Win recalls: ”I caught the worst flu I’ve ever had on an overnight January flight to Venice. What I thought was epic jet lag all the first day there transformed over the first night into a racking cough, with fever and congestion so severe I woke several times a night for the next week gasping, my mouth sealed shut by dryness and my nose sealed shut by its glutinous opposite.
But I was in Venice, so I had to go out every day. When would I ever be back?
The churches and old public buildings of Venice are cold and dark in January. The great paintings I went to see were veiled by the gloom and my overheated head and body.
Carpaccio, Bellini, Tintoretto… I dropped a series of hundred lira coins in a succession of gray metal boxes in ghostly corners of five hundred year old churches, and with a loud, snapping sound ultra bright flood lights came on for a minute or two, making the masterpieces painted on the walls seem flat and fleeting, because with another snap the lights would go off.
None of them meant anything to me. It was like they were part of a punishment some evil imp had devised in making me ill.
By the end of the week I felt no better, with only two days remaining. The first of those was even colder than the ones before, and in the afternoon it began to rain, so I went to the Accademia, Venice’s collection of old master art.
The lighting here was constant and kind, the museum almost empty, as the churches had been. But unlike the churches, the emptiness here was comforting, even luxurious, as if the building were a palace
in a dream I had wandered into and had all to myself.
Still the paintings made little impression on me, until I came to one wall on an upper floor.
There were three Giovanni Bellini paintings on one wall. Each showed Mary with Jesus. In one he was a baby in her lap. In another he was a dead body laid across her elderly knees.
In the third he was a baby again, held between her knees. Mary’s gaze was downcast, in a reverie, but
she wasn’t alone with her child. A bearded St. John the Baptist was to one side of her, sideways and in shadow looking down at the infant, and another saint I couldn’t identify, this one androgynous, was to the other side, looking out at me. The three figures were small in size, but they felt large in scale, because they were taking up almost all the foreground. Behind them white clouds drifted across a distant blue sky over pale blue mountains, while bits of a Renaissance city, walled and castled, peeked out from between their shoulders in the middle distance.
But what moved me was the mood, identical in all three paintings but most intense in the
one with three figures, an atmosphere I’d never felt from a painting before.
Complete calm. Total peace. Loving gentleness. But also privacy almost to the point of isolation, each figure in a deeply interior state, barely conscious, if at all, of each other’s presence.Yet it felt as if I were with them, and they were with me. I was flooded by a sense of connection and loss at the same time. They were comforting me, but they didn’t know I existed. I felt lifted up. My spirit floated out and filled the air around me, mingling with theirs, and the four of us (Jesus looked a little too young to join the séance) stayed there for what is still the deepest and richest experience I’ve had with art.”
Madonna and Child with St.John the Baptist and a Saint, detail of the background waterside city
oil on panel
54 x 76 cm