A painting that used to hang in the halls of Knox College at the University of Toronto was the inspiration for the painting described in this excised excerpt from Sabra the Astonishing. It depicted the scene wherein an Angel of the Lord tells the women who have come to Christ’s tomb to wash His body for burial, ” He is not here. He is risen,” and points in the direction of the canvas’s upper right hand corner where two pierced feet preposterously dangle. I always wanted to add a coda to that statement, like, “See, you just missed Him,” or, “He went that-a way.”
I observed in an earlier blog post, You Can’t Go Home Again, that one of the reasons I had trouble abandoning this novel is that it is the only work of mine to take place in the Piedmont country of North Carolina, my birthplace and childhood home. Walking away from it is like closing a door. It is a death. But I have also come to realize that Sabra the Astonishing stands as my ode to Catholicism, with which (as I laid out in Why I Became a Catholic), I have a complicated relationship.
Up the front stairs, down the hall, was Lorenzo Da Silvio’s studio, a long rectangular room illuminated by two skylights. It was all but empty. A cabinet in which tubes of oil paint, brushes, glass jars, and other implements of his trade were stored, an easel on which a large canvas was set, a small refrigerator in which crusts of cheese mouldered, and an overstuffed armchair — in these items did the room’s furnishings consist. Now Da Silvio perched on the chair’s arm and contemplated the work in progress.
Its composition was this: Christ’s tomb — rather in the style of a Persian miniature. The lavender stone that had sealed the tomb’s mouth had been rolled aside. On top of it sat one of the dark angels who had become Da Silvio’s trademark in recent years, feet crossed, hands clasped and swinging between monstrous knees, silver eyes glittering. Its lips were slightly parted, as if he had just uttered the words etched in gilt along the bottom of the canvas after the fashion of medieval artists: “He is not here. He has risen.” Facing the tomb were Mary, the mother of James, and Salome, veiled and heavily draped and plainly shocked at finding the tomb empty. The third figure, the Magdalene, had turned away from the tomb and was stepping forward, the folds of a scarlet cloak caught up in her hand; the expression on her face, one of anguish and desire, as if in the next moment she might throw herself to her knees and cry out, “The body! The body I must have at least!”
None of this Da Silvio minded. In fact it was all very good in its way. It was the feet he objected to. He glanced at the top of the monumental canvas, a little to the left. There hung two nimbused feet — prehensile toes, the skin punctured and fish-belly blue, the wild concatenation of tiny bones — painted and repainted until the pentimento of his past efforts shimmered about his present effort in such a way as to suggest that Christ’s feet were not merely hanging there in mid-air, but were actually vibrating. “Che schiffo!” he muttered. But there was nothing to be done about it. There they hung, like two dead trouts a-quiver.