Madonna in Blue by Neil Shephard

Some decades ago the bishop of Evona discovered himself to be the victim of what in his opinion was a monstrous deception.

Next to the pulpit the bishop’s favorite place was his office. The dusky atmosphere of the room was deliberate. The bishop believed subdued lighting relaxed one. Where light was available it was at points of occupancy: a lamp on his desk, one alongside the visitor’s chair. The office had two windows of the curvilinear type familiar in churches. Translucent drapes dimmed what sunshine reached them. Dark stained furniture and book shelves along with a viridian green carpet sopped the remainder.

Only the painting on the wall behind the bishop’s high back chair challenged the ambiance. A sconce on either side illuminated the canvas. So lit the painting drew the eye to it. The attraction wasn’t accidental but due to the care the bishop took in the placement and illumination of the work.

The subject within the frame was, as to be expected in ecclesiastical quarters, a religious one: Virgin Mary and Jesus. Three qualities distinguished the painting. The style was distinctly modern in its almost photographic detail. Also, a single color in shades from vivid to near invisibility dominated — blue. And though rendered with comic book clarity, two millennia old Christian motifs were combined: The Nativity and the pieta.

Spatially the painting consisted of two triangles joined along their hypotenuses to form a rectangle. A young Mary holding the baby Jesus filled the left triangle.  They regarded each with celestial tranquility. His swaddling clothes and her robe were rendered in vibrant blue. A gentler blue tinted hands and face.

As blue ascended into the right triangle its tone weakened to a rinse. Mary’s seated figure duplicated filled the top right-hand corner. She cradled in her lap an adult Jesus wilted in death. In this section the tinge suggested ethereal beings or a future foreseen through a haze of decades.

The bishop beamed at his latest visitor a police detective. Thirty-five years ago, the bishop had been lank, his hair thick and ruly. Age gained him a portly circumference. The remnant of his hair wrapped around his nape and ears in a silvery fringe. The effect wasn’t uncomplimentary. His appearance fit well with the mantle of authority he assumed a decade ago. In respect to church tradition and decorum he remained as stringent as he had been in youth. At the moment he had several reasons to be congenial.

For one, the presence of the detective placed him on the verge of completing one of his projects. A month ago, at a banquet he proposed to the police commissioner his department set up a seminar. The seminar would instruct diocese parents on the danger and prevention of their children consorting with gang members. Orders trickled down the department’s hierarchy ending with the selection of this detective to conduct the seminar.

The detective too had gained weight in middle age. Unlike the bishop’s his poundage sagged on him. Glum and laconic, he peered from eyes slitted between plump brows and cheeks. To him his selection signified how little regarded he had become in the force. Twenty-five years from rookie to plainclothes man brought him within eight months of compulsory retirement. His chief would not grant a waiver. In their last meeting he bluntly assessed the detective’s loss of stamina. His ‘Too old and too fat, Mike’ still rankled.

The lull between prelate and officer following the completion of arrangements didn’t last long.  First time visitors were the bishop’s delight, the second reason for him being pleased. He only needed the detective’s porcine gaze to stray to the painting. Into that flick of curiosity he plunged, globular face swelling with anticipation, his words oiled by rote. “I see my little acquisition has caught your eye. My church has a long history of sponsoring the arts. I commissioned the piece some months ago. The artist quite exceeded my expectation. God must have truly inspired him.”

“There’s something familiar about it,” the detective said with raspy depth.

“It recalls some other painting to you,” the bishop surmised. “An old master’s, perhaps,” he added, the suggestion tipped with irony. He expected men of the detective’s ilk to have little acquaintance with fine art.

“I don’t know about old masters. Her face looks like someone I know.”

The bishop met this assumption with a tolerant smile. “I’m sure you must be mistaken.”

Years of seniority and being mentor to junior detectives ingrained in the detective resentment to correction by anyone outside law enforcement. “I don’t think so. Mind if I take a closer look?”

“Not at all.” The bishop vacated his chair to allow the detective opportunity to see his mistake.

The detective bent closer in his examination. When he extended a finger to touch the Madonna the bishop reacted with a sharp outcry. “Don’t.” The detective colored at the admonition and returned to his chair. To compensate for the correction the bishop offered an excuse for himself. “I had to warn you. The natural oil on hands is injurious to works of art.”

The detective ignored the apology. “I know her, all right.”

The bishop allowed the surly undertone. “Oh, and who do you think she might be?”

“Glades Turnbo. She’s a prostitute.”

“Surely you’re mistaken.”

“Not a chance. I hauled her in several times for soliciting. That mole and ear lobe clinches the i.d. She got the cut in a fight with another prostitute. We got her photo on file. I can get you a copy if you like. That’s her kid, by the way. Looks cute now, but my guess is he’ll turn out to be another young punk. I’ve seen to many like him go that route. They grow up with nothing better to go by.”

The detective’s certainty disturbed the bishop. He didn’t doubt the quantity of information given was retaliation for his rebuke of the detective’s heedlessness. At the same time, he was sure the man wouldn’t out and out lie. However, he felt incumbent to adopt a magnanimous regard of the matter. The line to take was the way God in his wisdom turned wickedness against itself by having the artist use a wayward woman as an inspiring icon. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if being so honored didn’t influence this poor creature to reform.”

“If she did I’ll let you know,” the detective promised on a note of dry skepticism.”

After the detective left the bishop sat pondering what he learned. The longer he brooded on the matter the more convinced he became of being duped. Those familiar with him would have recognized the signs of his temper: the sudden pallid temple followed by a furrowed flush, the hard set of jaw line from the clench of teeth, the flash of his eyes. To use a prostitute and bastard child to depict the Virgin Mother and Savior . . . a sacrilege! No doubt the artist snickered many a time as he metamorphosed by pigment and brush the profane into the sanctified. The bishop closed his eyes as people do to withstand a bout with pain. What racked him was shame so intense as to be agony. Fool, fool, fool, he scourged himself.

What to do? How to turn wrong to right?

His mind switched from one retaliation to another. He could reproach the diocese member who recommended the artist. Discretion dictated otherwise. The member was a wealth executive who over the years had donated an immense amount to the diocese. Also, logic argued he must have been ignorant of the sham too. The artist could certainly be confronted. A scenario bloomed of the painter crumpling under a barrage of righteous indignation. Just as quickly the scenario changed into the artist’s gleeful reception of his victim’s outrage. No doubt he would regale his cronies with an account of a futile remonstrance.

A third way came to the bishop. He grabbed a letter opener and swung out of his chair to face the painting. A brief and direct attack would leave the travesty in shreds. He swung back his arm then paused. A lie, yes, but still representative of holy personages. Dare he risk committing one sacrilege on top of another? Suppose too the diocese patron inquired about the painting . . . wanted to view it? He might accept the motive for its destruction — and then again, he might not. The consequence of offending so generous a donor had to be considered.

So, within the space of little more than a minute the bishop thwarted himself in three directions. His arm lowered, his head drooped. Several moments of agitated breathing followed before his head raised, lips bowed in a smile. A fourth alternative had occurred to him. Banishment, a recourse with minimal consequence.

An hour later he carried the painting to a store room located in the undercroft below the nave. The bishop had once taken a tour of European churches. Some of the undercrofts once served as crypts. One could well imagine a torch bearing procession of mourners conveying the deceased to its sepulcher. A solemn and gloomy ceremony it must have been, the torches casting a trembling light on the rows of pillars that supported the upper floor, the chanted dirge echoing from dark corners, the shades of the living flung away from the wavering flux of flames. He could be grateful for modern lighting that with the flick of a switch brightened his sojourn from one end of the undercroft to the other. The store room was midway, the metal door visible between two concrete, steel reinforced columns. There the painting would be interred among stacks of musty, wear-worn hymnals. After he locked the door the bishop slapped dust from his trousers, then headed back to his office, his mind occupied with a substitute. A print copy, of course. Perhaps Raphael’s Entombment . . . Perhaps Michelangelo’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. . .  No, Rembrandt’s Nativity Scene, that’s the one. Ah, you can always trust the old masters to never let you down.

And so, in that store room the painting, the single anomaly in a career of mediocre productions, remained in a silent and dark obscurity. Dust collected on it while time continued until a multitude of days added up to a multitude of years which in turn became first one than two then three decades. Time can be measured by death. The artist died when a car accident broke his neck; the bishop died by apoplexy, overweight and splenetic; the prostitute was strangled by a drunken client; her son perished from a drive-by shooting; the wealthy benefactor succumbed tertiary syphilis. All those who could have contributed a personal anecdote to the history of the painting had been either buried or cremated when chance rediscovered it.

By then the church had become a forlorn building. The fervor that led to its erection dwindled to extinction. Its windows were broken by adventuresome school children, its walls decorated with spray can graffiti, and its interior roamed by rats and cats. Only when a group of entrepreneurs chose the building to be converted into a restaurant did a member of a renovation crew discover the painting. He showed it to the interior decorator who paid him twenty dollars to let her have it. Her lover owned an art gallery. He had the painting cleaned and reframed. A collector of religious art bought it for twenty-five hundred dollars. It reached the wall of a city museum to which the collector lent a number of his acquisitions. An art critic saw it and wrote an article on the hither unknown masterpiece. He gave the work the name by which people ever after referred to it: Madonna in Blue. When the collector suffered a financial set back the sale of the painting for fifty thousand helped him fend off a few of his creditors. Its buyer, a university, placed the painting in the lobby of its newly built center of religious studies.

So situated the painting accumulated renown by simply being. Photographs of it appeared in the glossy pages of oversized table books. More than a few academics in articles published in journals devoted to the arts analyzed the techniques employed to create this masterpiece from brush stroke to perspective. Just as a stalactite gains dimension drip by drip the painting’s renown increased without leaving its spot. Steps were taken to ensure its safety. Electric eyes and alarms guarded it from theft. A brass railing kept the public at a respectful distance. A tempered glass enclosure was built around the painting to guard it from vandalism. The institute’s director was proud he could refuse the offer of a million dollars for its purchase, an offer made by a visiting monarch of a foreign country.

Every so often a man or woman would pause in front of the painting for a lengthy contemplation. Such an occurrence the center became used to and even respected. That person drew spiritual sustenance from the picture. There were also those who succumbed to the power of the painting with prayer and song. Several instances happened in which an admirer knelt before the canvas in a regard of it as a holy relic. The director found himself on a diplomatic tightrope in the matter of faith healing attributed to the Madonna in Blue. He adopted and offered to others the rationale that the faith of the believer healed rather than from any essence of the object.

One segment of the populace however troubled him: persons who attributed to the painting a supernatural quiddity. For instance, one swore Mary looked up at her from the baby Jesus; another testified to seeing tears fall on the chest of the crucified Christ. The director worried about such extravagances of faith. When groups of like minded devotees began singing, praying, and leaving offerings, he appealed to the institute’s governing board. “We have a priceless work of art in our care. Greater security is needed to protect it from pilferage and vandalism.”

Now the painting resides in an underground vault. A network of electric eyes are woven around it, lights play on the canvas from both side, a television camera on a closed circuit transmits an image to the center’s lobby. There on a screen set in an ornate frame a virtual replica is available for adoration. The vault is hermetically sealed, and temperature controlled. Barring an apocalypse, the Madonna in Blue can remain undefiled until the last tick of time.


Neil Shephard

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2 thoughts on “Madonna in Blue by Neil Shephard

  1. Terrible that a thing of true beauty should be hidden for cause. If it is the genuine article, then I’d expect a blank canvas to be found at the “last tick” of time. Interesting. Relevant.


  2. Hi Neil,
    I think you hit the thoughts on beauty in the eye of the beholder balanced against hypocrisy beautifully.
    Hope you send more soon.


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