The Osservanza Master

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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