Third Conversation: ‘Christmas Cards’. Episode 2

Fyodor Mikhailovich was watching me closely and, after a full half-a-minute, remarked that the picture had been very important to him when he was living in Florence. “Indeed,” he said, “I spent many hours in front of it. It needs a lot of time to take in and, fortunately, Anna Grigorievna and I were living only a few minutes from where it was on show.”

            “Where was that?”

            “The Pitti Palace,” Fyodor Mikhailovich replied.

            I’d been to the Pitti Palace myself but couldn’t remember seeing this particular painting amongst the many hundreds of religious paintings that covered its walls, mostly in the mannerist style that I don’t like much. I didn’t mention this, however.

            “But, Fyodor Mikhailovich,” I began, in some puzzlement, “I’d have thought this was just the sort of religious art you wouldn’t like—isn’t it too, Western, too humanistic, and, dare I say, too Catholic?” (I was hesitant about bringing Catholicism into it as I knew he’d been strongly, even violently anti-Catholic in his lifetime.)

            “That’s all true,” he said, smiling thoughtfully and nodding. “It is very Western, very humanist, very Catholic—but why should that mean I can’t like it? Remember last time, when we talked about Dickens? Dickens was very Western, very humanist, and very Protestant—and, as you can imagine, I didn’t have a very high opinion of Protestantism either. But if I can enjoy Dickens and even borrow a little from him in my own writing, why not Raphael? Didn’t I even say that I thought Raphael and Shakespeare were worth more than the entire output of the modern industrial world and its ‘culture industry’—even if I did put the words in the mouth of that feeble and inveterate liar Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky?”

            “Yes, of course I remember what we were saying about Dickens. But isn’t there a difference? Dickens wrote about human situations, even if he is sometimes a bit pious. But this is meant to be a religious picture, a picture of the Saviour. However, it seems to me to turn the mystery of salvation into something all-too human. Isn’t it in fact a prime example of art serving a secular agenda, art for the Renaissance Popes in all their worldly splendour—a long way from the stable at Bethlehem.”

            Fyodor Mikhailovich sighed, rather like a parent who’s been asked to read a story for the hundredth time.

            “May I …?” he asked, indicating that he’d quite like to sit.

            “Of course, of course.”

            I followed his example and we were back, face to face, in the same seats as on that first night. The next thing he said really surprised me, perhaps more than just about anything else he’d said up to this point in our meetings. Yet it was really the most ordinary remark in the world—which is why, in the circumstances, it was so astonishing.

            “That beer looks good—please, carry on. In fact, I wouldn’t mind a glass myself!”

            On the evening of his first visit he’d declined a drink and I’d assumed that whatever kind of body he now possessed couldn’t deal with actual food or drink, that it was, perhaps, only a ‘body’ for my benefit, a kind of appearance. Perhaps he really was in some kind of semi-body. After all, he’d just taken a Christmas card off the mantelpiece. Pure spirits don’t do that kind of thing. Of course, I jumped up and quickly got him a glass and poured his drink. He held it to the light and smiled appreciatively. 

            “That looks very good,” he said, taking a sip and putting the glass down. Settling himself in the chair, he pressed his hands on his legs, just above the knee, and, arms akimbo, launched into a short speech.

            “You see,” he began, “people have always misunderstood me on this subject. As I thought about it then (and I don’t think I was entirely wrong: just look at what a good Catholic like Dante had to say about the Church of his time) … as I thought about it then, yes, the Pope had turned the seat of Peter into an earthly throne and was even prepared to use the sword against his enemies, fighting for territory like any earthly monarch. And the Jesuits … the Inquisition … I didn’t make those things up. But I never thought that every Catholic was wicked. In fact, I had no doubt that there were many good Christians amongst them. Take Francis of Assisi—our people would have loved him and understood him as they love and understand their own saints, Seraphim, for example. He and Francis were surely brothers in God’s light. And amongst the common people, especially in Italy, you find the same kindness, the same faith that you find amongst our own. I have never believed that any Church, any institution, can entirely obscure Christ’s call to love. As I just said, I never had any great esteem for Protestantism, but I admired those pious Protestant doctors who worked amongst the poor in Russia, living on next to nothing and taking nothing except what the peasants could freely afford—that is true Christianity, isn’t it?” 

            “You mean like that old doctor who gave a bag of nuts to Dmitri Karamazov when he was a little boy?”

            “Exactly. Dr. Herzenstube I called him, because his faith was from the heart and he could find happiness in a small act of kindness to a young lad who’d been abandoned by his father—and who can ever calculate what goodness comes from such small acts?” He paused and, picking the card up from the table where I’d put it down, looked at it thoughtfully.

            “So you see, yes—she is very human. A beautiful young mother and child. There is nothing more human—and there is nothing closer to the mystery of Christ.”

            Can spirits be emotional? Even if this too was a performance for my benefit, his voice seemed almost to tremble.

            “You know we went to Florence soon after we lost our dear little Sonia; I suppose that this picture had a special meaning at such a time—if only I could have seen my Anna like that, nestling our beloved child on her knee.” He paused and sighed. “As I would see her the next year with Liuba. This is life’s most beautiful moment, don’t you think? Perhaps the smile a mother gives to her child contains the whole secret of faith.”

            When Fyodor Mikhailovich spoke of Sonia, he seemed suddenly to become strangely insubstantial, as if he was almost about to fade away but then, at the mention of the mother’s smile, it was almost as if the blood rushed back into his face. Only, of course, it didn’t and couldn’t (I suppose), as he didn’t have any blood. All the same, I wasn’t sure that I agreed.  If that was all there was to faith, then maybe all my questions were much ado about nothing. But I nodded, anyway.

            Silence fell. An angel flying overhead as my parents used to say.

            “I may add,” he continued, almost defiantly, “that I even asked a Catholic priest to say Mass for Sonia when we were in Florence. We are all human beings, after all.”  He grimaced. “Of course, he had to refuse.” Gesturing towards the other cards, he continued “But these pictures, where you see the little Mother dressed like a Queen, adored by processions of Kings in velvets, satins, and pearls, with their chests of gold, jewels, and spices, accompanied by their magnificent retinues—what did the gospels say about all that? Forget the gold, the jewels, the velvets, the satins—even the camels (though I admit they might stir the imagination of a child). That’s what Raphael did. He left the gold and showed us a human beauty, the kind of beauty you could probably see in any town or village”.

            I have to admit, to my shame, that, as Fyodor Mikhailovich was speaking, I had some rather inappropriate thoughts about Raphael’s amorous liaisons with his models and wondered whether that had happened in this case. Not very Madonna-like, if so. As if reading my thoughts (I hoped he hadn’t), Fyodor Mikhailovich asked if I knew the legend about her.

            “No … I have to admit that I’ve never even really looked at the painting very closely.”

            “So I guessed,” he smiled, consolingly. “But it’s a good story—the kind of story that the common people used to like back in those days, ours too. I was told it by the attendant, a kind old man with a smiling, wrinkled face and I’m sure he believed every word of it. She was, they say, a peasant girl herself and exceptionally beautiful—as we can see. And she was also known for being exceptionally kind and charitable. One day, it’s said, she helped a poor mendicant who was passing by the village where she lived. In return, he promised her that she would be remembered as the Mother of God, a promise that didn’t make much sense to her, since, like every devout peasant, she knew there was only one Mother of God to whom prayers could be offered and she had no ambition to usurp her place! Nevertheless, some years later, after she’d married and had two small sons, Raphael happened to see her playing with the children in her garden and immediately knew that he must paint her as the Madonna.” (My cynical thoughts about the artist and his models briefly flared up again, but I did my best to suppress them.) “Of course,” Fyodor Mikahilovich continued, “I don’t know whether the story is true—it probably isn’t, but it’s the sort of thing that happened in those magical days when the partition between this world—that is, your world—and the next were not so solid as they are now, more like mist than stone walls. In any case, it’s the sort of story that poor folk like to tell and hear. It reminds me of the story that Flaubert told about John the Hospitaller, who welcomed a leprous beggar, fed him, and warmed him with his body—only for the beggar to reveal himself as Christ. Do you know it?”

            I did. It’s one of the Three Tales, though (to my mind) Flaubert used them to play an essentially sceptical game of hide-and-seek between literature and religion in which literature ultimately won out. In some ways (or so it seemed to me) his ideological agenda was almost the exact opposite of Dostoevsky’s.

            “Wasn’t Flaubert a bit too much of a modern rationalist for you?”

            “Well, maybe—but he was a great writer, wasn’t he? You really do seem convinced that I only ever judged my contemporaries in the light of their religious belief!”

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean …”

            “No, no, no—don’t worry. Don’t worry. But let’s go back to the point I was making.” 

            “Which was?”

            “That if you want to find God don’t try to look outside the world. It’s in the world, amongst the peasants, the poor folk, the beggars, the sick, the outcast, and those who care for them out of simple kindness—that’s where you have to start looking. Christ didn’t take an earthly throne, but, as it says in another legend, he wandered through the Russian land in the guise of a peasant …”

            “Yes—there are legends like that in England too: ‘And did those feet, in ancient times, walk upon England’s pleasant mountains green?’”

            Immediately I regretted (once again) jumping in, but Fyodor Mikhailovich didn’t seem to mind. He just nodded away, looking thoughtful.

            “Yes, yes, yes … perhaps in every country. Remember the onion! You have to look in the right places. So don’t be surprised if the Mother of God looks just like a pretty Italian peasant-girl. That’s much more likely than her looking like some pale lady-in-waiting. Humility. No great choruses of angels, no fireworks or spectacles, just the most basic human reality—that’s where we have to start. Birth. In fact, it’s also where we have to finish. Death.”

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