Excerpts from Looking Together: Writers on Art
The following are excerpts from the Frye publication Looking Together: Writers on Art, edited by Rebecca Brown and Mary Jane Knecht. The publication is now available in the Museum Store or by contacting or 206 432 8201.
A Christian Martyr
I can hear you, you know. “How come there’s a woman on the cross?” you say. “Who is she?” “What’s she doing up there?”
You sound surprised, even shocked. Perhaps because you imagine there was only ever one crucifixion. Or maybe you think it was a fate reserved solely for men. That it’s not ladylike, somehow, to be crucified.
But then I was no lady. Just a mere slave girl from Carthage, on the northernmost tip of Africa — the city of some of the great church fathers, like Saint Augustine. Not that I was on his level, of course. My confessions would scarcely have filled a page, let alone a book. Among we slaves, the new faith offered not absolution for past sins but hope for the future — for justice, if not in this life, then in the next. So while our masters kept up their pagan ways, we lived — not that we had any choice in the matter — a simpler, purer life.
Mine would perhaps have been a long one if I hadn’t been my master’s favorite. That’s why he took me with him when he sailed across the Mediterranean to France. But the winds were against us and the crossing took longer than expected, so we had to stop for supplies at Corsica, a rough mountain island with people to match. Even in your time, it’s still known as a haven for renegades and pirates. And as fate would have it, we arrived in the middle of a pagan festival. A formal invitation was extended to my master and all on board to participate. A Corsican invitation — the kind you refuse only if you do not value your life.
You’ve heard of these pagan festivals, I’m sure. Your learned Victorian-era scholars had a fine time conjuring up mass orgies, with everyone acting out the fertility rites of the gods. It wasn’t quite so, but the idea contrasted nicely with the moral purity of the church, so who am I to disillusion you? Besides, the orgiastic aspect is necessary to my legend, since if it was true, what could a good Christian girl do but refuse to participate? All the more since, per the requirements of sainthood, I was a virgin. (What would be left unmentioned was how any slave girl of the time — of any time — could possibly remain virga intacta when she belonged body and soul to her master. I don’t think you need me to spell out what it meant that I was his favorite.)
It wasn’t about virginity, of course. The demand that I celebrate the pagan gods was simply the last straw. The tipping point, you call it now — the moment that tipped me over into rebellion. I chose the next life over the half life of a slave. In death, I’d gain my freedom. This was my epiphany. The choice of death would be my first and last free act.
And so I became Saint Julia. Not Saint Julia of Carthage — even in beatification, they took my identity away — but Saint Julia of Corsica, the place I spent only the last few hours of my life. And when he painted me fourteen hundred years later, Gabe would deny me even that identity. (That’s what I call him, Gabe, because who can deal with such a Middle European aristocratic mouthful as Gabriel Cornelius Ritter von Max?)
Once upon a time there were the Brothers. The place they lived was winter. It was always white and cold and always it was light. Despite the things the Brothers did, that never should be done at all, but if they are, done in the night, in darkness and with furtiveness, the Brothers did them in the broadest light. Perhaps it was their nature.
Around the place the Brothers lived there was a mountain range and hills. But nobody ever went there, at least they never went alone, for if they did then they did not come back. Although the Brothers seemed to not remember this. The Brothers remembered many things, but others they forgot.
Once upon a time we all were Brothers.
Always it was winter there, the light was always winter light, abrupt and sharp and brittle, in some way beautiful, but also with a glare so everyone had to squint. It was as if, as bright as it was, what they were seeing was not what was. It never darkened, was never night, despite the things the Brothers did which should never should be done at all, but if they are, done in the darkness and with furtiveness, with shame, without a heart. The Brothers did these things though they were brothers.
Always it was light and it was brilliant almost blindingly. White snow covered everything and everything looked crisp and pure, unsullied, clean and fresh and sounded sort of like that too. That is to say, it sounded very quiet, soft and muffled. The sound of the pad of your feet was a tiny swish, like the sound of the paw of a careful cat, you almost couldn’t hear it. The sounds were the sounds of snow on needles and branches, of snow falling in air, a sound of whiteness, less than breath, the sound, almost, of nothing.
So quiet you had to work to hear.
So hard to hear, the Brothers stopped listening.
Then didn’t hear at all.
Perhaps this was their nature too.
There also was an owl. She lived up in the trees, where she would look and sigh and shake her head, which sometimes shook the snowy branches and the snow fell down. If someone was below the tree, he might look up, but mostly no one did because the Brothers were busy. On the one hand the owl tried to stay above it all, away from the things the Brothers did, for she could not prevent them, but sometimes she couldn’t help herself.
“Who?” said the owl. “Who? Who?”
But none of the Brothers answered her.
Then, pleadingly, as if with tears, “Why? Oh, why?” said the owl.
But same thing: no one listened.
Sometimes, also, the owl said, “When?”
But they ignored her.
The owl wasn’t happy but didn’t give up. Though she was more or less just talking to herself, dithering nattering blubbering on like a lunatic a bag lady a no one who nobody listened to, she kept asking. “Who?” “When?” Because who knew, the owl hoped, if that’s not too strong a word, one day one of the Brothers might.
The Birds of Rome
"One must move boldly to experience each work in its turn... In this way the artist insinuates the viewer into the landscape."
—Robin Held, "Exploring Bodies, Exploring Spaces," in Ginnungagap: Recent Work by Sigrid Sandström (Seattle: Frye Art Museum, 2006).
To our rooftop breakfast table, the back of an angel presents itself from the
church adjacent. The iron braces that secure its wings remind us that the angels
here are pinned
or they would fall. Yet even so they seem to fly. In Sant’Andrea al Quirinale,
they curl like gilded smoke to the cupola that lets in heaven’s light; in a
of San Sabina, the Madonna is borne from this heavy earth by a confectionary
of angels in pastel. How easily the blown banners change to wings, how easily
candle flames beat upon the air and lift the burden of their prayers. L’aria,
the melodic wind; the brilliant-plumaged clouds above the domes at sunset —
how easily even travertine takes flight, even the bone-scented plaster of
Borromini’s Sant’Ivo carries the eyes upward, to the windows where its fontanel
will never close.
About our feet, sparrows peck at crumbs; swifts maneuver overhead and gather
insects for their daily bread; pigeons drag greasy salviette out of gutters. These
are Rome’s messaggeri, who bear the news of all of which we’re careless, all
we disdain to notice, all we discard, and by which we shall at last be judged.
They are smithied by a lame god.