Inspired by the delightfully irreverent description of a painting in Sheila Hancock’s book “Just me” I “googled” the painting. It is called “St Mark preaching in Alexandria” and was painted by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini. Hancock describes the painting thus:
“… is an extraordinary hotchpotch. It seems to be set in St Mark’s Square, with a version of the Basilica sitting amongst various mosques and obelisks and towers, as well as the odd camel and giraffe. St Mark is standing on a rostrum that looks like a portable canal bridge. And he is, for some reason, wearing a pink frock and a blue stole borrowed from the Virgin Mary. There are some ladies with flowerpots on their heads, completely covered with white sheets, and some men in huge turbans made from the same material. Standing in rows are the mystified members of the scuola that commissioned the picture, one of whom is turning his head to whisper to the man next to him, ‘who are all these weirdos?’”
Some years ago, on a long car journey, I came up with a writing prompt for myself:
If you were a character in a painting, which painting would it be, who would you be and why? You could extend this perhaps by writing something of a back story for your chosen character.
I made a note of my prompt and put it away for future use. It is only now that I have decided to do something with it.
Alexandria, March 15, 1507
For the last few days Alexandria has been a hive of activity. Easter has come and gone, hardly noticed by anyone except the small Christian community living here, to which I belong. However, today is the big day everyone else has been waiting for: St Mark is due to preach in the main square. Notices informing us of this unexpected event were posted throughout the city a few days ago and the possible subject of his sermon has been the main topic of conversation. I don’t know anyone who has heard him speak personally but by all accounts he is a charismatic speaker.
He was due to speak mid morning so I made my way to the square with plenty of time to spare to ensure that I got a good vantage point from which I would be able to see and hear him. I took the precaution of taking something to sit on as I feared I might be there for quite a long time. These traveling preachers are not known for their brevity! Sure enough the square was packed and, in the end, it was standing room only. Everyone had put on their best clothes. I didn’t have any choice in the matter for the members of our community all wear the same flowing white robes. The tall hats we wear under our veils keep the worst of the heat off our heads and the veils of course protect our faces from the gazes of the curious. It has to be said that we can’t actually see very much through the veils, really just enough to see where we are going. Most of us chose to sit as it would be uncomfortable standing later on when the day warmed up. The city dignitaries were all out in force wearing their huge turbans. I often wonder why the turbans need to be so big. I imagine the skull caps worn by the clerics would be much more comfortable. And their ceremonial robes, consisting of several layers of fabric, with the outermost layer being heavily brocaded, must make them unbearably hot. Fortunately the sun didn’t come out until much later in the day, for which I was profoundly grateful.
Everyone was chattering away until St Mark appeared on the rostrum. He was introduced to the crowd which gradually hushed itself into a rapt audience and he began to speak. I have to admit I couldn’t follow most of what he said as he had a strong accent and very soon my attention began to wander. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of a strange animal. Camels are a common sight in Alexandria but I could see a man leading an animal on a piece of rope. It was very tall and had a very long neck. I later discovered that it is called a giraffe and had been captured in a far away part of our land. Other people must have traveled quite long distances to come here too as they had brought their horses into the square. Positioned at many windows and on every balcony were more people watching the spectacle.
Eventually St Mark finished his sermon and the crowd dispersed. I got up with difficulty after sitting on the ground for so long. I picked up my cushion and made my way back to the coolness of our sisterhood’s dwelling, down one of the side streets leading off the square. Tomorrow we will return to our ordered routines but today was something special and I’m sure I’ll never forget the sight of that giraffe.
Who am I? the woman seated at the far right of the group with my hands clasped round my knees.
I had been wanting to write from this prompt for some time but have not been able to find on the internet the painting I had in mind. In my mind’s eye I can see the painting in the Hospitaal museum in Bruges which we visited some years ago. It was on one single panel and depicted the story of Patient Griselda. Patient Griselda has become synonymous with the long-suffering heroine of medieval story, whose husband subjects her to numerous trials in order to test her obedience/devotion I was struck by the fact that this painting told a complete story starting at the left side of the painting and working across to the right. I could remember that the two main characters were called Nicholas and Griselda. After “googling” for hours I found the story of patient Griselda but not the painting I had in mind. A painting, or rather three separate paintings, dated circa 1494, depicting the story, is to be found in Britain’s National Gallery.
you can zoom in on the paintings to see them in greater detail. For the purpose of this writing prompt I would have chosen to be one of the family retainers in the third panel. Perhaps I will get round to writing this up one day …..