterated so that God could be all of us. Who knows whether tonight we shall not see it in the labyrinths of our dreams and not even know it tomorrow.”
She “Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — / Christ – for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”. She is the tonic flame and face turning death into a stranger, the recurring musical motif holding history’s hells abated, advocate of the poor and oppressed, drawing heaven’s starry hosts into the minds of men amidst the night’s stale chaos.
Hayez’s painting is a metaphysical romance. We could say it’s like Chesterton’s “great romance he never wrote,” described in The Everlasting Man. A boy takes leave of home and searches for the “effigy and grave of some giant.” As he moves further and further away from his cottage, he is able to make out certain aspects of home—a kitchen-garden for instance—when he suddenly realizes these small features are like quarterings of a shield, the shield of a giant upon which he has always lived and moved and had his being. Before his journey it was too large and too close to be seen. Seeing it required distance.
There is, however, a backstory to Chesterton’s great romance; namely, Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable of the Madman found in The Gay Science. It’s no secret that much of Chesterton’s philosophy has Nietzsche in mind, so it is hardly surprising that Chesterton should begin his masterpiece with a play on the parable of the Madman. Nietzsche’s Madman sets out with “lantern in the bright morning hours” searching for God. He wanders like a fallen angel of old, flitting about frantically to and fro throughout the marketplace, incessantly crying, “I seek God! I seek God!” The unbelievers mock and tease him: “Why, did he get lost? Did he lose his way like a child? Is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage?” The Madman glares and pierces the unbelievers’ eyes with his own and responds: “Whither is God? I shall tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers…Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God?”
Had Hayez encountered Nietzsche’s roaming madman, he’d have led him to The Meditation. For God is to be found only where God proclaims to be found: in the human face of the stranger. Perhaps we have lost God because we no longer attend to our neighbor, the face of the other. It is what is nearest to us that is most difficult for us to see. What is near becomes invisible. We need the distance that meditation creates in order to see what is always before us.
Hayez’s Italian girl is this meditation; an ordinary garden, an effigy, part of the shield of the giant. But the more one looks upon her, the more one looks carefully upon the infinite strands of her black hair and the gaze of her shadowed eyes, we become suddenly pierced, like Moses at the burning bush, with the audacious revelation that these dark strands are the same that wove the world in the beginning of days, and her eyes the same dark pupils that beheld the world and saw that it was good. She is part of the giant we live upon. She is the meditation on Existence Itself.
Image Details: La Meditazione (1851). Francesco Hayez (Italian, 1791-1882). Oil on canvas.