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  • Sarah Johnson

The Baroken

by Sarah Johnson

The Baroque period―when the Church tried to crucify Jesus again on canvasses, and ended up doing it on battlefields from Bohemia to Peru―left all that art you look at, young friend, and imagine that about the turn of sixteen hundred years from Our Blessed Lord’s birth, the light was especially bright, and the shadows especially dark. That the monks were especially thin and saintly, and the riff-raff especially handsome and debased. Above all, that everything was solid; the clouds were made for walking on, the air thick enough to support hundreds of ecstatic worshippers, and fruit and flowers were juicy, heavy, gummy, and firm.

I lived through the best of it; may I talk about it now? For me the word Baroque, or as I first heard it, Barocco, has always been the conjoined twin of the word Broke, Broken. The very best thing which might have been, during that time, was not; it was broken, and so was my heart.

Come with me to Naples, the year he came there. The painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. But kindly do not let me talk about him yet. Hold my hand, nothing will hurt you; let us just walk the crowded vicoli a little while, seeing what was there: I don’t mean literally all Naples’ hodgepodge of Spanish, Renaissance, barbarian, dirt, and the worst Felipe II buildings; rather, the spirit of an age, that rested there in all its cheek and appeal and hideousness, so strongly you will wish to keep very near me as we walk. The men who embodied that spirit, here, in Rome, in Lombardy, are all dead. Caracci, Gentileschi, Borromini, him… But all live unto God, and a blessed spirit, like me, can show you things. Come.

See that portly church breathe heavily in the Tyrrhenian heat, its vast facade billowing symmetrically. The stone spindles in a balcony rail take turns standing on their heads. Inside, a cascade of fresco cherubs tumble in their other-dimensional sky, singing and hooting their instruments. (It seems obvious that they are enjoying themselves; but are you even sure of that? Such outburst, in this deathly still building, is too unnatural; you will not understand their joy until you come where I am, so for now, give a respectful, good-humored glance and walk on, as from the cryptic joys of someone severely autistic.) Outside, two plump urchins gamble; one is cheating. Do you want to rebuke him? So did I, once. But the death-mark is already on his face.

Do not be scandalized if we meet the Virgin on this low street. She has taken recently to haunting the slums, with her solemn, benevolent baby on her hip. Look, the dome of the next church (ah! Churches everywhere!) is slowly swelling as if from the heat, like a bubble in a frying egg-white; but it won’t get much bigger―the steam will escape from the little observation-window in the apex. This church is delicious inside; see how everything is fashioned from pure white marzipan and whipped cream, the pillars piped in helices from an enormous cake-decorating tube! The gilt clouds around the altar, though―a bad addition; don’t they resemble a rich yellow cheese?

In the dive across the street, impudent-faced ruffians in ruffles and ribbons and swords count money and swig wine in near-darkness, but a ray of blazing light picks out one face that looks, startled, for the source, and contemplates higher things. Round the next corner, though, hide your eyes if you need: a Cyclops of enormous size picks an Ithacan limb from limb, while, all unconcerned, some decadent gods flirt under a ponderous grapevine. You shrink a little against me, your grip is tighter. Fiendish Roman soldiers stalk with their whips and maces, looking to flagellate Jesus again, or crucify St. Peter. This street is dark as a cave, except the glaring light that follows peoples’ faces. But we won’t find here the monster, the broken thing, unless I am ready to talk about him. Hold both my hands. Let me close my eyes a moment―thank you.

Footsteps?―I’m not ready to look; tell me what’s coming. Don’t. A shortish, thickset man, isn’t it? Dressed in mussy black?―and he would always carry a sword. Dio mio, proteggimi. Hold both my hands, I’m looking, now. Misericordia divina, there he is―Merisi. What a sweet face, meant for such good expressions. So many good expressions have left their lines there―why among so many bad ones? Hold both my hands. He won’t see us. “Merisi, Amato mio, amato da Dio, my beloved and God’s, why were you lost?”

He’s passed us. Let me go. A minute. “Merisi! Don’t you remember? The disbelieving disciples, and how Jesus pulls aside his robe, and Thomas sticks his shaking fingers in the great side-wound? Don’t tell me, when your hands shook, after you were wounded in Naples, you didn’t remember… that Side where every tremor of disbelief, wretchedness, and guilt is instantly stilled?”

I’m sorry. I told myself I wouldn’t do that again. Let him go. We still have the picture―his great, great Doubting Thomas. It can draw us to heaven, if it did not draw him.

Freedom! That’s what it was! God gave him an eye and hand so like His own, that turned Faith to Sight… and made him free. To wench and brawl and murder. To be damned.

… Why are you tugging my clothes? Where are we? … That’s the old Palazzo Colonna down there. We’re in Naples. This is the street he used to walk all the time. Too often at night.―Come on, let’s leave.

Are you crying? You’re so sympathetic, my friend!―Use my sleeve, don’t be ashamed. But don’t cry. We won’t waste tears, if the waste of God’s blood wasn’t enough. We’re going.―One moment, I must have a word with the Cyclops,

“Hey! Friend!” (See how he pauses his ugly chewing.)

“Let me tell you, fellow, you’re not a monster. You don’t even know what one is.”

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