As a child, long before I turned my attention to tragic heroines and their male counterparts, I was drawn to mortal injury and related suffering. There is no explanation for the deep and satisfying emotions I got from the pictures I hunted in my father’s Professorial Library; I suspect it is the same dark, human impulse that draws people to jars of embalmed fetuses and preserved tattoos skinned from intriguingly inked corpses.
I had, at my disposal, hundreds of beautiful images in the art books that lived in our house. Sixteenth century Flemish Madonnas offering apple-like breasts to blonde baby Jesuses (Jesi?), pages and pages of Botticelli seraphim, Watteau confections, DaVinci drawings, Magritte and Dali oddities and Picasso in all his various incarnations. Because my father taught about art, and because we often saw art “in situ,” I was unfazed by the parade of breasts, fleshy pink thighs and penises of varying sizes. I was only vaguely interested in the evolution of vanishing point perspective, abstract vs. representational, or the finer points of bas relief, fresco or chiaroscuro. What I liked was the intense, the dramatic, and the emotional. Anyone could whip out a random body part, but getting shot full of arrows was an altogether superior thrill.
Which brings me to my childhood favorite, St. Sebastian. In a lovely Hyperion volume of 14th and 15th Century Italian paintings, I found Mantegna’s painting of Sebastian smack in the middle of his martyrdom. Ordered by Diocletian to be shot to death, Sebastian managed to survive, was killed again more efficiently, and eventually canonized. I loved everything about the painting. I loved it that he looked so sad, that his skin was so very pale, and that (even at seven or eight) I knew that there would really be a lot more blood if someone had been shot with eight arrows. It spoke to me of something dark and supernatural, magical even. I had no religious training, no concept of saints or martyrs, and my responses to iconography were both honest and macabre.
“No,” my father answered, doing that sucking thing he did with a pipe to make it light. “He was a martyr.” I kind of knew the word; it was what my mother called my father when he was driving to her parents’ house in Ohio even though it was snowing. “Catholics believe that certain people who die because of their religious beliefs can become saints.” I knew some things about saints; his mother was Catholic, and had given me a book about St. Francis. She also carried a St. Christopher medal, although I believe St. Christopher was subsequently de-mobbed. I knew about St. Patrick’s Day, and that Santa was really “Saint Nick,” and lots of places were called Saint Something-or-other.
“But why did they want to kill him in the first place? What did he do?”
“He was a Christian at a time when lots of people didn’t like Christians, and he made a powerful person very angry, so he was given a choice of saying he wasn’t really Christian, or being killed. He chose to be killed.”
“But that’s stupid!” He drew, meditatively on his pipe.
“I’m inclined to agree with you about that, but there are millions of people who think otherwise. They think that dying for your religious beliefs means you really believe them and trust that you will be taken care of in heaven.”
“Do you think that?”
“No, but your Grammie does. Some people do, and some people don’t. I think there are causes worth standing up for, and maybe dying for, but for me that isn’t one of them.”
“Is it for Momma?” I asked, tracing a small finger over Sebastian’s right leg, pierced with an arrow in the same way I had been taught to draw an arrow piercing a Valentine heart. That was another one – Saint Valentine. “Is it for me?”
“It isn’t for your mother, because Jewish people don’t have any saints. They tend to be hurt and killed because of what they believe, but a lot of times it isn’t because they choose to take a stand, it’s because people are prejudiced against them. You know about Hitler, right?” I nodded, somber. We had discussed Hitler at great length because of an episode of “Star Trek.” I also understood, in some impressionistic way that a lot of my mother’s ancestors had come to America from Russia and Hungary because Very Bad Things were happening to them just because they were Jewish.
“As for you, I don’t know. Momma and I won’t tell you to do anything like that because it isn’t what we believe, but some day when you’re grown up you might find that you believe in something you find for yourself.” This seemed reasonable, safe, and sufficiently distant that I didn’t need to worry about it. “Isn’t it time you went to bed?” It was. Carefully, I flipped the tissue-thin protective page back over St. Sebastian’s lovely, tragic face and replaced the book on the shelf. I was not always so careful, but my father, he of the “handle the slide by the edges,” “handle the record by the edges,” was sitting right there watching me. I knew he loved me even when I threw the records on top of each other so that they got scratched, but why take unnecessary chances?
Soon I would discover other soul-piercing images to savor; the American Heritage volume with the picture of Lincoln dying in his bed, Titian’s “Entombment,” El Greco’s “Lamentation” and Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” I knew little about Lincoln’s assassination, and less about the crucifixion of Christ, but the frozen moments of pain, longing, loss and unimaginable grief spoke volumes.
When my father retired, he gave away a lot of books. Although the Hyperion volume was not really from his office, and was therefore not properly part of the bounty, he placed it on top of the pile of books I had chosen. “I seem to remember,” he said, pausing as if drawing on the pipe he had given up forty years ago “that this was a particular favorite of yours.”
Sometimes, when I feel as lost and misunderstood as poor, pale, Sebastian tied to a column, I open the book and visit him. I try not to cry on him. It’s an expensive book.
Every now and then, turning carefully the pages that long ago parted ways with the binding, I swear that I smell pipe tobacco.