At the National Cafe, my Yorkshireman lunch companion gently suggested I pay a visit to the National Gallery next door. I shouldn’t have needed the prompting. We should respect the stable points of our past, the fixed compass points of our psyche.
England has always been the country that has most felt like home to me, even more than the U.S. Leonardo da Vinci is small part of the reason why. When I moved to London as a recent university graduate decades ago, the National Gallery was one of the first places I headed for, and Leonardo’s mysterious cartoon became one of the first of my friends. Giorgio Vasari claimed that the work was created while Leonardo was in Florence, as a guest of the Servite Monastery – which would date it to about 1500. Vasari says that for two days people of all ages flocked to to it as if they were attending a festival. Festival? I think not.
As I made my way through the confusing rituals of finding a place to live and a job in a foreign city, I would return to Leonardo again and again, revisiting the dark, quiet alcove where we shared time together. It calmed and centered me, and I drew strength from its gravitas.
We both have been through a lot since the last time I saw it – a vandal attempted to destroy it with a sawn-off shotgun in 1987, and very nearly succeeded, and I’ve survived my own rendezvous with extinction.
Not everyone is a fan. John Berger wrote in the 1970s: “It has acquired a new kind of impressiveness. Not because of what it shows – not because of the meaning of its image. It has become impressive, mysterious because of its market value.” But I knew nothing of its market value when I saw it for the first time, nor did I know the efforts the National Gallery made to acquire it in the 1960s.
The nearby Wilton Diptych with its brilliant blues and golds was another psychic landmark for me – I hadn’t been acquainted with it at all before our face-to-face – but it was more like a fascinating and exquisite jeweled child’s toy than a steadying companion. I don’t tire of it – Richard II reverently kneeling (as yet untouched by Shakespeare’s subsequent portrayal of him) – the pious stillness of the leftside panel, the drive and energy on the right.
There’s an even older friend in the gallery, a stable point that hearkens to my even more distant past. Looking through my father’s many art books as a child, I was always picking “favorites.” I was surprised, years later, to stumble upon my clear front-runner from early childhood years, which has its home in the National Gallery. Little is known about Haarlem painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans, who died in his twenties, and only a handful of his paintings have come down to us. But none of them are a patch on this miracle. “Truly he was a painter in his mother’s womb,” said the more famous Albrecht Dürer.
I was struck, even as a child, by the wonder and awe, the tiny infant who is pure light. It’s important never to lose childhood’s sense of the miraculous, and I hope I never have. I still think this may be the painting I would like to have engraved on my heart.