“You can take one photo,” says the stubborn guard.
“You mean, a photograph of only one painting?”
Our negotiations have borne fruit; one is better than none. We step into a hall of a thousand sculptures, portraits, and landscapes, some poorly lit, some nestled in inaccessible corners, some hanging so high you can barely read them, and we are to choose one.
Midway this shining display of marble, gold and crystal, our attention is caught by an unusual composition: a painting of the struggle between a woman and devil over an infant. She pulls by the leg; he pulls by the arm. A rocking crib behind implies a back-and-forth movement between the two and suggests this tug of war has been going on for some time. A Madonna hovers overhead, having struck a wound in the devil’s arm. She is the title-bearer of this work: “The Madonna del Soccorso” which translates as “the Lady of Help.”
Ansley and I exchange glances and agree to spend our allowance on this single artwork. She sets up her tripod and looks for the angle of optimum light. The guard advances to ensure we see he sees, and that we are aware this to be our one allotted photo. He looks over our shoulders as we look at the painting. We are forced to concentrate under pressure, to push aside frustration and invite inspiration. My thoughts race from the painting to the guard and back, reminding me of a passage by George Gurdjieff:
“Inner unity is obtained by means of ‘friction,’ by the struggle between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in man. If a man lives without inner struggle, if everything happens in him without opposition, if he goes wherever he is drawn or wherever the wind blows, he will remain such as he is.”
In an effort to concentrate, I ponder why the artist centers his struggle over a baby? A newborn is the fruit of a mother’s greatest labor. But according to this painting, the labor itself doesn’t guarantee possession of the fruit. Once born, the part that never labored at all (here embodied by the devil) fights to steal the reward. Identified with the baby, this theft seems horrible, a horror evident on the mother’s face. But from a higher standpoint, the theft enables Gurdjieff’s aforementioned struggle, an understanding evident on the Madonna’s face.
What registers as horror at eye-level seems indispensable from above.
I hear the shutter of Ansley’s camera click. The guard hears it too. We have made our irreversible decision. “Grazie,” I tell him as we pack our equipment and depart.
Choose a negative emotion. Strive not to express it, not out of a desire to eliminate it, but out of an understanding of its aid in attaining inner unity. Recognizing the value of opposition is half the victory. Can you welcome your negativity? Can you shift your sense of “I” from the horrified mother to the acceptant Madonna?