A few years ago, a mysterious painting surfaced from an estate holding. It ended up for a time at our house, because its purchaser got wind that my husband restores oil paintings. The one catch — as is too often the case — was its sketchy provenance: No signature, no obvious artistic style. But it was old — older than most of the items that normally cross our path. And not American — probably Italian. How did it end up here?
It had probably not seen the light of day in decades. A hardened glob of gesso indicated a clumsy attempt at one time to repair some damage. Why did someone have to do that, we wondered? Removing the gesso left only a white scar against a blackened something-or-other — the details of which we could not make out.
Something about its subject seemed familiar, though. I could make out a man — a monk in straits, to be specific, struggling against some fiend of the night. What had cornered him in the dark against this scrubby hillside? Why had he gone there alone? But for the dirty varnish layer, I might have made out his cries, his petition, the reason for his despair.
For some days we kept a lookout for any clues that should emerge through the process of cleaning and inpainting. One never knows until the varnish comes off what colors the artist really used. Would the painting’s “night” become “day”? Would the landscape and vegetation become clear?
Even before inpainting brought the picture into focus, we strongly suspected the spiritual influence of St. John of the Cross upon this piece. However, one art specialist, assigning authorship of the painting to a general “circle of Mola,” said the monk in the piece was probably St. Bruno. But even he admitted that the high degree of realism and the Counterreformation mood of the piece was hard to reconcile with the other paintings of St. Bruno. Other obstacles stood in the way of a definitive answer, too.
A Comparison of Paintings
One well-known painting may serve to illustrate the difficulty we found in reconciling our subject. Mola’s Vision of St. Bruno (owned by the Getty Museum) is typical of a number of works that commemorate the legend of St. Bruno’s vision. Some versions say it was a dream, not a vision, and that he saw three men under a chaplet of seven stars, not angels. Whatever the case, St. Bruno apparently installed three men in various positions of clergy on account of the vision or dream. He himself felt called to a life of solitary prayer and left the spheres of religious hierarchy in about 1580.
Comparing the Mola with that of the unknown artist I find myself in a quandary. I am no art historian, but at the same time, something seems all wrong with Mola’s picture. Admittedly, it falls right in line with conventional paintings of St. Bruno’s vision. When one accounts for the elements they are all there: the wilderness background, the two trees resembling a cross, the baby-faced cherubs in the sky. The Mola may fetch more on the open market, but I prize the unknown painter’s piece as superior.
Why? Because the Mola’s vapid confection makes me a little sick. It has not the dignified majesty or powerful delivery of heavenly angels (if that is what St. Bruno actually saw) or the seriousness deserved by an agonizing petition. It looks like St. Bruno is having a rollicking good time with some playmates in the sky, and that just — cheapens the whole thing for me. I can only guess that the piece was intended for interior decoration, not devotion.
At first I blamed Mola for being more overblown than he deserves. But what if Mola was only following the dictates of whoever commissioned his piece? He might have made a hundred modelos, all exquisite, for all we know. What if they were all rejected in favor of this vacant pastiche because it appealed to some patron’s shallow religious sentiment? In short, the content of the Mola is common, conventional in the worst sense.
Another Look at the Hermit
Let us look once more at the unknown artist’s piece. An anguished night of prayer is evident in the monk’s perspiring face. The startled expression of his eyes, the gestures of his hands and arms, a sudden intrusion of piercing light in the sky all tell us that here is the turning point of a great war in heaven. The very clouds are parting and darkness itself is beaten back.
This returns us to the conundrum of the monk’s identity: It is the story of St. John of the Cross, not St. Bruno. St. John was a Carmelite monk whose epic poem, “The Dark Night of the Soul,” circulated through Europe around the time this painting must have been created. But the robes of our monk appear Carthusian (St. Bruno’s order), not Carmelite. It is not inconceivable perhaps that another order than St. John’s might have been influenced by his poem. I simply cannot believe this is St. Bruno.
So again we speculate, as with the Mola: Why was the piece created? Was it a rejected modelo for a commissioned piece? Was it for public or private worship, an individual or a group? If we knew the answers to those questions it might explain everything.