Every painting comes from far away (many fail to reach us), yet
we only receive a painting fully if we are looking in the direction
from which it has come.
—John Berger, re: Fra Angelico
In those days, the stricken
were brought on stretchers to a place where
the overland roads of the Empire
met, intersected, ran on.
There the afflicted were lowered to the shoulder—
eased as they could be, kissed, if they could be—
and left in the hope that a healer might come
from afar who would not look away.
The painting, too, has come from afar:
a girl-child visited by an angel, both figures
bowed to the arc of a narrative so time-worn
you’d swear you knew it in the womb:
two perfected gestures met on the wooden panel—
the virgin’s crossed arms, the angel’s bent knee—
transfixed, in gold light,
in the instant before it will be too late.
When Fra Angelico’s miracle finds you,
the age of faith will be well in your past. You’ll be
at your own crossroads peering, as warned,
in the wrong direction. Even so,
the moment will shimmer. Your gaze will be fixed
on the virgin / the angel / the receding archways
of a century unschooled in the laws of perspective:
a world still blinking at the two-dimensional.
Of course, yours is a modern vision—
a shrewd eye, a single cocked eyebrow. Still,
you’ll recognize this as a crossroads. You’ll lean in
as if to stop the disaster—a young girl crushed
by the wheels of acquiescence. Or you’ll watch,
amazed, as the oils thicken and suddenly,
piercingly, there are three: a child,
a messenger angel, a Child.
Or none of the above. You’ll stand there,
stricken, on the brink of your age and its failure
to save you. You: cradled in your own crossed arms
in the arched entryway of a cold museum gallery
while, from afar, they come bearing down upon you,
the four unfurled dimensions come to crush you.
Come to crush us all. And this is the moment
foretold: you look away.