The Lambs on the Boulder

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I hear that the Commune di Padova has an exhibition of master-  
pieces from Giotto to Mantegna.  Giotto is the master of angels, and  
Mantegna is the master of the dead Christ, one of the few human  
beings who seems to have understood that Christ did indeed come  
down from the cross after all, in response to the famous jeering  
invitation, and that the Christ who came down was a cadaver.  Man-  
tegna's dead Christ looks exactly like a skidroad bum fished by the  
cops out of the Mississippi in autumn just before daylight and hurried  
off in a tarpaulin-shrouded garbage truck and deposited in another  
tangle of suicides and befuddled drunkards at the rear entrance to  
the University of Minnesota medical school.  Eternity is a vast space  
of distances as well as a curving infinity of time.  
 No doubt the exhibition in noble Padova will be a glory to behold.  
But there is a littler glory that I love best.  It is a story, which so  
intensely ought to be real that it is real.  
 One afternoon the mature medieval master Cimabue was taking  
a walk in the countryside and paused in the shade to watch a shep-  
herd boy.  The child was trying to scratch sketches of his lambs on  
a boulder at the edge of the field.  He used nothing, for he could  
find nothing, but a little sharp pebble.  
 Cimabue took the shepherd boy home with him and gave him  
some parchment and a nail or a crayon or something or other, and  
began to show him how to draw and form lines into the grandeur  
of faces other than the sweet faces of sheep.  
 The shepherd boy was Giotto, and he learned how to draw and  
form lines into the grandeur of faces other than the sweet faces of  
sheep.  I don't give a damn whether you believe this story or not.  I  
do. I have seen faces of angels drawn by Giotto. if angels do not  
look like Giotto's angels, they have been neglecting their health  
behind God's back.  
 One of my idle wishes is to find that field where Cimabue stood  
in the shade and watched the boy Giotto scratching his stone with  
his pebble.  
 I would not be so foolish as to prefer the faces of the boy's lambs  
to the faces of his angels. one has to act his age sooner or later.  
 Still, this little planet of rocks and grass is all we have to start  
with.  How pretty it would be, the sweet faces of the boy Giotto's  
lambs gouged, with infinite and still uncertain and painful care, on  
the side of a boulder at the edge of a country field.  
 I wonder how long Cimabue stood watching before he said any-  
thing.  I'll bet he watched for a very long time.  He was Cimabue.  
 I wonder how long Giotto worked before he noticed that he was  
being watched.  I'll bet he worked a very long time.  He was Giotto.  
 He probably paused every so often to take a drink of water and  
tend to the needs of his sheep, and then returned patiently to his  
patient boulder, before he heard over his shoulder in the twilight  
the courtesy of the Italian good evening from the countryside man  
who stood, certainly out of the little daylight left to the shepherd  
and his sheep alike.  
 I wonder where that boulder is.  I wonder if the sweet faces of  
the lambs are still scratched on its sunlit side.  
 By God I know this much.  Worse men than Giotto have lived  
longer than Giotto lived.  
 And uglier things than Giotto's wobbly scratches on a coarse  
boulder at the edge of a grassy field are rotting and toppling into  
decay at this very moment.  By the time I reach Padova at fifteen  
minutes past four this afternoon, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to  
hear that Rockefeller's Mall in Albany, New York, had begun to sag  
and ooze its grandiose slime all over the surrounding city of the  
plain, and it will stink in the nostrils of God Almighty like the incense  
burned and offered up as a putrid gift on the altars of the Lord,  
while the King Jeroboam the Second imprisoned the righteous for  
silver and sold the poor for the buckles on a pair of shoes.  
 Giotto's boyish hand scratched the sweet faces of lambs on a  
coarse stone.  
 I wonder where the stone is.  I will never live to see it.  
 I lived to see the Mall in Albany, though.  
 In one of the mature Giotto's greatest glories, a huge choir of his  
unutterably beautiful angels are lifting their faces and are becoming  
the sons of the morning, singing out of pure happiness the praises  
of God.  
 Far back in the angelic choir, a slightly smaller angel has folded  
his wings.  He has turned slightly away from the light and lifted his  
hands.  You cannot even see his face.  I don't know why he is weeping.  
 But I love him best.  
 I think he must be wondering how long it will take Giotto to  
remember him, give him a drink of water, and take him back home  
to the fold before it gets dark and shepherd and sheep alike lose  
their way in the darkness of the countryside.

© James Wright