The Madonnas

I've been reading this great little book.  A literary gem, The Madonnas of Leningrad.  It's about a woman who works as a docent in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad and suddenly finds herself in the terrible fall of 1941.  Germany is on Russia's doorstep and the masterpieces of the Hermitage are quickly crated and shipped off for safekeeping.  The empty frames are left on the walls as a symbol of hope that the paintings will return. The faithful docent, Marina, builds a "memory palace," her own personal Hermitage - holding each of the paintings in her mind.  The city is littered with snow-covered rubble and ghosts of what once was.  As Marina recalls the Madonnas, her city turns to dust.

"No one weeps anymore, or if they do, it is over small things, inconsequential moments that catch them unprepared.  What is left that is heartbreaking?  Not death: death is ordinary.  What is heartbreaking is the sight of a single gull lifting effortlessly from a street lamp.  Its wings unfurl like silk scarves against the mauve sky, and Marina hears the rustle of its feathers.  What is heartbreaking is that there is still beauty in the world."

I can remember studying many a Madonna and many a pieta in my art history classes.  I don't suppose I thought much of it then.  20th century art history was far more relevant to my art practice than the Italian classics.  I have no idea what it is like to experience death as ordinary, and so I don't think I have near the insight into Mary's plight that Marina of Leningrad has.  Marina watches her uncle succumb to sickness and starvation. Her aunt cradles his shrunken body and she is reminded of Veronese's Pieta,  a 16th century Italian masterpiece depicting an emaciated Christ hanging in the arms of Mary. She had thought the light and drama exaggerated, but there it was.

My little guy, Silas, was baptized yesterday.  His sweet little face surprised as water dripped from his head.  Watching Jody hold Silas as he was baptized, it reminded me of Da Vinci's Madonna and Child from the Hermitage.  A young girl with a holy child.  Like Marina's pieta, there it was: an Italian master's 15th century madonna and child in the flesh.  A story of redemption: from the Madonna and Child to the Pieta and back again.

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