When my husband and I traveled for the first time to the Soviet Union in 1975, we were taken to the Tretryakov Gallery in Moscow. After the glittering chapels and palaces of the Kremlin, the spaces and paintings seemed intimate and shadowed. No bright Matisses here, but the earthen tones of peasant scenes, as I remember, and the gory glory of battles. What caught my heart was the Virgin of Vladimir, the icon given as a gift from Constantinople after Vladimir converted to Christianity. I had seen numerous icons in the churches, those
windows to prayer which are part of Orthodox worship, but this one was different. In spite of the usual frontal, flat affect of the figure, this one held the melancholy and tenderness of Mary in the tilt of her head and the black of her eyes. And the Child's face pressed high against her cheek seemed to become part of hers, his eyes gazing up at her. Since that journey I have kept a print of the
Vladimir on my kitchen windowsill.
She gazes out
of the colors of nature,
her eyes of coal
and wind, her skin
shadowed by the raw
umber of our dust.
Cheek against cheek,
God and the earth,
His small arm
around the stalk
of her neck, ripe
A child of Mennonites with centuries of adherence by both maternal and paternal lineage, I had been disconnected from visual arts as part of faith and worship. We had clear, glass windows sometimes in Gothic shape, and a large, carved wooden plaque of scripture text arched over the choir, but images, candles, statues, or stained glass were unacceptable. We were part of the iconoclastic reformation.
My mother's maternal ancestors came from Holland and Germany. The Klassens were Mennonite converts from Holland fleeing in the sixteenth century from persecution to northern Germany and Poland. The original movements to the Vistula River area occurred at the invitation of those in power at the time. The need for farmers to bring skills for the draining of swamp lands on both sides of the river brought a number of Dutch Mennonite immigrants who were also given the freedom to practice their objection to military service.
My mother's paternal ancestors carried the name Shultz. Some were farmers and blacksmiths, and some, as indicated by the meaning of the name as title for mayor or town leader, may have practiced such skills as well. When my father married my mother, her brother reminded him that he was marrying aristocracy. Such connotations mattered little in our small rural communities in Saskatchewan and Minnesota. What mattered was hard work and a simple, peaceful way of living. No popes, finery, or confession booths. No candles in church. Then why did I love this icon and want it to be part of my daily life?
The Mennonite communities in which my husband and I had grown up were not closed. Public schools offered music, drama, and visual art, as did our liberal arts college. But not until our first years of marriage in Chicago, where Louis attended medical school, did we immerse ourselves in art. There the Chicago Art Institute offered us their fine collection for our enrichment-
American Gothic coming straight out of the midwestern plains, and the Monet lilies glowing for our wonder and pleasure. In those first years we also were exposed to the history and theology of our Mennonite heritage as we shared apartment living with Mennonite seminary students. Our home churches had moved away from our unique history to become part of the evangelical stream. We were part of an integrated church on the southside of the city, worshiping and learning with those who wrestled with the demands of the Gospel, how to live and follow the teachings of Christ. We were awakened to the possibility that art and faith carry deep rivers of connection, that Christ's call to follow in his way would allow an image or object to enliven our imaginations toward deeper, stronger faith.
As charter members of a church here in Fresno we have encouraged artists in our congregation to create work for our sanctuary and the space around it. In observance of the church year we are enriched by banners, paintings, and sculpture. Perhaps this incorporation of art and worship is one way to reclaim the land as our ancestors had done. After all, the poetry and parables of scripture glow with birds and bread and trees, and the instructions for the decoration of the temple are vivid with colors, textures, gold artifacts, and pomegranates. Mennonite churches are slowly growing in their honor of the arts in worship, yet we are far from the
smells and bells of high liturgy, and the portraits of apostles and saints are few. We are learning to honor our senses, but Mary is mostly absent except at Christmas. She waits.
She was waiting for me in Venice. Touring in that magical, sinking city in the 1990s, we ventured into the Frari Church where several grand Titian paintings are installed. Beyond the nave is a side chapel, and there she was, as altarpiece, my mother holding the Child Jesus. Unlike many Italian madonnas with long, slender faces and blonde hair, this one by Bellini had the sweet round face and brown hair of my mother. She matched the image of my mother in a studio family photograph in which she holds her first daughter in her lap. Here she was in a city threatened by floods, like her ancestry,
alive and glowing.
My Mother in Venice1
She had another life,
not only the vast expanse
of prairie, but this island
adrift and shimmering.
Here she is, in the Frari Church
holding the Child.
Centuries ago Bellini
saw her at the fish market
shivering in the rain,
brought her to the small
fire of his studio
and began brushing her round
face into glow, dressing her in blue silk-my mother
in this city of mirrors
where the centuries swirl
together, where she still holds
the Child, my Brother, where she doesn't hold me.
In the poem I say
She had another life, as she did, that inner center of my mother who held on to the story, the Child, for she couldn't hold us. In that shining and threatened city, she no longer waits. I have arrived to see her dressed in yards of blue silk which she never owned. The Child is a toddler standing on her lap. He is looking off to the side. He will get down and walk away to his own life and death, but she will follow him.
She will never give him up, I conclude at the end of the poem
Marigold. Mary and my mother. Each of us who holds him, and who,
like the serene Madonnas of Giovanni Bellini, with their hints of crucifixion . . . assure me of two things: first that things are worse than I know, and, second, that they're all right.2
For twenty years Mary has looked
at me. Vladimir's icon over
the kitchen sink, there on the windowsill
beside the pot of Chinese jade
and the jar of marigolds. Her cheek
presses against the cheek of the Child;
her eyes are black as coal.
Window behind her, the garden
watching her watch me while
I wash the skillet and the knives,
while I sing along with Madame Butterfly,
the part where she and Suzuki
fill the room with blossoms.
And Mary's eyes smolder,
for she will never give him up.
And she is looking at me.