For E. Magdi & G. Maalouf
[Bayeux Tapestry, 1070]
"These men marvel at the star" -from the Bayeux Tapestry, recording the brilliant apparition of Halley's Comet in 1066, during the days immediately following King Harold's coronation.
First he was beatified by Pope Jean Paul II on May 10th 1998 and then canonized on May 17th 2004. The young priest, a European, explained and then turned to Eman, chattering about the secrets of the icons, contemplation in color, transfiguration, embodiment, and the mystery of the apocatastasis from the Acts of the Apostles: "Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began". The image is a memorial, read a line from St. John of Damascus, placed atop. What I imagined then: Will the Kingdom of God be restored? Everything will be like before? What was it like before? "What makes a genuine work of art and where is the secret of its perfection?" The young man asked her, in half ignorance, half arrogance. I stopped listening then and kept walking slowly and very close to the wall, almost embracing the calid stones with my limbs, staring into the half lit icons, maybe thinking that I would find him inside one of the woodcuts, like before.
Why was the saint standing in the desert? Maybe it was a reference to Saint Anthony the Great, credited with having founded Qozhaya, and the leader of theDesert Fathers. I had also been told that nature is never depicted in the icons, and we wondered about this together. Perhaps it was a recent rendition, because the golden glow was so fresh and not yet dead. Looking out of the vaulted window without glass, the Kadisha Valley, spread between the two villages of the poet, without arms; our destination seemed far. "In that room there was a bed made from green pine, resembling in everything her own bed in Naples. She was lulled into believing that she was home and that this was the end of the journey." It was her first drawing outdoors, and she was sorry that she couldn't paint without characters, because it was like a drawing a void. The valley however, was peopled by the Forest of the Cedars of God that was so admired by the Israelites, who brought the cedars to Jerusalem to build their temples.
[Saint Nimatullah Kassab Al-Hardini, icon by Christine Habib El Daye]
"The Israelites haven't returned since then", complained one of the trees, standing there since those days. Where else could I look for him? There are also the monasteries of Qannubin and Mar Sarkis, I thought. How could I have lost him? Lost him in this country? "Under the ruins of my house, I have lost Artemisia, my companion of three centuries, as she laid down in the quiet, breathing, put to sleep by me in one hundred pages of writing." The priests had said that contemplating the icons would lead man straight to God, through the saints, and that made me believe that should I find that icon, in one of these monasteries, I could come to him, to my lost friend. The night seized us, and she could no longer distinguish the composition of the hills; in the distance, the smoke. "People that at four in the morning flee in droves, aghast, at the sight of the homeland turning into rubble; staring twice, to come to realize the terrors of a night in which the German landmines, one after another, shook the womb of the earth."
Some of the hermits lived in the vaulted caves, outside the forest, in Christian solitude; waiting. "It rains on the ruins over which I've already cried; on their contours the sounds had deadened their fright that after the first stroke of the shovel were now silenced forever. Artemisia's two graves, the real and the imaginary, are now the same; just inhaled dust." Can you see her, Eman? Can you see Artemisia? She tried so hard, but the light was too strong in the interstices, and Artemisia never saw the light in the painting, only the perspective. "How could she not see the light?" Eman asked. And I didn't see it either. "Scorched a thousand times by the burns of the offense, a thousand times more does Artemisia fall back and catch her breath once again, to throw herself into the fire." Nothing in the direction of Bsharri, nothing in the direction of Tourza. "Almost nothing exists for me in this tired and faded white of dawn on a day of August. I lay on the soil, over the gravel paths in the Boboli Gardens, still in a nightgown, as if in a dream."Saint Hardini, do you have friends?
"In Banti's account, what is central to Artemisia's life is not the rape; not the marriage with an obscure young man that her father imposed on her once the verdict was brought against the rapist; nor the four children (three of whom died) she bore her husband. It is her solitude, the inexorable result of her commitment to her art." Eman, are you there? I don't think I can find him. George never told me the name of his village.
[Passages from Anna Banti, taken from "Artemisia: Romanzo", Mondadori, 1953. Passages from Susan Sontag, taken from "A Double Destiny: On Anna Banti's Artemisia", London Review of Books, 2003]
[Artemisia Gentileschi, "Autoritratto come Allegoria della Pittura", 1638/39]