In my copy of Simone Weil’s Waiting for God I keep an art postcard given me by my friend Rhona. It is a colour photograph of a group of sculpted figures atop an interior column of a Spanish Romanesque church. The church is St. Martin of Fromista, a traditional pilgrimage stop on the Camino de Santiago.
Rhona and I visited there together, spending a lavishly quiet hour looking up at the hundreds of human and animal figures the eleventh-century artisans carved into the stone capitals. Some of these stone-beings tell us stories we immediately recognize, like that of the naked Eve and soberly attired Adam beneath the tree with its enticing, and one fatal, fruit. But there are other figures, joined together in either torment or ecstasy, whose stories are long lost, gone with the medieval artists and worshippers who knew their plots intimately.
Among these enigmatic groupings are the seven huddled men on my postcard. What strikes one first is that the sculptor has deliberately made their heads overlarge, as he has their widened eyes. They are looking outward, mesmerized by some event that has welded them together, in a shared awe or terror or combination of the two. The disproportion the artist has given their faces and eyes underlines the fact they are transfixed. As observers, looking up at them from below, we are correspondingly caught up in the mystery of what they see, although we will never know exactly what it is they behold, whether the End of Days, the Lamb of God, the blazing star above Bethlehem, or some other wonder or cataclysm.
The second remarkable feature of the seven, who wear meticulously pleated robes, is their evident friendship and trust in one another. The three most central of the men join hands, while the two at the extreme left hold each other. The smaller of these two shields his companion’s eyes with his right hand, aware that whatever they witness sheds more radiance than his friend can bear. The remaining two men hold curved staffs, which might be either shepherds’ crooks or bishops’ croziers. We cannot know.
What we do not know without doubt is that the seven are caught in an awe so overwhelming they press close, clasp hands and comfort each other. This is why I had pointed them out to Rhona, adding I was sorry the little kiosk in St. Martin did not have their image among the postcards on sale. It was typical of her kindness and attentiveness that the next day she presented me with the postcard of the seven companions. She had found it in a local shop. She was very good at finding things.
The second postcard from Rhona is kept in the inner pocket of one of my working notebooks, full of the gleanings that sustain me. She found this one in the National Gallery in London and gave it to me two years before she died, when she was still able to walk and travel freely. It is of Leonardo da Vinci’s Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, also known as “The Lady with an Ermine.” Although Rhona’s Master’s thesis was on Lorenzo Lotto’s dramatically perplexing A Lady as Lucretia, da Vinci was the Renaissance artist she esteemed above all.
Her favourite painting was his Madonna of the Rocks in London’s National Gallery. Like the Madonna in her craggy grotto, Cecilia Gallerani’s gaze is calm and meditative. One could not conceive of a more gentle face, nor a more tender touch than those long fingers cradling the ermine’s back. The contrast between the animal’s lean, predatory jaw and Cecilia’s delicate mouth, nose and chin is startling, even unsettling. Yet the whole they make is sublime. They both look to the left, their heads held at virtually the same angle, the wild creature and the eminently cultivated woman in perfect balance.
It is an extraordinary achievement of this painting, and other of da Vinci’s portraits, that the subject’s gaze is so alive and serenely focused. The intensity of this meditative gaze suggest movement. We sense the approach of an ineffable mystery.
I am reminded of Rhona’s many years of dedicated Buddhist meditation, a learned stillness and wisdom that helped her bear the severe trials of her last days. She had always that same gentle gaze, one she bestowed generously on her friends, as she listened closely, interested, encouraging and gracious. Her rare courage drew on her loving attention to beauty in its many forms. In the face of sore tribulations, she found shelter and nourishment in books, music and artworks whose treasures she shared with her friends, like postcards of the spirit sent out unfailingly over the years, transformative and rich in hope.