September 6, 2017
I have been reading John Berger’s Portraits, a gathering of his insightful readings on artistic creation spanning the breadth of Western civilization, from the prehistoric animal portraits in the Chauvet Caves to artists of our time. In his tribute to the work of British painter, Yvonne Barlow, who died in 2017 mere months after Berger’s own passing, I found them staring in wonder at a painting I love which plays a major part in my novel, Hunting Piero. This artwork, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, is Piero di Cosimo’s Satyr Mourning a Dead Nymph. In my novel my principal female character, Agnes Vane, experiences a personal salvation through this painting, both literally and figuratively.
One of this artwork’s remarkable aspects is the affecting tenderness and grief in the faces of the two mourners flanking the dead nymph: a handsome young satyr, and a dark brown hound. The painting’s world seems eternally present, in part because of its pure luminosity emanating from the sheen upon the blue-white river. This flows behind the water meadow, with its delicate wildflowers, where the dead nymph lies.
For Yvonne Barlow and John Berger, who were art students when they viewed this painting together in 1942, it became their “private ikon, our secret logo.” This was a time of fear and turmoil for them, for although the London Blitz was over, the city continued to be bombarded by the pilotless drones known as Doodle Bugs. The world di Cosimo’s painting opened for the two young students in war-torn London was one of rare promise and a covenant of eternal renewal. Like Agnes in my novel, John Berger sees the painting as making possible a catharsis and healing. He conjectures that in Satyr Mourning a Dead Nymph Yvonne Barlow found the source of the imagery that inspired the “eloquent, diverse and mysterious works” she was to create over the next 60 years. Again and again in her paintings, Barlow returned to the image of “the animal as independent witness,” for example, and scenes that posed “the aerial everlasting question ‘What exactly has happened?’”
For my character Agnes, Satyr Mourning a Dead Nymph conveys a poignant mystery, a holy secret she believes the painter won through the agonized yet transporting practice of his craft, and “a belief in something fine and transcendent that lifted all life high above the abyss of bloody deeds and coiling tragic circumstance. Every detail intensified her conviction: the care he lavished on the tiny wildflowers of the meadow; a great heron silhouetted against the misty water, its supple gaunt frame looking so like a keyhole.” She feels the dog and satyr’s shared tender bond reach out to embrace her. And so the spell of di Cosimo’s painting continues through the centuries.