By | 15 September 2022

‘One unhappy day I was called to see
the Benois Madonna—
I found myself confronted by a young woman
with a bald forehead and puffed cheeks,
a toothless smile, blear eyes, and a furrowed throat—
And yet I had to acknowledge
that this painful affair was the work of Leonardo da Vinci.
It was hard, but the effort freed me,
and the indignation I felt
gave me the resolution to proclaim my freedom’—
—Bernard Berenson

‘ —bre 1478 I began the two Virgin Marys
—Leonardo da Vinci

The Madonna of the Flowers has a line

of black behind her teeth—The tongue

in its dark laps air—‘and by that the sounding

out of all the names of things is’—

On her lap the child is catching at the pale

flowers in her hand raised now into the light

of that bare window cut through stone

at the back, filled with nothing but sky—

its lead-white thinly over black—Flowers

of the cross, cruciferae, bittercress—the child’s

hand is black along its knuckles where it

reaches to catch those pale flowers foreshadowing

death his mother hands to him—first

begotten of the dead—his dying already growing

through his hand’s flesh—‘When you begin

the hand from within first separate all the bones

a little’—Young Lorenzo di Credi in his

imitation had the child take an acorn righteousness

out of his mother’s hand—the child’s hand

of a corpse in the still light of that soundless room

where the window has a city in it and in the corner

her bed is made—‘When I made a Christ Child

you put me in prison’—Its stained walls, patterns

of joined stone—a landscape complete with

mountains, battles, faces, clouds—‘A thing miraculous’—

its blank surface opening into a window of dawn

light that is touchable, originary—‘The sun has never

seen a shadow’—A stone room held between

that light and this—a watcher standing in the doorway

in the place of light that casts its shadow back

across her mouth, her ear, the child’s right hand, right foot—

marking on them the lamb of the trespass offering

blood where its shadows are—as that metal driven

through her ear means I will not go out free—A window

of sky in the shape of a diptych which will be painted in—

a Pietà, a child tearing flowers—‘The first drawing

was the outline of a shadow on a wall’—Now these

figures ‘clothed in light and darkness’ round forwards

into the light of its window reversed—history,

prophecy meeting in its stone room—At the crossing place

her gem—like water closed in glass—holds light

where in opaque things light’s shadows are and is

indifferent, afloat inside its curve, lit against

and leashed to any watcher’s eye—incloses

a room above their turning hands—a nearly

conceivable place in which the doorway’s reflection

invents what could be a window at the back

where its two shadows wait and its bittercress changes

into pale points of light—a single pearl there

making the palle—its heraldry hung upon abyss—

how such lustres move to meet and equal always

the distance of any watcher’s eye, its unassimilable

contrary and end—Encircling it the fifteen pearls

of her suffering are to be counted over repeatedly—

blood in her mouth—the tongue in its dark laps air—

The ‘Madonna of the Flowers’ is sometimes called the Benois Madonna. This poem’s quotations come from Samuels, Ernest and Samuels, Jayne Newcomer, Bernard Berenson, the making of a legend (Belknap Press, 1987) and from Leonardo da Vinci’s Notebooks (translated by Jean Paul Richter, selected by Irma Richer, OUP, 1952; 2008) and from the Book of Isaiah. The Lorenzo di Credi painting is his ‘Madonna with the Christ Child and Saint John the Baptist’ in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden.


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