In a Gallery
Notice the face of the Infant, the deepset
eyes, the sharpness of the nose.
His body is tallow, his face is of stone.
The dissonance is Photoshop.
Not one of the Kings, not the lamb, not the Virgin—
only the Infant in this scene
is staring the camera down, so to speak,
observing us observing him.
We know that the Master could show, when he wished to,
a youthful softness—witness
his “Madonna and Clouds,” his “Persephone,”
both paintings dated 1515,
the same year as this one. The Virgin herself
is much more childlike than her child.
That gaze is deliberately worldly-wise,
or maybe otherworldly-wise.
To its left, on loan from the Prado, you see
“Self-Portrait with a Tongue of Fire,”
which the Master completed the year of his fall
from Barcelona’s cathedral scaffold.
The titular “tongue” is the paintbrush with which
he paints himself as on a mirror–
with fractures to both of his arms, he was forced
to clip the brush between his teeth.
Foreshortened, it’s roughly the length of a tongue,
emerging from the bitter smile
of an archangel smitten for heady ambition.
He soon preferred his handicap
to his hands; he never did go back.
I had to lick myself onto
the canvas, he wrote to a friend years later,
like polish off the boots of God