James Arlington Wright

13 December 1927 – 25 March 1980 / Ohio

The Lambs On The Boulder

I hear that the Commune di Padova has an exhibition of master-
pieces from Giotto to Mantegna. Giotto is the master of angels, and
Mantegna is the master of the dead Christ, one of the few human
beings who seems to have understood that Christ did indeed come
down from the cross after all, in response to the famous jeering
invitation, and that the Christ who came down was a cadaver. Man-
tegna's dead Christ looks exactly like a skidroad bum fished by the
cops out of the Mississippi in autumn just before daylight and hurried
off in a tarpaulin-shrouded garbage truck and deposited in another
tangle of suicides and befuddled drunkards at the rear entrance to
the University of Minnesota medical school. Eternity is a vast space
of distances as well as a curving infinity of time.
No doubt the exhibition in noble Padova will be a glory to behold.
But there is a littler glory that I love best. It is a story, which so
intensely ought to be real that it is real.
One afternoon the mature medieval master Cimabue was taking
a walk in the countryside and paused in the shade to watch a shep-
herd boy. The child was trying to scratch sketches of his lambs on
a boulder at the edge of the field. He used nothing, for he could
find nothing, but a little sharp pebble.
Cimabue took the shepherd boy home with him and gave him
some parchment and a nail or a crayon or something or other, and
began to show him how to draw and form lines into the grandeur
of faces other than the sweet faces of sheep.
The shepherd boy was Giotto, and he learned how to draw and
form lines into the grandeur of faces other than the sweet faces of
sheep. I don't give a damn whether you believe this story or not. I
do. I have seen faces of angels drawn by Giotto. if angels do not
look like Giotto's angels, they have been neglecting their health
behind God's back.
One of my idle wishes is to find that field where Cimabue stood
in the shade and watched the boy Giotto scratching his stone with
his pebble.
I would not be so foolish as to prefer the faces of the boy's lambs
to the faces of his angels. one has to act his age sooner or later.
Still, this little planet of rocks and grass is all we have to start
with. How pretty it would be, the sweet faces of the boy Giotto's
lambs gouged, with infinite and still uncertain and painful care, on
the side of a boulder at the edge of a country field.
I wonder how long Cimabue stood watching before he said any-
thing. I'll bet he watched for a very long time. He was Cimabue.
I wonder how long Giotto worked before he noticed that he was
being watched. I'll bet he worked a very long time. He was Giotto.
He probably paused every so often to take a drink of water and
tend to the needs of his sheep, and then returned patiently to his
patient boulder, before he heard over his shoulder in the twilight
the courtesy of the Italian good evening from the countryside man
who stood, certainly out of the little daylight left to the shepherd
and his sheep alike.
I wonder where that boulder is. I wonder if the sweet faces of
the lambs are still scratched on its sunlit side.
By God I know this much. Worse men than Giotto have lived
longer than Giotto lived.
And uglier things than Giotto's wobbly scratches on a coarse
boulder at the edge of a grassy field are rotting and toppling into
decay at this very moment. By the time I reach Padova at fifteen
minutes past four this afternoon, I wouldn't be a bit surprised to
hear that Rockefeller's Mall in Albany, New York, had begun to sag
and ooze its grandiose slime all over the surrounding city of the
plain, and it will stink in the nostrils of God Almighty like the incense
burned and offered up as a putrid gift on the altars of the Lord,
while the King Jeroboam the Second imprisoned the righteous for
silver and sold the poor for the buckles on a pair of shoes.
Giotto's boyish hand scratched the sweet faces of lambs on a
coarse stone.
I wonder where the stone is. I will never live to see it.
I lived to see the Mall in Albany, though.
In one of the mature Giotto's greatest glories, a huge choir of his
unutterably beautiful angels are lifting their faces and are becoming
the sons of the morning, singing out of pure happiness the praises
of God.
Far back in the angelic choir, a slightly smaller angel has folded
his wings. He has turned slightly away from the light and lifted his
hands. You cannot even see his face. I don't know why he is weeping.
But I love him best.
I think he must be wondering how long it will take Giotto to
remember him, give him a drink of water, and take him back home
to the fold before it gets dark and shepherd and sheep alike lose
their way in the darkness of the countryside.
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