It’s late in the afternoon, and it’s summer. I’m sitting in a quiet corner of my apartment, by a window looking out onto the rough gray plaster of a light well that’s so narrow I could reach out and touch the other wall if I tried. It’s not the best view my little home affords—the front looks out onto the treetops of the street below—but it’s quiet, secret, statically placid. You look down, and you can’t see the bottom, just the reflected, curtained glow of the apartment across the way. At night, the windows glow like paper lanterns.
All the times I’ve sat there reading, it’s become a little ear of Dionysius, a storehouse of found emotions and other people’s memories. The original Orecchio di Dionisio was a strange bent cavern carved from Sicilian stone, a legendary prison for the tyrant of Syracuse’s enemies. It was so constructed that a guard above could hear even the slightest whisper of those stranded in its dark depths.
My New Yorker’s ear, however, traps far more lazily cheerful sounds and smells, and makes them my own. Saffron rising from the apartment below, a horn running up and down the scales, and the almost inaudible cadence of rap. You can barely hear anything at all, but they’re all there, leftover scraps of other people’s lives quietly commingling in this forgotten shaft.
I just moved into this place, my first real apartment for my first real job. At the moment, I only possess five books—a strange sort of poverty. I’m waiting for the rest of them to get shipped up here, once I finally figure out where to put the bookcase. Four of the five I bought only two days ago, a ten-dollar, four-volume pocket-size set of the complete works of the painter Sandro Botticelli. I found them in a used bookstore in Cooperstown, wedged in at the end of a low passage amid faux nineteenth-century signage, baseball memorabilia, and Federalist bricks. And now I am contemplating, in the slow pale light of afternoon, all of Botticelli’s women—Madonnas and saints, goddesses, aristocrats, and other men’s mistresses.
I always assumed there was just one Botticelli woman who existed in a thousand slight shades of variation. A closer look shows that the artist ran the whole gamut of human types in his portraits, his women particularly marked with an individual liveliness and distinct beauty that some of his over-idealizing contemporaries might have missed out on. Yet, among them is only one queen. For him, Venus, the Madonna, Flora, Pallas, the Graces, all share the same face. The Botticelli Madonna is as luminous an archetype in the history of art as the sulky, creepily identical girlfriends of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the self-declared pre-Raphaelite, are dusky stereotypes.
As I run through the pages I see the gradual lead-up to his invention—or discovery—of this ivory-and-gold creature, from the earliest Virgins to the apotheosis of feminine vigor that are Primavera and The Birth of Venus. Primavera may be a pagan painting with its delicate dance of intertwined Graces and its curiously matronly Aphrodite, but it is a pagan painting that could only have been painted by a Christian man formed by the awe that the Church reserves for the female.
In some rare slants of light or grace, you can see inner beauty beneath the surface of outer beauty. Here, it glows on the milky skin of the Virgin like the flush of a young mother. I turn the page and come to a black-and-white copy of the man’s serene Madonna of the Pomegranate, with her disarming, distant gaze. It’s at once blank and pregnant with thought, and seems to gently look straight through you without the slightest hauteur. We see a being of inherent dignity so natural you don’t even notice it at first. Her beauty is angelic—in both the correct and the incorrect sense of the word. She is so fair-skinned that the word blonde fails to do her justice. If you stare at her long enough she threatens to crush you with her very weightlessness. And yet for all that, she’s unmistakably human and female.
Mary, Our Lady, is Mom first and foremost. Yet she is the Bride of the Song of Songs, the Sister and the Spouse at once. John Paul II expounded on this strange and seemingly incestuous turn of phrase at one point in his pontificate, and if you boil down his point into street lingo, his point is, you shouldn’t be having those sorts of thoughts about your sister, and you shouldn’t be thinking that way about your bride, either. Lest you forget the higher, holy purpose of the sacrament, and the unity, beauty and mystery of that which the mystic pontiff termed the “consciousness of the gratification” of marital union.
I think of Mary the Sister and the Bride when I see Botticelli’s paintings. When men and women meet on an equal plane, there may be an undercurrent of self-interest and searching; even chaste admiration may unconsciously contain a desire for something more. Sometimes a disordered desire—but just as often it may be an ordered desire, in spite of self-interest. In the end, that may not be so bad, otherwise, there’d be very little art or music, and nobody would ever get married.
Marriage is about the discovery and revelation of the other, and the reciprocity of that exchange of knowledge. Lust defaces this desire—and we go from mutuality to domination, from a desire to share to a need to possess. Even when it’s not quite about sex, there’s the alarming and disturbing thirst psychologically to overwhelm the other with the sheer weight of your personality. The two become one: The dangerous choice we face is whether the one will truly be both of you.
Mary is the exemplar of motherhood, and also the exemplar of the married woman—who doesn’t want to marry a girl just like Mom? (Shut up, Sigmund.) Yet in Botticelli, another image emerges—the unattainable, untouchable woman. Just one glimpse of her robs you of your equality—and leaves you a better and freer man for it. Mary is the ultimate woman to be already taken. Though it’s more than that—it’s not just that the Holy Ghost got there first, it’s that there’s a whole whopping spiritual barrier in your way. The Blessed Virgin was forever guarded by the golden bar of her chastity here on earth, and now she is the Queen of Heaven, the highest creature God ever fashioned from human clay.
Let’s just say, you’re really out of your league here.
Yet in that distant, chill purity, there is the dazzling warmth of pure white light—unarticulated, inexpressible, glorious. And to see Beauty beyond that golden barrier is to see femininity without tainting your glance with the threat of sin—whether it be lust or possessiveness or some strange brew of the two. She is so far above you as to be able to explode lust with a single glance. Perhaps it is our awe in the presence of the life-long luminous chastity of the Virgin that leads us to call her terrible as an army with banners.
You could conceivably think of it as a Beatrice moment, Dante intersecting with the path of his muse when he was nine and she was eight and dressed in crimson. And then falling forever in love with his idea of her. I admit the whole thing strikes my inner Philistine as a little screwy, like the world’s worst high school crush, but it also gave us The Divine Comedy. And in my own skeptical way, I can understand what was going through old Alighieri’s mind. I had a miniature Beatrice moment once, though it didn’t inspire a three-volume masterpiece or decades of unsent Renaissance mash notes lovingly turned into La Vita Nuova. It slipped out of my consciousness pretty quickly, actually. But it’s still down there, somewhere.
When I was a little sophomore, the cantor at the Sunday Mass I served was a stylish, reed-thin young woman with pointy-toed pumps peeping out from beneath her bright, Marian-blue robe. I say she was a young woman, not a girl, and the difference is unbridgeable when you are nineteen and alone. She had dark eyes and darker hair and a broad white brow. She was a music grad student with a pleasantly firm, unfrilly talking voice that seemed a world apart from the flight of fancy that was her music. I was always a little intimidated by her, for the best reasons. The first day I saw her briskly click in, in the bright white morning light of the sacristy, I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t a crush, more a split-second moment of awe in the presence of this talent and this purity, someone somehow indefinably higher, the beauty that reminds you of the Creator, and—due to that distance of age, marriage, and dignity—puts you in mind of that and nothing else.
I didn’t think too much about her outside of our brief coincidences in the sacristy. She was an inhabitant of the world of Sunday Mass to me, in at fifteen till eleven, and then gone afterwards, like a recurring character in a sitcom. But in those fifteen minutes while we prepped for Mass in our hideous polyester albs I was always amazed, and happy for her existence, in a chaste, abstract, slightly dumbstruck way. She got married and had kids and remained young. I think she’s still around campus sometimes. I remember vaguely her slight frame and her womb, round and small as a basketball under her surplice. Eventually, she gave birth, and drifted out of my range of memory again, and I grew older.
I had a brief word with her in the sacristy my last year there, around Easter. It was funny to think of me uneventfully exchanging minor pleasantries with this young matron who had so stunned me so long ago with her talent and her face. It was all so normal, a commonplace, shortlived chat between two barely-remembered equals. Now, grown up, it seems impossible sometimes to rediscover that fresh sense of awe and abstract wonder in the presence of distant human beauty. Impossible until now, with Botticelli and his Madonnas, sitting here in my little ear of Dionysius and feeling the memories of a city that’s equally new to me gather in my light-shaft as if it were a funnel.
Matthew Alderman is an assistant editor of Dappled Things. He lives in Manhattan, where he works in the field of architecture. As a liturgical artist, he has undertaken commissions from the Knights of Columbus, the Church Music Association of America, and Most Holy Mother of God Catholic Church in Vladivostok, Russia. His articles have appeared in Touchstone and The St. Austin Review, and he is scheduled to speak at this year’s Society for Catholic Liturgy national conference at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio.