0036 National Gallery
A ‘School of..’ painting, it’s sometimes on display,
sometimes in the ‘Secondary Collection’; rather like
its subject, it’s subject to circumstances
beyond its own control. But this is no pupil’s homage
to the master; quite the contrary. He’s telling us
something very clearly – but, he’s just not telling us exactly
what he’s telling us - as might a living artist tell
for a curator’s fussy footnote; all the ‘program’;
it’s art, you have to look…
So shall we start from foreground? It’s a horizontal canvas,
a road runs straight across; in the middle of the road
a golden-haloed, blue-robed saint is being stabbed.
The helmeted pair of ruffians
are clearly sent by secular authority
to do the deed; this we may guess. The saint
at this sharp freeze-frame moment, leans slightly back –
not aback in reaction or retreat; but rather,
to make it easier for the knife to do its work.
Had the painting been two centuries later,
the gesture would be called ‘Baroque’:
he, leaning back, open hands, as if he’s yielding up
an acquiescent soul; surrendered faster than a prayer,
faster than a plunging knife. Might we so wish to go?
His priest companion (they wear the Order's colours)
will I think be questioned sharply by the Order’s Governor:
is he simply fleeing for his life?
Is he running off for help? But that’s not likely, since
there are would-be witnesses right by the roadside there; or
does he in his wisdom know that what will be, will be?
(In which case, did he really need to flee?)
That’s something, someone at the time would know;
It adds to the irony – we’re disturbed; the victim’s not…
And now a further very visual paradox: right beside the road,
two woodcutters are at work; swinging their axes, quite oblivious -
not, as hoping to be spared, as in ‘didn’ see nuffin, gov…’;
maybe they knew they weren’t the target? It’s more as if
they represent a world apart; chopped trees an allegory
of life cut down to other world's decree;
but did the artist have to make this quite so blatant?
Another disturbing paradox still unresolved.
And then, in this strange painted layer-cake
of world on world, the top, green layer:
the sloping verdant hill, serene in the lush and dreaming, radiant
peace of summer nature undisturbed; here, nothing untoward
has happened; ever might; beauty’s unimpaired.
From this strange layer-cake of art, we’ll take
some indefinable visual memory out into the street -
saints live, saints die; man’s work goes on; and nature, simply, is.