You don’t even notice she’s there if you aren’t looking. Walking through the gallery, I only slowed because I recognized the painted spires as Westminster. Then I stopped, out of duty to my love of all things England. I admired the height of the spires, the detail in the saints. I remembered how crowded it felt there - surrounded by the living and the dead. Rubbing shoulders with the literal and the spiritual. Accidentally rubbing lips to the stamen of a lily I'd bent over to smell, the powder of which stuck to my lipgloss and turned my lips an alarming shade of golden yellow for an undefined period of time that still makes me cringe to think about. (How many people saw?!)
|"In the Choir of Westminster Abbey" by Max Emanuel Ainmiller,|
Neue Pinakothek, Munich
In the middle of my memory bursts this image of the woman. There in the bottom corner of the painting, alone, sits a veiled woman dressed in black. Her face is uncovered but she is so small that her face is indistinguishable as she sits near one tomb and stares at what the plaque seems to indicate as the tomb of Edward III. She is not close to him. Her grief is polite and distant, but more clearly directed toward the fallen king than to the occupant of the tomb she is closest too. The light in the painting is all around her but shadowed nearest her - illuminating the feet of the tomb and most prominently the stone carvings of the saints to her right, but not her. It’s as though Ainmiller intended to hide her from the common viewer of the painting - out of respect, perhaps. To allow her the privacy to mourn. Or maybe he is proving a point - how easily forgotten and pushed aside are those who truly and quietly feel.
At first I envy her the luxury of mourning alone. The thought of walking through and being in Westminster alone must, even then, have been a supreme privilege. What must it have sounded like? Did she hold back tears for the simple dread of having them echo back to her at horrendously magnified volumes? Did she sit in as much silence as possible, avoiding even the rustle of a dress? Or was the sound of resonating sobs comforting - as though highlighting the strength of grief that had to be politely restrained elsewhere somehow justified and relieved the pain?
Or perhaps, as I once did in finding myself alone in Milton Abbey, she sang. I was on Study Abroad in England - a unique trip where we hiked from one place to another. One day - a particularly long day - ended at a small Abbey. The Abbey is on the property of a school, now - a boarding/day school that is in the middle of nowhere. Our group toured the Abbey alone. John, our director, told us to take as long as we wanted in the Abbey. I pulled out my journal and wrote, and wrote - I realized that people were leaving but didn’t feel so inclined yet. I wanted to be the last one there. So I stayed. And then, long after I knew I should have left and joined the others, found myself blessedly and spookily alone in the chapel. Not a worker, tour guide or student in sight - just me. I waited in absolute silence for a bit, then, knowing I may not ever get the chance again - sang. I picked two songs - “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Lead Kindly Light” - hymns seemed appropriate for such a setting. It felt wonderful and sinful all at once, hearing my voice echo hesitantly through the chapel. I wanted to hear what it sounded like and was scared to all at once - what if someone heard in an office connected somewhere and came looking to see who had intruded? I knew I should have joined the others - knew that there was a possibility of causing stress from my selfishness, but for a moment it was me and the gods.
I don’t think she sang, though. She is clearly grieving. Perhaps not even finding herself worthy to approach the tomb of what I’m guessing is her son. Instead she sits surrounded, stared at by stone and wood and glass representations of saints who, unlike her human counterparts, are not capable of turning away and allowing her some privacy. It’s eerie. It’s both sacred and scary, this painting, this moment in time. This glimpse into the life of someone clearly prominent in their day if allowed to gain such personal and private access to Westminster - and yet still painted as so very, very small. So insignificant and significant all at once. Perhaps this is a bit of what Moses felt when he realized that man is both everything because he is God’s and nothing because of essentially the same reason. Privileged in solitude, minuscule in it. Swallowed in stone and saints - magnified with the invisible, unpainted breath of the living.