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The Last Madonna

by Ron Van Sweringen

Antonio dropped his brush into a turpentine jar and heaved a sigh of relief, finished at last. He had beaten the devil. The angels watched over him at times as he painted late into the night, though why they should care about him presented a mystery he would never understand.

Perhaps the Madonna was the reason. They were worshiping her. How foolish of him to assume they came on his behalf. A poor painter of average merit, earning a meager living from sign painting. True enough, he possessed a steady hand and always did neat work. But this was another matter: he had created a masterpiece.

The Madonna’s smile warmed his heart, the way Maria’s had when, as a young man, he first laid eyes on her almost fifty years before, not yesterday as it seemed to him. A morning in spring, the air warm and rich with the smell of blossoms from the orchard; he was mending a fence rail when the carriage appeared. A fine carriage coated in shiny black paint with a gold crest on the door. Who would not stop his labors to admire such a thing?

Suddenly he caught sight of her as the velvet curtains at the window parted. Then a miracle occurred: she looked straight at him, for a moment smiling to him. In that second, without words or touch, their souls bonded. He would always love her.

Maria De Consento, the daughter of Count De Consento, was on her way to the Convent of the Angels. Antonio watched the carriage descend the winding road until an attendant opened the iron gates to the Convent grounds.

Over the years he glimpsed her on occasion. The same beautiful face, only now surrounded by a nun’s habit. The sight of her made his heart equally happy and sad. Happy to gaze upon her for a moment, yet sad knowing that his low station in life would never permit more under any circumstances. He was consoled by the knowledge that no other man, no matter how well-bred, could ever do more in this lifetime.

Antonio began drawing Maria’s face the day she first appeared. They were only rough sketches of that fleeting moment, but as time went on — weeks, months and years — they became finished to the finest detail. When Antonio began painting Maria as the Madonna, he was unsure. Surely she had always been the Madonna in his mind and now he made her so on canvas.

The ritual remained always the same. Antonio worked through the days, earning his meager living, but his nights were spent with Maria. He carefully and lovingly created her image as the Madonna; but no matter how well the work went, it was never perfect and in the end each picture met the same fate in the flames of his hearth.

Now Antonio’s health was failing and a cough racked his frail body. Still he worked constantly. He knew in his heart this would be the last Madonna, and she must be perfect. There would be no more chances for him.

The wind was sharp and snow had begun falling when Antonio placed the carefully wrapped painting on a bed of straw in the ox cart. Dominick Annello, the blacksmith, had offered to transport Antonio and his treasure to the Convent of the Angels. Antonio shivered, passing through the snow-covered countryside, yet strangely enough in his mind he was surrounded by that spring day among the blossoming fruit trees. And for one brief last moment he again glimpsed perfection.

Copyright © 2011 by Ron Van Sweringen

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