The Osservanza Master | The Nation


The Osservanza Master

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In later paintings--

a Brueghel, a Dali--

a hill could also be a breast

grazed by clouds, the breast

of a woman lying on her back

facing heaven. But in this painting

by the Osservanza Master

(about whom nothing is known,

not even his real name)

the hill is just a hill

beneath an arch of cirrus,

although it swirls like cream

to a soft peak, although it hides

a distant church blushing in the dusk.

I love this painting,

no larger than a leaf

of notebook paper.

Its sharp thin brushstrokes

shiny as currycombed hair

drinking track-light.

And I love the story it tells:

Saint Anthony Abbot tempted

by a heap of gold. Stranger than any

hill transformed into a breast

is that the pile of gold has vanished!

Yet the Saint is still

so distinct you could lift him

off the panel. His hands cupped

like a calyx holding its flower

he gazes downward

at the damaged place

where the gold has been,

where now a small pink ghost lingers

like a kiss on the hillside.

But it's hard to know if he's still

surprised by the temptation

he'd once found at his feet,

or by the rabbit crouching there, forever

bearing a tree rooted in air.

Or is he simply amazed

that what he never had was taken away

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