Sunday, January 13, 2008

Scenes from the life

The other day I went with the English ladies to Frejus, a town on the coast an hour or so from here, and we looked in at the cathedral while we were there. The Cathedrale St-Leonce de Frejus was built in the Middle Ages on the site of an earlier church, which was, in turn, built on the site of a Roman temple, and chances are good that the Romans just threw up some columns on the site of a local shrine that was already there when they pulled into town. It is a textbook example, to my only slightly schooled eye, of Romanesque architecture. That means, for those of you who have left your art history textbooks in the next room, that the arches are round instead of pointy. Think about the front of Notre Dame, or, for that matter, of Duke Chapel: pointy arches = Gothic architecture, which came into fashion a couple of centures after Frejus' cathedral was already open for business.

I took a turn around the nave--the mandatory nativity was still set up, with Mary and Joseph and the baby in their stable tranquilly receiving the three kings, some shepherds, and local Frejusian dignitaries dressed in their provencal best--and then there were monuments to the fallen, and monuments to bishops, and a few large paintings made in the 1500s or 1600s. It was one of these last that caught my eye: an unsigned Scènes de la vie de la Vierge, Scenes from the Life of the Virgin.

The large oil canvas shows Mary seated at the center front, with the baby Jesus in her lap. Just behind Mary, over her left shoulder, an elderly Joseph is reclining on a fainting couch. At her right, her kinswoman and friend Elizabeth is perched, with her little boy, John the Baptist, standing in front of her. Behind Elizabeth a couple of ladies in sixteenth-century court gowns are looking on, presumably because they are the ones who paid for this painting; overhead, assorted cherubim flit through the skies. It's a standard okay church painting, better than some but a long way from Raphael.

I started to walk on by, but then looked back. Mary was doing something I don't think I've ever seen her do: she was reading. Or trying to, anyway. Jesus, at about seven months, was squirming in her lap, wearing nothing but his diaper--it had been that kind of day--and Mary was using her left hand to hold him in her lap and prevent him from reaching over and grabbing a big handful of John the Baptist's hair. Joseph, over her shoulder, was leaning forward with his left hand extended, about thirty seconds away from asking if she had seen his keys and wallet. Elizabeth, on the other side, was leaning up to Mary's ear; she and John the Baptist, who, at about 18 months, was clearly in his dressing up like a lion phase, had just looked in so that Elizabeth could tell Mary what she had heard down at the well. And John the Baptist was, with one hand, reaching up to pull Jesus down to the floor while, with his foot, he threatened to kick over Mary's basket of mending.

And, in the midst of all this, Mary had a book in her right hand. She was holding it open just in front and to the right of her face, and was looking, not at Joseph or Jesus or Elizabeth or John, but at the pages. She wasn't showing the book to Jesus--she wasn't the instructive, devout, listen-up sinners kind of Mary that so often turns up in portraits--she was reading, silently, to herself, for herself. And the look on her face said: just let me finish this paragraph. I'll find your keys and get the baby dressed and I'll do the mending and go in the kitchen and make some tea for our visit, Elizabeth, and the boys can play together, but just let me finish this one paragraph first.

Scenes from the life, indeed. I wonder if women, at least, those who were lucky enough to know how to read, nudged each other four hundred years ago when they saw this painting. The English ladies and I stood in front of the painting and laughed, and talked about it on our way home that afternoon. It was ever thus: we all had known moments exactly like that, when the whole world seemed to be clamoring for our attention and we just wanted another moment or two to ourselves.

I like to picture reading Mary going to the Nazareth public library and browsing the shelves, and coming home every week with a new stack of books to keep her brain busy while she looked after her little boy. And I like that she was finishing that paragraph.

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