On my trip to the United States in November, the friend I was staying with in San Diego arranged for us to visit the Museum of Art there. One work stuck in my mind. It was a portrait of a woman, identity unknown, by an unidentified Italian artist from the 1500s (perhaps Bronzino). The woman, maybe in her late teens, had an elegant but strong face and was dressed in her finery. What struck me, though, were her hands. They were rough, with large chunky fingers, a contrast to her refined appearance and out of step with the usual style. To me, they seemed to be the hands of a peasant, someone used to hard manual labour. Why this contrast?
The notes in the museum conjectured that the painting was unfinished and this would explain the depiction of the hands, but I began to wonder if there could be some other reason?
My first thought was that the lady – let’s call her Maria – was the apple of her father’s eye and that he had commissioned the painting so that he could have an image of her always, hanging in the hallway of his mansion. But then, I imagined, things changed. Maria fell out of favour. Perhaps her father had arranged a marriage, but she had other ideas and eloped with a person well below her station. Her father was devastated. He was used to being obeyed, as he was a person of considerable status. He found himself caught between self-image and love. So he ordered the artist to complete the hands as those of a peasant and the painting to be hung in the hallway to the scullery.
I mentioned my musings to Nancy, the friend I was visiting. She quickly came up with another scenario. The artist was taking too long to complete the painting (she imagined) and the young woman, Maria, became impatient. She was spoilt and used to having her own way, flitting from excitement to excitement. All she wanted was a quick portrait of her beauty. After berating the artist for his tedious attention to detail, she ordered a kitchen-hand to take her place at the sitting and the artist to use that woman as a model. The artist obeyed, but he was annoyed by the triviality and arrogance of the nobility – and this lady in particular – so he took her request literally. In protest, he painted the hands of the scullery peasant, rather than the stereotyped hands of a lady. Of course, he received no more commissions in that city and had to move to Florence to earn a living.
My host and I laughed at these games of interpretation. We would never know the reason that lay behind the hands. Maybe the art historians were right?
However, the painting hung in my mind. Then another thought occurred to me. What if the painting was not so much a portrait, but a story for the eyes? Perhaps the mismatch between face and hands was not something based on emotions or conflict, but an allegory intended to inspire the viewer.
We are drawing close to Christmas and as part of that story we will be hearing about Mary, a young peasant girl who obediently served God despite the difficult circumstances. We are accustomed to seeing portraits of Mary as a woman filled with beauty. Where is the peasant girl in these paintings? Yet the painting I saw in San Diego combines the divine beauty in face and clothes with the earthy reality of the hands of a peasant. Instead of looking first at the face and clothing and then explaining the hands, perhaps we should move from the hands and then explain the angelic face.
So I wonder if the portrait might be an image of what we are called to be as Christians, engaging with the world with hands accustomed to hard work, presenting a face that reflects the love of God and our belief in the goodness and value of creation at the same time as our hands do these things. And this should be not only a portrait of us as individuals, but as a congregation, a church, the community of Scots Church, seen in the city around us as a gem of architectural beauty and also a place marked by hard work in practical ways for the care of others. Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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