The Picture

An excerpt from the new novel 'Hesed Sefaradi' ('Spanish Kindness' ), forthcoming in Hebrew from Hasifria Hahadasha.

A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua
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A. B. Yehoshua
A.B. Yehoshua

Yair Moses, a film director in his 70s, goes to Spain, along with a female companion, for a retrospective of his films in the city of Santiago de Compostela. Near his bed in the hotel room hangs a picture by an unidentified artist, with the title "Caritas Romana." The picture greatly engages his curiosity, for it reminds him of a scene that was scripted for one of his early films, but canceled during production. Seeking to decipher the meaning of the picture, he asks the help of the hotel's desk clerk, who contacts his old art teacher from high school.

Moses was taken by surprise when the reception clerk pointed out an old woman waiting for him. The former art teacher, enlisted from a neighboring city, has arrived early. Though she is long retired, she is pleased to oblige the reception clerk, her diligent student, who has proven that after all these years he has not forgotten her. Moses introduces himself, flooded with feeling for this sprightly old lady with the intelligent face and snow-white hair. For a moment it seems that his mother has sprung from the film that was screened the day before, come to life in order to educate him. Carefully he takes her wrinkled hand, fragile as a sparrow, and briefly explains his request and its background.

"You'd like to go up to your room to see the picture, or should we ask that it be brought down here?"

He hesitates, but decides for the room. If the picture were removed from the wall, defects might be discovered in the frame or glass that would have to be fixed before it could be re-hung by his bed. He would also feel uncomfortable hearing the explication of a risque painting in the hotel lobby, amid the coming and going of guests. But as they step out of the elevator on the fourth floor, he suddenly realizes he should warn Ruth of their arrival, even though the visitor is a very old woman. He knocks on the door and waits, and after a long moment permits himself to insert the key in the lock.

The dark room looks the same as he had left it, disorganized and unventilated, stuffy with the smells of sleep, and Ruth wrapped in her blanket like an embryo. This is strange, even worrisome. Sleeping this long is rare for her. Without turning on the light he kneels by the bed and gently touches her face, to let her know that a visitor is joining them, an art expert, who has meanwhile slipped into the room with feline agility and now faces the reproduction, turning on the little picture lamp affixed to the wall.

The weak light is enough to awaken the sleeper, who opens her eyes and requires a moment to recall her whereabouts. She smiles in confusion at her companion, who returns an embarrassed grin as he gestures at the old woman with the magnifying glass, scouring the picture for the signature of the artist.

"The picture? Why?"

"To explain the background of the painting to us ... the story behind it ... who the old man is, and why he is nursing at the breast."

"The old man?"

"The prisoner, the one kneeling on the ground ..."

"The prisoner?"

Has that memory really vanished entirely? Can it be that no chord was struck as she stood and stared at the picture that morning, and then went back to sleep? Had she truly banished from her mind her little artistic rebellion, in order to erase her humiliation over the lover who abandoned her? Or was she only pretending, just to test Moses? With genuine puzzlement he studies the actress, the outline of her breasts beneath her thin cotton nightgown inspiring both compassion and desire. I'll explain later, he whispers, but say hello, because this woman is an art expert who has made a special trip.

And the actress is bewildered and amused at the sight of the expert whom Moses has suddenly parachuted into a room cluttered with clothes and blankets, but she doesn't bother to get out of bed, merely propping herself up, turning on the reading lamp and nodding hello to the elderly white-haired woman, who gives a little bow in return. From the gleam in her eye it appears she has already identified the artist.

"Matthias Meyvogel," she declares, "no doubt about it, a Dutchman who worked in Rome, 17th century, a great admirer of Rembrandt, from whom he borrowed the point of view we have of the prisoner Cimon, and the shadow on the muscles of his back ..."

"Just a minute, madam," implores Moses, still shaken by her resemblance to his mother, "please slow down, you say Cimon as if I'm supposed to know who that is, but first of all, what is the 'caritas' here, the act of charity? And in what way is it Roman?"

"Oh, do forgive me, it didn't occur to me that you had never heard of 'Caritas Romana.' For it is truly a wonderful and significant story, which has inspired so many writers and artists."

"An Italian story?"

"Not Italian, Roman. Rome is greater than Italy, and the original story comes from ancient Rome, one of the thousand stories written down in the first century A.D. by Valerius Maximus in his collection 'Facta et dicta memorabilia,' in other words, acts and sayings that must be remembered. The story is about a young woman named Pero who fed her father from her own breast."

"Her father?" Moses raises his voice. "The old man, this prisoner, is her father?"

"Of course, only her father," the art historian calms the Israeli who thought the man in the picture was a stranger. "He is Cimon, who was sentenced to die by starvation, and his daughter, who came to visit him, and nursed him so he wouldn't die. And in the end, because of her daring and unique devotion, the jailers had mercy on the father and set him free. That's the kernel of the story, which inspired many paintings back in ancient times. For example, when they dug Pompeii out of the ashes of Vesuvius, they found a fresco with this motif. Valerius Maximus himself admitted that such paintings were more powerful than his story. People stop and stare in amazement at this picture, they cannot take their eyes off it, they see it come alive. Even you, sir, a citizen of the 21st century, were so agitated by the painting that you sent for me."

"But is this a copy of an original painting from ancient Rome?"

"No, surely not. The story enticed many important painters over the centuries. Rubens, Caravaggio, Jacques-Louis David and many others before and after."

"Before them, you mean the Middle Ages?"

"No, in the Middle Ages the motif actually disappears, but was revived during the Renaissance."

"Maybe because of the overt eroticism."

"Precisely so. In the medieval period, they questioned the authenticity of the compassion and mercy of the daughter nursing her father, suspecting her of exploiting his misery in an oedipal fashion ..."

She bursts into hearty laughter.

"Oedipal?" Moses chuckles. "What did they know in the Middle Ages about the Oedipus complex ... "

"They didn't know the term, but they felt the essence of it, the same longing. After all, the truth does not need a label in order to be real. Therefore, the latent eroticism tangled up in this act of kindness deterred, and perhaps frightened, the artists of the Middle Ages, to the same extent that it aroused artists of the Renaissance and Baroque and later, into the 19th century. Yet each one dealt with the erotic aspect in a different fashion, depending on his personality, his natural inclinations, and his courage vis-a-vis his surroundings."

"For instance?"

"In many paintings, the artists made sure that the daughter would look off to the side, so as not to see the face of her nursing father, out of respect for him, or out of shame, in order not to reveal other motives, his and perhaps hers too."


"Hers too. Why not? We are talking about human beings who are alive and complicated, not figures made of cardboard. But in some other paintings, such as the one hanging here, or by Rubens, for example, one sees that Pero is unabashedly studying the face of the old man she is nursing. It all depends, of course, on the father's situation."

"In what sense?"

"If he is depicted as feeble and dying, as in the famous rendering by the Flemish artist Daniel Soreau, she is allowed to look at him directly, because it is clear to the viewer that his approaching death neutralizes any erotic intent on either side. The daughter may therefore permit herself a gentle gaze, or even support the head of the dying man. But when the father is strong and muscular, as in your painting, and the one by Rubens, one must be very careful. Look, for example, sir, at Cimon here. Despite the baldness and the beard, I wouldn't take him for more than 50, and a man like that is able to desire and take pleasure, is he not?"

"Why not ... "

"And therefore, when men like these are being nursed, it is important that they be tied up, either their hands or their feet, like the man in your picture."

"My picture ... my picture," laughs Moses with mild annoyance. "Please, dear lady, it is not mine, it belongs to the hotel."

"Of course it does, but while you are staying here, this fellow is hanging beside your bed, and if his hands are tied behind his back, it means the artist wants you to know that the erotic possibilities of the situation are limited, or at least under supervision, and therefore the merciful gaze of his daughter, as depicted here, may be construed as pure, even though one can never really know the line that divides compassion from passion."

"That says it all, senora."

"Excuse me, sir, but might I inquire as to your profession? They did tell me over the telephone, but at my age I easily forget things that are not directly connected to my field of interest."

"I am a film director. And my companion here in the bed is a wonderful actress, a veteran of many of my films and those of others."

"Very pleased to meet you, madam," waves the expert, and again bows politely, wedged between the bed and the wall. And Moses makes a mental note that this image - a hotel room in dim light, strewn with blankets and clothes and an open suitcase, with a tiny old lady who resembles his mother speaking to a woman in a flimsy nightgown lazing under the covers - needs to be preserved for re-creation as an entire scene in one of his future films, perhaps even the next.

As if struck by a flash of distant lightning, he now wonders whether this strange and brazen painting, hanging in a random hotel room, might have been known to Shaul Trigano. Is it possible that here, in Santiago de Compostela, simply by chance, he has discovered the source that long ago sparked the imagination of his former screenwriter, a talented young man, a near genius, but also fanatically inflexible, who because of one canceled scene had broken off relations not only with Moses, but with his own lover, the actress, imposing her ever since upon the director, as a duty or at least a reason for concern. Could it be that one of these mythological pictures, an original or a reproduction, had given rise to the bizarre scene intended to shock the audience at the ending of their seventh film together, the film that Trigano provocatively titled "The Hungry Breast" before Moses decreed a different name?

"However," the art expert continues to lecture, "when the fathers are prisoners who are not tied up, but are nearing death, then the daughter may allow herself to be more generous in her touch and gaze. But there are also paintings where it seems obvious that the milk that the father sucks from his daughter will not save him, and yet the nursing daughter does not dare look at her father. To maintain his dignity, or in fear of his nakedness. These are very delicate issues."

"Very delicate," agrees Moses, "and also complicated."

"In Caravaggio's marvelous painting 'The Seven Acts of Mercy,'" the expert carries on, "just as in the ancient Roman paintings that inspired it, the daughter nurses the father through the bars of his prison cell, and thus, even if the man is strong and active, he is nevertheless neutralized. A magnificent painting like that can even hang in a church. And of course there are works in which the 'Roman Charity' enables the daughter to be in closer contact with the father, to touch his head and shoulders, and in bolder paintings the daughter exposes her beautiful shoulders, and the non-nursing breast is also bare. But such things may occur only on the condition that the father's hands are bound, although, for example, in the painting by Rembrandt Peale, only the feet are bound, whereas the hands are free, touching the thigh of the daughter, and such a thing might justifiably raise all sorts of suspicions and speculations. Yet there are artists such as Carlo Cignani who, to dispel any suspicion, gave Pero a baby, to demonstrate that she is indeed, first and foremost, a nursing mother who includes her poor father as a second child, and only as a child."

"The baby is her alibi."

"Exactly, sir."

Moses turns with a smile to Ruth, still lying in bed, her hair scattered on the pillow, her pretty eyes glistening with tears of amazement that express her thanks for the strange yet delicate way her companion chose to revive a banished memory that had never vanished.

"But I am obligated to tell you," expounds the expert, "that there are also painters who gave themselves unbridled license, preserving the heart of the story but gratuitously stripping not just the miserable father but the gracious daughter of their clothes, thus taking a story of compassion and kindness to a most disgusting place. It's best that I not burden you for the moment with any additional names, but you know as well as anyone that art has no boundaries."

"None, which is perhaps as it should be ..."

The old woman tilts her head with mild disapproval, then forges ahead.

"In any event, a morally enlightened artist places the act of kindness at the center, adding the erotic touch only to deepen the compassion and devotion, not to replace them, certainly not to contradict them. There needs to be a proper balance among the elements: the man, the father, his age and his physical condition. And if the man, the father, is in good shape, the binding of his hands and feet, that is to say, the extent to which he is immobilized, is crucial. So too with the nursing daughter: what she is looking at, how she exposes the feeding breast, how much of her body is unclothed in the painting. A balance among all these should give us a human picture that is also a moral one. All this is quite apart from the quality of the composition, the perspective, the colors and the talent of the painter."

"And this picture, my picture, the hotel's picture, maintains this balance, in your opinion?"

"Yes, it is a worthy painting, the compassion and the kindness are made clear."

Now Moses begins to fear that this expert will not let him go, leaving little time for a proper lunch, so he takes her hand and warmly expresses his gratitude.

"Thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart, you are a wonderful teacher. You have provided a superb summary of 'Roman Charity' in such a short time, and if more questions arise, I can surely find the answer on the Internet here at the hotel."

"Oh no," she cries, "please, no, not the Internet. It is full of mistakes and foolishness. Anywhere but the Internet, please. If you are thirsty, sir, for further details, I am at your service. I have plenty of time. And although I am older than you - she blushes, a mischievous twinkle in her eye - I can still, as Pero does for Cimon - feed you and your companion with further information."

Translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman

Illustration based on "Caritas Romana" by Matthias Meyvogel.Credit: Eran Wolkowski



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