Two Northern Paintings (h2so4 12)
Juan de Flandès' Retrato de una Infanta
Van der Weyden's Descent from the Cross

I went to Spain with a few publicized goals, but high on the list of the unmentioned was a visit to these two paintings. I have looked at them on and off over the years, my appreciation flavored vanilla, I'd say. I am not sure why they have exercised such force on my imagination recently, but for the past 18 months they have been on my mind constantly. So I went to see them. There were other reasons, of course, but basically, I went to see them.

About the Infanta: She was painted in about 1496, by a Fleming transplanted to Spain, all inconsequential data because in the end she stops time. Very small and silent on her little board on the second floor of the Thyssen-Bornemisza, she is easy to pass over. She catches you up unnoticed, and it is only in the next room that you notice you began holding your breath awhile back. Double back to cross her path again. You will feel it: So firmly do those dark eyes look away, gray-blue, not quite bovine under their perfect, smooth brow. How suffocating to witness this vacuum of interest. Her baby lips are closed in resignation before a tiny, proffered rose, her expression so opaque as to expose the Giaconda for a damned-near public woman.

Who is this little princess? Ostensibly Catherine of Aragon. I think she could have been any of them, those Isabel-Marguerite-Marie-Therese child-brides of Europe who were raised on bear-baitings, Christine de Pizan and a detailed description of their rank and dowry. More concrete than biography, call her the tiny witch of stillness. Glancing at her image now as I try to write about this, I feel her magic flex its muscle even via this silly souvenir bookmark I am checking for accuracy, and I am holding my breath again.

If it seems that I am getting a little literary here, a little lyric, little loose, little armchair traveleuse, I will only remark that you have perhaps not really seen the Infanta. On the other hand, you do not have to go to the Flemish galleries of the Prado to see Van der Weyden's Descent (c1435), which is reproduced everywhere (including, thanks to someone named Carol L. Gerten, on the web). It is likely that you have an inkling, anyway, of the work--of the crucifix shape of its canvas, and most of all its colors, that deep, liquid, lavishly expensive, f/x flemish blue, and the white, the green, the chestnut that set it off. If the reproduction is good, you will see that Mary is whiter than her dead son, who is himself lean and long as a swan, arms as delectable and Italian as turrone. She, fainting, is still a Mom--a pinched and northern one at that. Into the gap between his concave chest and belly and her rounded oval forms grows a mystical re-enactment of the same old evening routine, now gone eternal: Where before she gathered up his long shirt, thrown carelessly to ground, it is now his flesh that she folds into her hips to smooth and store. If the face, blank and gray, refuses to take anything in, the lower two-thirds of Van der Weyden's Mary present the body-mass of grief, ecce mater, a great blue belly struggling to reabsorb its own. And her gown? Like a mainsail, luffing as the whole ship of dumb, inexorable, true-blue bestial love of parents for their children in this fallen world tips slowly into the sea of the supplemental, sunk once and for all by the mandates of the Spirit, Father, and Son.

Or something like that. In the most forward plane of the painting, Mary's right hand brushes a skull, a signifier of the vanitas of this life, ready to roll right out of the frame and hit us in the foot. At the lower right of the painting, Magdalene, her bare nape as inviting as Christ's arm, turns away from us, and into the scene: Christ's mother and his girlfriend in woe.

In sum, the classics: Two museums, two ladies, one held breath, one splendid, polychromatic lurch towards recognition of the anguish of mortal love. 

--Leah Middlebrook