On pootling, pewter-skied sort of Saturday afternoons, I often find myself washing up in the National Gallery, a slip of London driftwood needing the brine sluiced from behind my eyes and the barnacles shook from my brain.
I stick to the early galleries, and spend a couple of no-man’s-hours communing with the hollow-cheeked saints kneeling in isosceles-steep caves, the slant-eyed angels elbowing their brethren in gilded triptychs, and mothers. Perfect mothers, everywhere.
They bow heavy-necked, that army of dams, those whey-faced virgins; stranded in dun-coloured landscapes, moored to cloth-trailing booths, cradling small-headed, gesturing baby-men with downcast, hooded eyes and tiny, shadowed mouths.
The porelessly porcelain moon-faces shine, coolly repetitive, amidst the pick’n'mix symbols of their most cruel and ancient trade. Superlative, virginal motherhood is trademarked with the lily, the walled garden, the crown of dozen stars; and always, flashing through frames and rooms like an umbilical stream, the blue – that radiant, light-licked lapis, deepening in the folds, mocking earthly poverty with a promise of the divine.
For me, the most perfect madonnas have always been the more austere and inscrutable. Barocci’s of the Cat and Raphael’s of the Pinks teeter into Victoriana, with their whiff of the milky-warm, sweetly-smiling, strawberry-centred family gal; far lovelier is Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow.
Here is a pensive, half-bewildered girl, looking down at the child balanced awkwardly on her lap, genuinely wondering how he got there and possibly how a babe who is the messiah can nevertheless be ugly as sin. In her, we see love tinged with fear; foreknowledge of death tempered with reverence for creation; bone weariness kept upright by a gut-tight sense of responsibility. That sparse agrarian landscape within which she is stranded, throneless, kneeling in the dust, is simultaneously genetic and apocalyptic. Her world, and ours, is about to end – and has only just begun.
When I head out to the crush of Charing Cross and duck into Foyle’s, the cards look woefully pale and thin after the glowing oils. I grab one which has a hint of very bright blue. Thinking of her – and her – I bear my meagre offering before me like a shield, out into the crowded, dirty planet she gave me.