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Chiaroscuro by Anna Reith

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An art history student’s obsession with a painting changes his life in the most haunting of ways.

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Description

A shy, socially inept art history student becomes obsessed with a painting of Saint Sebastian in the National Gallery.

But, as Mark finds himself inexorably – and strangely – drawn to the painted saint, his world is changed in more ways than he ever imagined.

 


This short story is also available in the volume ‘Black Ice: collected stories‘, which can be purchased in ebook and paperback formats.


 

Additional information

Writer

Anna Reith

ISBN:

978-1-907623-30-1

Kindle ASIN

B0083V4QIK

Length

11,200 words (30 .pdf pages)

Available formats

.pdf, .epub (provided in a .zip file)

Cover design

Anna Reith
Original photography by Karl Fredrickson

Format

ebook

Read an excerpt


CHIAROSCURO

© Anna Reith. All rights reserved.


The National Gallery must be one of London’s last sacred spaces. I don’t mean in the same way as the parks or the churches—St. Paul’s or all the hidden gems of nineteenth century synagogues and tiny Gothic buildings, tucked away from prying eyes—because it’s not like that at all. It’s different. It’s a massive landmark, yes, but in a way, perhaps it’s more… I don’t know. Pure?

It’s free. Still free, like it’s always been, and it’s open to everyone. Tourists, locals, art lovers and schoolchildren are all welcome. Even students like me. Repository of the nation’s artistic treasures and, similar to the British Museum, you can just wander in off the street and demand to be transported to another place and time. That’s what happened to me the first time I saw him. The Pollaiuolo Sebastian.

I visited the gallery on a wet Wednesday afternoon, casting around for ideas on which to base my final year undergrad dissertation. Art History. Not a great asset in the current job market, I know, though that’s a bit besides the point. I’d been thinking about saints, because all the symbolism in their depictions—eyes for St. Catherine, who had hers put out, or breasts for St. Agatha, who had hers torn off—would make for an easy essay, with the added interest factor of gore, and because the Renaissance unit of study on my course had easily been one of the most interesting I’d tackled. It all fed into some loose, vapid dream I had to travel, see the whole of Europe instead of my narrow corner of it; maybe even go to Rome and Florence. Not likely to happen when I’d grown up in a Wimbledon council flat and was putting myself through the college degree with a shitty job at Wimpy, but a boy can dream.

Anyway, I digress. This wet Wednesday. Into the gallery, up the wide and echoing staircases, through vast room after vast room of even vaster canvases, and I fell into the dizzying appreciation of hundreds of years of compressed meaning distilled into one building. Battles, portraits, allegorical, historical and Biblical scenes… there’s everything in there. It’s the religious ones that get me the worst, I think, though I’ve never been a churchgoer; those great big paintings that would once have hung in high, dark places, illuminated only by the gilded glow of candlelight, and have been accorded so much adoration by so many people. Altarpieces, and triptychs, diptychs, carved screens and great walls of stunningly detailed scenes… where has that kind of beauty gone in our lives?

Of course, they were never just works of art. We think, now, that the pictures were there as guides for the illiterate, but there’s so much more to it than that. There is life in those paintings; real life, not just the parodies of emotion breathed in by over-wrought expressions or curls of paint.

I stood for hours in front of a scene of Christ’s circumcision. It was a big feast day for medieval people, apparently—many things were, and as a matter of fact, your average peasant got more time off annually, on balance, than a modern-day factory worker does. Indeed, it is said among art historians (who, let’s face it, usually don’t have anything better to gossip about) that, just as with all the alleged bits of the True Cross held in various shrines around the world, if all the pieces of Christ’s foreskin that were sold as holy relics were laid end to end… well, it would be too disturbing to contemplate.

Religious dick jokes aside, the scene of the circumcision was beautiful. In the faces of the holy figures I could see, yes, the Madonna and Joseph, and ickle baby Jesus—just like every school nativity play from my childhood—but there was so much else. St. Anne and various other figures were gurning like proud grannies, and Mary was holding a bunch of cherries.

Now, the cherries seem out of place unless you know your popular fifteenth century carols. You know, back before Dickens got his moralistic Victorian hands on Christmas, and there used to be more wassailing. Anyway, in this one tune, Mary’s walking in an orchard with Joseph, and obviously the lady’s looking for a moment to broach a delicate subject. ‘Pick me some cherries, love,’ she says, ‘for I am with child.’

Joseph, as you might imagine, is shocked. He suggests—none too delicately, in some of the, uh, fruitier versions our tutor told us about—that she gets the father of her baby to pick her damn cherries, because he’s not going to do it. He doesn’t go too much on the whole ‘Son of God’ thing, either.

Just as it’s not looking too rosy for Mary, the baby Jesus—sort of The Holy Embryo, at this point—speaks up and commands the cherry tree to bow its head. The tree does, and Mary gets her cherries, while Joseph works through panic and disbelief to acceptance of his forthcoming holy step-son.

The point is that this song plays on all the listener’s emotions, and on their laughter, and that was something people understood when they were making these huge, intricate, amazing paintings. They were about life, and about making the divine accessible, showing the human face of an immortal god.

When I was a kid, church youth group leaders used to try and do the same thing. My cousin, Evan, convinced me to go with him to one of those things once. The church hall was draughty and damp, and there was a guy of about twenty-five, with a ponytail and an acoustic guitar, who tried to get us all singing a song about how we were ‘Cool With Jesus’.

I think Mary and her cherries would probably have worked better.

In any case, art is this amazing thing, full of power and politics and passion. That day in the National Gallery, I walked through a whole room of seventeenth century Spanish paintings that show the human soul as a child, present at the flagellation of Christ, weeping as it tries to understand his suffering and his act of self-sacrifice. Say absolutely anything you like about the historical integrity of the New Testament, but the imagery’s still pretty powerful. Affective piety, it’s called: that process of trying to imagine yourself into the actual scene, until you smell the blood, hear the groans, touch the flesh… feel the rapture. It’s how people used to be taught to view pictures like those. Generations of mystics, monks and zealots were going into overdrive with the gore and screaming long before Mel Gibson made The Passion.

A little something of that touched me when I entered the room housing the Sebastian. Damn big painting—took up one whole end wall. Jewel-like colours, untouched by the grimy drag of five centuries, shone out with brilliant clarity. And, above it all, I noticed this spectacular male figure, an alabaster body so skilfully painted he could almost have drawn breath and leapt from the canvas.

He was bound, pierced by arrows he couldn’t run from. All around him, a group of archers readied their aim; he’d die like that, with the blood running down his beautiful body, and his handsome face turned up to the heavens.

I was dumbstruck.

If you haven’t heard it—and I hadn’t, the first time I saw him—then the martyrdom of St. Sebastian is a contested story. According to the ancient sources usually relied on for things of this nature—though perhaps not always the most accurate bunch of writings—Sebastian, a captain of the Praetorian Guard under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, was a closet Christian. When he cured a woman of muteness and, through the miracle, converted nearly eighty people to the underground faith, Diocletian really didn’t appreciate it, and ordered that Sebastian be bound to a pole and shot full of arrows until, allegedly, they bristled from his hide ‘like a porcupine’s quills’.

This done and the soon-to-be saint presumed dead, his body was retrieved for burial by Irene, widow of a Christian named Castulus (because such is the way that underground faiths run). To her surprise, she found Sebastian was still clinging to life, so she took him to her house and there, in secret, gradually nursed him back to health.

All would have been well, but for Sebastian spotting his old master Diocletian processing through the streets below Irene’s house. Only barely recovered from his wounds, he clambered up onto a step and began hurling abuse after the Emperor… which, you have to admit, probably wasn’t the brightest thing he could have done. Anyway, that act saw him summarily caught and sentenced to a second martyrdom, this time by bludgeoning and the disposal of his thoroughly lifeless body in a local sewer. Seems, on the surface, rather like the whole thing could have been avoided, right?

Of course, it’s the first part of the story—the arrows—that have always attracted artists’ attention, as well as being the source of that afore-mentioned controversy. From the fifteenth century onwards, the tradition of the painted Sebastian leaned more to an aesthetic of beauty, exchanging the ‘Byzantine porcupine’ look for depictions of fewer arrows and a greater expanse of naked male flesh. The association between those strategically placed shafts and the popular myth—that the saint’s death actually resulted from being gang-raped by the Praetorian Guards previously under his command, furious at their captain’s betrayal of them and embrace of a strange, threatening new religion—grew more obvious, and Sebastian acquired a new, very specific following.

Funny thing, really, for a gay icon to come from a time ‘gay’ didn’t exist, at least not in the way we think of it today. Erotic preference has always been a part of human nature, but it’s only the past few centuries that have forced labels onto people and tried to make us all fit static identities. There are mutterings among anthropologists and historians that, not only did the early Christian Church of those years anoint women priests and bishops, but also married same-sex couples.

Apparently, there are mosaics and murals whose meanings will probably be argued over in vitriolic academic rows for years to come… though I suppose, at the time, it would have paid a criminalised sect to be all-inclusive. Whether you accept that or not, men like the Sebastian of history did live, fight and die in the company of other men, a homosocial world where sex with those brothers-in-arms could be distinct from their customary experiences, where convenience and comradeship dictated the embrace, and neither society nor a vengeful god disapproved.

So, Sebastian—that flawless, imagined form—grew into something else entirely, above and beyond the reconstruction afforded a saint, and he became part of a totally different tradition.

The Neo-Platonists of the Renaissance—who welcomed the pure spiritual and intellectual beauty of male love and, somehow, got it all wound up with love of the divine—are probably responsible for a lot. Compared to some feats of artistic translation, transforming the nasty rumour of rape and brutalisation into a depiction of perfect male beauty sacrificing itself on the altar of perfect love is pretty small fry, I guess.

Still… impressive, nonetheless, and it has to be admitted that some of the great Sebastians—like those of Carlo Saraceni or Guido Reni—definitely seem to be suffering more from a state of sensual torpor than the agony of flesh wounds. Maybe they are, or maybe it’s both. Maybe they’re so suffused with the love of Christ—Dearest Him, the man of all ideals—that it fills and subsumes them, blurring all lines between spirit and flesh. Which brings me back to affective medieval piety; the suffering we must undergo to know the sweetness of true devotion. Well, God is love, right?

These thoughts and dozens more fluttered at the edges of my brain as I stood, staring up at that painting. It pulls the gaze upwards, see? The central figure, the Sebastian, he’s raised up, bound to this pole with his feet off the ground and his eyes turned to the sky, towards something we can’t see, his expression that sort of mix of long-suffering serenity and alarm that’s either saintly or orgasmic, or possibly both, while below him archers prepare to take aim again. Their forms are very earthly, their reality incontestable. They wear fifteenth century clothes, though one guy has stripped down to his smalls, and you can see the weather-roughened lines that mark where his shirt would usually be. They handle bows of the time—one man grunts, red-faced with the effort of reloading, while the others sweat and strain, their muscles taut and bunched—and the landscape of contemporary Florence stretches out behind them.

Countless little clues, like the triumphal arch in the distance, and the armour of men on horseback, refer to the culture and patronage of the painting, to the way Renaissance Italy wanted to see itself as the natural heir to the Roman Empire. More than enough material for an essay, I thought, though so very much, when placed next to Sebastian himself, seemed irrelevant. The stocky, ruddy-cheeked archers and their world didn’t touch him. Obvious, of course, that his pale flawlessness—the way saints are always painted—was meant to convey a sense of otherness, of ethereal purity, but I thought him far too real for that, his musculature too detailed, his skin too delicately toned. Each crease of knee or elbow, each curve or angle of limb or trunk appeared to me to be flushed with the suggestion—the breath—of life.

I sat on one of the leather-topped benches provided for weary art-lovers, a little bit surprised at how absorbed I was. I couldn’t look away… and he was so beautiful.

That shook me. It really did. So I sat, and thought about the wordage I’d write on this. Pulled out a notepad and pen, scribbled some stuff down. Noticed more and more of the staggering detail. Individual plants in the stony Mediterranean foreground were so exact that they could have been botanical sketches. The bead of sweat on one archer’s brow glistened like it could almost be on the cusp of trembling and falling to the parched dirt, even after all these years. And then there were Sebastian’s softly parted lips, and the trickle of blood from the wound in his side. Those penetrating shafts cleaved so tightly to his flesh, with no discernible mark of entry; like they grew from him, were a natural part of him, rather than an invading force.

They seemed not so much to pierce him like weapons but to, well, penetrate in a different way entirely; tight-pressed into his flesh, hard against the soft puckers in his skin. I shuddered at the directions my mind was ricocheting to, unsettled by and vaguely appalled at myself. What next? Springing a stiffy in the National Gallery, as I sat there ogling a five-hundred-year-old painting? No way. It was bloody ridiculous.

Instead, I concentrated on making copious notes about the use of perspective and visual planes in the work, and forced myself to evaluate the role of armoured men and the pennant they carried in the background, instead of the titillating little wisp of gauze cloth protecting the saint’s modesty. At last, I readied my stuff and prepared to go, to slip back through the halls worn with years and adoration, out into the city and the bustle of grimy noise.

It was really stupid, I knew, but as I packed up my things, surveying the skeins of scribble I’d written—and when had I last been so inspired to work that hard at anything?—I got the strangest feeling.

All day, I’d barely noticed the other people in the gallery. The crowds were thinner at this end of the Renaissance and medieval spectrum, because they all wanted to see the big guns: the famous old paintings with real gold on them, and the ones by artists who, like modern-day superstars, are known only by a single name.

Most of the people who passed the Pollaiuolo Sebastian did so in a matter of minutes, or even seconds. A lot of them only looked at him from the other end of the room, and then wandered off in search of something more glamorous. I was the only one who’d stayed all day.

The security guards had noticed. I’d seen a couple of them watching me; maybe they thought, despite the painting’s size, I was trying to work out how to steal it.

Anyway, as I tucked my notepad away, the nape of my neck prickled. I felt like someone was watching me… like there was someone standing right beside me, staring at me with wide, intense eyes.

I glanced up, and of course there was nothing.

Nothing but him. Nothing but the painted saint, bound and bleeding gently… watching me.


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