According to Luke
By Rosanne Dingli
That afternoon, in the stillness of an empty lab, with everyone else out to lunch, she had prepared for this: all the cleaning fluids were there, her tools were ready. This was the part she loved. She had pushed the panel under an illuminated magnifying glass and discovered a clear line of fixative. Taking a minute sample, she put it under the microscope: organic. Glue from the bones of old horses – the join was antique. Or, whoever had stuck the panels together knew what they were about, and used antique components. She had seen it before: fakes put together using an amalgamation of old stuff. What would this one prove to be?
She gazed at the face of the Madonna on the front panel. Beautiful – and the collar around her neck gorgeous: a St Luke Madonna, which Anita said was painted by the evangelist himself. What was underneath it? Surely, if it was meant to deceive ancient persecutors of Christians, the Madonna would be the image to hide. This was her life’s fascination: mysteries from the past that baffled the modern mind.
It took her a full ninety minutes to detach the two sections. She inserted the last nylon wedge, one more lever: then the scalpel. They were two identical dilapidated pieces of poplar, and they separated reluctantly. What emerged took her breath away. There were glue remnants. There were eight holes that corresponded to the dowels still attached to the top panel. There were rough scrapings and areas that needed to be cleaned. But there was no doubt about it. The image she revealed was a hundred times more interesting than the ‘black’ Madonna on top.
Jana took a shallow breath and stared at the primitive picture. Sensational: a portrait, but so different from the one that had been stuck on top of it for centuries. An oval face, by no means beautiful, looked downward with dark asymmetrical eyes: a middle-eastern woman with a slight shadow on her upper lip, and a small gold earring visible under an opaque veil that draped over the bowed head. No nimbus, no halo. But she could just make out several small symbols in a wide arc all around the head and shoulders. They were visible in the x-rays. She peered at them, and at the shadows of eight dowels of a different wood type, which made impressions of different density.
‘So who are you?’ In an empty lab, talking to an ancient image was not overly eccentric. Not too feminine or overly saintly, the woman had an authoritative look. The lines on the forehead said a lot: an older woman, a wise one. The earring and the hardly visible streaks of grey hair under the veil were ably executed in encaustic paints, with outlines and symbols added afterwards with light brushstrokes.
When the curator from Rome was there, she had no idea there would be such a find. It was awkward then, but the x-rays on the light-box gave her the first inkling. Her suggestion of an extra layer made the priest ask whether it was a fake.
She went into some detail about how some holy artefacts were disguised as ordinary ornaments at certain stages of the Church’s history. ‘Antonio Zanetti, our historian, will have more to tell you about all this.’ She had spoken drily to the unusual curator, while looking at him sideways. ‘Early Christian persecution meant they made icons to fulfil a number of roles. Subterfuge is not necessarily modern.’
He brightened up and nodded in agreement, accepting her expertise without much comment. She was an art conservator, he was a priest; too handsome for a priest. They had sent him instead of some other Church official and he had no idea what to do. Irritated at the whole business, Jana was also at a loss, but she reassured him, although she had no idea why. On any other day, with any other curator, she would have resented having to explain everything. She did not say to him that she rarely had occasion to see such an ancient icon, but did call across the lab in her most businesslike voice to her colleague. ‘Anita, have you had a look at these x-rays?’
Her assistant’s eyes left the monitor for a moment, sensing the support Jana needed. ‘The St Luke Madonna ones we took? Yes, they don’t look right, do they?’
Jana had looked pointedly at the priest, and his expression changed instantly. She liked the way the simple confirmation lit up his face. She continued. ‘Holy images, the older they are, can have quite a chequered history ... but you should have provenance papers and so forth.’
His face fell. ‘I thought they were sent earlier. Monsignor Gardellor said the papers must never travel with the artefact. Is that right?’
‘Depends.’ She tried to temper her tone. It was clear he was out of his depth, and something else was making him awkward, slowing down the whole process. ‘If the piece is very valuable, then yes, they travel separately. It’s basic.’
He sensed her impatience. ‘Look, this job was a kind of surprise. I was sent on this commission instead of ... instead of somewhere else.’
Jana hoped he would not embark on a long explanation she had no desire for. She was impatient for him to leave, to get on with examining the shots. Yet she wanted him to stay. He had an Australian accent not dissimilar to her own, which was curious, and made her wonder what he was doing in Venice, but it was not more interesting than the painting.
Looking at it now, lying on the sterile counter, she could not say it looked fresh: the colours had suffered the passage of the years. There were woodworm holes and mould; there was a serious liquid stain where moisture or some sort of grease had entered between the panels. Tonight, it had taken on even more mystery and posed more questions.
‘Pre-Byzantine.’ Her whisper sounded like a prayer in the silent lab. Her smile was a satisfied smile. This could take as long as it liked. The scientific dating process was a long one, where they had to send scrapings to Germany, and she wished Gilbert had not left to join Johan. He would have been able to estimate a fairly accurate dating, first off.
Jana was certain of the importance of what she had found. The image underneath – the strange female portrait – felt important. She wanted to tell someone. She had Rob Anderson’s mobile number somewhere. She reached for her phone, and paused. Father Rob Anderson’s number. He was a priest. No matter how striking his looks, no matter his accent, he represented the Catholic Church in Rome, and as owners of the icon, they had every right to be first to know what she had uncovered. When he was there earlier, he did not seem to understand how they had made the negatives, so she had gone into a detailed explanation of how they took very long exposures. They also took images with a micro-converter and EBCCD camera that sent pictures to the computer. ‘Don’t ask me what that stands for,’ she added quickly, when she saw his face. ‘Something about bombarding things with electrons, that’s all I know.’ She knew more about it than that, and could not understand her own concern with his discomfort.
She took him to a computer screen and clicked a few times, telling him what the blurred grey image was when it came up. ‘There is a long smudge at the bottom that’s some sort of fixative, some sort of adhesive. We’ve seen that before.’ She suspected there was more underneath the adhesive than she could see on the screen.
Now, she looked at the time on her phone, and checked it against the electronic clock on the lab wall. This was no hour to be calling anyone, priest or no priest, Rome or no Rome. She drummed fingers on the counter. It was too intriguing to put down. The blur at the bottom of the x-ray warranted investigation right away. She compared the negative outline with what had appeared when she detached the two panels.
Whoever had worked on this did it a very long time ago, but it was ably done. She took up the lancet and levered a particle of fixative – about the size of a small postage stamp – until she could see it was detachable in one piece. She put it aside. Every particle was accounted for. She placed the small fragment on the electronic scales and made a note, to be entered on the database later. Excitement did not mean she lost discipline. She was known to be meticulous, and continued to be so, but her lips twitched.
This was going to be as far from a textbook case as it was possible to get. On the counter before her was a disguised panel from pre-Byzantine times. They rarely used the word important to describe such pieces, but this picture merited the word. She had felt the rare stirring of excitement when showing the curator that morning.
He had turned back to the light box and pointed. ‘What’s this?’
‘A double edge, see? Twice the depth and density: it looks like there are two pictures.’ She pointed with her pencil. ‘There’s this outline here, of the image on the panel we can see. Then there’s something else here.’ Jana returned his gaze. ‘No, I don’t think it’s a pentimento.’ She saw his blank look. ‘It’s not an over-painting. Look at this – the depth’s all wrong.’ She slipped another negative under the rim of the light box. Looking at it like that, with a priest looking over her shoulder and running his finger around his dog collar, made her feel odd.
Working on something that had been concealed for such a long time was every conservator’s dream. Now, Jana took a long breath, full of expectation and quiet confidence. Experience told her a number of things: there would be an inscription under the smeared layers of old glue. The name of the person pictured, their initials, or a prayer in some ancient language was sometimes inscribed along the bottom, asking the viewer to pray or make penance. She sighed and thought of all the hopeful eyes that had looked at such icons, and all the unfulfilled prayers. She loved her work, but thought little of the beliefs that travelled with the artefacts.
Scalpel steady, she prised and prodded, removing another particle of glue, this time from the right side. ‘Yes!’ She uncovered letters. ‘Aha!’ With a cotton bud laden with cleaning fluid, she tentatively swabbed a small section, but the glue that someone in the remote past had smeared onto the bottom of the image could not be removed so easily. She persisted, changing swabs and solutions until a few of the symbols were perfectly visible. She pulled up the illuminated magnifying glass, and slid the panel underneath.
Painstakingly, at an hour she was usually well on her way home, she managed to copy it all. Many symbols were missing: disappearing forever into oblivion and the mess of glue she had removed.
Από το A ... ... στο Ν ... ... ... ενώνω Λ ...
και τους συντρόφους της. Πάντα
ήμουν είδους τους
Επιδιώξτε τις λέξεις μου
It was tricky to even try to translate old inscriptions with missing letters. There was ambiguity even in well-known prayers. She had seen bishops animated by the subtle difference two or three consonants could make. But translating was not her job. She was trained by the monks in Sacramento to copy exactly what she saw, and learned it was better not to know a language when one was copying, to avoid making mental leaps, or presumptions that would result in mistakes.
When she saved her notes on a portable drive, her head was full of images and memories: the monks in Sacramento, Greek letters, a mysterious woman painted without a diadem, a confused Australian priest. She rubbed her neck and stretched. The drive was tucked quickly into her tiny bag and she slung it across her chest. All she wanted now was a steamy shower, and to finish the bottle of white wine in her fridge.
All she wanted was home, a tiny flat behind the public gardens a quick walk away, over three bridges and along Riva dei Sette Martiri. It was a fleeting but comforting thought that she did not have to cater to anyone else’s whims but her own. It was good to anticipate the night ahead, to relax, to think, and to do exactly as she pleased. A recently failed relationship taught her a lot about herself: she liked being alone. She did not relish sharing. The permanent scrutiny that came with a full-time relationship had failed to generate what some said would feel like belonging. Her mother was wrong: she was not lonely.
Out in the damp Venice air, she hurried past the Arsenale entry, where the rattle of the falling scalpel was in her head again, joining the clatter of her flat heels on the wooden bridge at Torri, louder than her jangling keys, and louder than the second sound of footsteps that turned when she turned.