In depictions of the Annunciation and the Madonna, artists make something their own – pictures distinguished by infants who look like old men, staring straight ahead sadly or like rounded cherubs with curls, angels who speak golden words or hover on high, and Marys in robes humble or regal.
Embellished with gold paint, “Our Lady of the Sunset” by Lorenzetti in the Assisi Basilica used to shine when the setting sun came in a narrow window. This Madonna and baby really engage, they look into one another’s eyes and Mary answers her child’s question with a thumb pointed toward St. Francis.
In Italy I thought I might find a likeness of St. Francis for our garden. Instead we found it in Port Townsend on Water Street! And now he stands between the cosmos that attracts big yellow swallowtail butterflies and the half barrel holding a quince (the chipmunk’s hiding spot). Here St. Francis is surrounded by the natural world he writes of in “The Canticle of the Creatures” – plenty of animals, “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” with “air and clouds, clear sky and every sort of weather” to sustain them.
My favorite Madonna scene in Italy was a startlingly white goat with her tiny kid in a grassy green pasture. Separated from the more unkempt flock – they lay bright in the sun so peacefully together.
Here I watch the new fawns with their mothers – snacking on clover, then stretching sidewise on the lawn in the shade looking at the house (remembering how good those petunias and geraniums tasted – eaten right off the front porch).
The other day a fawn bolted in that two-legs-together-leaping run away from the driveway toward the bluff side of the house, frightened by a car. The car drove on, and I heard a repeated mewling noise – like a gull or maybe a kitten – that plaintive sound of confusion and fear. Recovering, it reunited by retracing steps to where it had been following its mother when the car came around the drive.
I am surprised by the pleasure I take in these symbols like Madonna and St. Francis, but something Vernon Lee wrote about her visit to a humble church in Rome rings true. She finds the scene transformed by music and ritual and she speculates: “Is it possible that of religious things only the aesthetic side is vital, universal, is what gives or seems to give a meaning, deludes us into a belief in some spirituality? Sometimes one suspects as much: that the unifying element is not so much religion, as, after all, art.”
In Assisi artists interpret the canticle of St. Francis with drawings and paint tiles with the words pace e bene or pax et bonum. St. Francis and the pagan Green Man in the garden together – peace and good.