1127: Two Paintings Seen Again by Rachel Hadas

20240528 Slowdown

1127: Two Paintings Seen Again by Rachel Hadas


I’m Major Jackson, and this is The Slowdown.

A decade ago, in the Vatican Museums in Rome, I stood among paintings I had only viewed in books and movies. That same trip I also toured the Borghese Gallery and the Pantheon, which is to say, my sightseeing was scripted from the moment I landed in Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. Literally, hundreds of millions of feet walk the same cobbled streets every week. As many eyes set upon the same works of art. Still, I was astounded to find myself taking in Raphael’s School of Athens painting.

The mythology surrounding the art superseded my real life experience. I recall a person staring up at the Sistine Chapel in tears. I shared their awe in what felt like a pilgrimage to see God’s finger almost touching Adam’s finger. I enjoyed my tour, but I also remember being pushed along by throngs of tourists behind me. I remember the exhaustion that set in at the end of my touristy day, yet, too, my feelings of gratitude at seeing art held as the pinnacle of humankind’s imagination.

I did not spend as much time as I’d like relishing Michelangelo’s David nor the stilled motion of Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. That trip felt like mere ticking off of celebrated works of art in what seemed like only thirty seconds rather than an immersive engagement.

This summer, I will return to those museums. I am anxious to see how time has seasoned my ability to experience artwork viewed over ten years ago. Will the moral and spiritual complexities of the artists’ visions embed deeper in me?

Today’s ekphrastic poem makes a compelling assertion that to fully register the power of art, we must take our time to take it in.

Saint George and the Dragon
Please note that this image is another representation of Saint George and the Dragon than that which is described in the poem. Willem Vrelant, Saint George and the Dragon. Early 1460s. Tempera colors, gold leaf, and ink. 10 1/16 × 6 13/16 in. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. 83.ML.104.47.

Two Paintings Seen Again
by Rachel Hadas

I. Saint George and the Dragon
It needs a second visit
and taking off my glasses
to wipe them and approaching

again (sighs, shoulders, toes)
to really see the dragon on its back,
four paws, soles up, in air,

all its green scales sparkling like gems,
its duller anus clearly visible.
Despite the lance thrust halfway down its throat,

the dragon shows no sign of pain;
only the violent twisting of its body
signals distress. To note

the precise expression of the saint
standing musing over his green prey
will need another look.

The Lamentation
Petrus Christus, The Lamentation. ca. 1450. Oil on wood. 10 1/8 x 14 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1890. 91.26.12.
II. Petrus Christus ‘Pieta’
It takes a second visit
to really see the woman on the left
from beneath the folds of whose starched white kerchief

strands of hair meander to her shoulders,
gleaming red and gold, but secondary
to the tiny focused face,

soft yet severe, which is bent to the urgent need
of the moment: hold up that cloth
which, sagging like a hammock,

supports the drooping body.
It’s hard to pierce the fog
of numbness and indifference and distraction.

Even to see what we think we came to look at,
we need an impulse and an appetite,
as well as blinders, energy, and patience. 

Persistence, too, and courage.
We pass through this way once,
so why not try to look at everything

if only on the run? We pass this way 
once, so choose one thing and look and then 
look back. Risk desiring to return.

"Two Paintings Seen Again" by Rachel Hadas. Used by permission of the poet.