I

My Catholic friend has written papers, only one of which I have read, about how he came across this picture. He would not exclude the possibility that it was painted by none other than the evangelist Luke. No laboratory analysis of the wood has been performed to date. The nuns are reluctant, he writes, because it’s so brittle. But, even so, art historians have declared the painting definitely ancient, probably first-century. Ageless, the Virgin looked upon me, too.

My friend drove me to the convent, located on an ordinary residential street on Monte Mario, across the Tiber near the Hilton, and asked for the key at a little hatch in the side wall while I waited in the car. Before he led me to the chapel, where the nuns had turned the picture around for us, he peed in the bushes beside the iron gate. Ordinarily the Virgin looks into the oratorium of the nuns, who have ­cloistered themselves away for life, neither receiving visitors nor traveling, nor even leaving the convent to walk to the shops. God suffices.

We saw a few of them through the barred window in which the picture is hung, and we heard all of them praying in the wan light, wimples past their chins, starched white habits, black veils. Five of the thirteen sisters are over eighty. Those sitting in the section of the pew that I could see through the window were no younger. Vast water stains stood out on the bare walls of their baroque church. My friend said the pipes were rotting, the phones didn’t work, and repairs were out of the question until the convent had paid off its debts. The plea for donations is the part of their prayers that has yet to be fulfilled.

After a few minutes the nuns put out the light, after which we could only hear their voices: one verse low, one verse high, a singsong interspersed with pauses, although I couldn’t make out a word. My friend’s book begins with a quotation from the retired pope: what it says is nothing new but always needs to be said anew. “Great things do not get boring with repetition. Only petty things call for variety and need to be changed quickly for something else. What is great grows greater still when we repeat it, and we grow richer, and become calm, and free.” In Rome I was already growing envious of Christianity, envious of a pope who said sentences like that, and, if I hadn’t thought the idea of God’s incarnation in only one person fundamentally wrong and the world of Catholic concepts in particular so pagan, if I hadn’t felt such a revulsion against the order that places all people and all human relations in hierarchies and against the demonstration of power in every Catholic church, not to mention the idolization of suffering to the point of bloodlust, I might possibly have gradually adopted its practices, attended the Latin Mass, and joined, with interspersed pauses, in the singsong, although initially more for aesthetic reasons, perhaps, and out of a fascination with the unparalleled continuity of an institution that forms the people of God into a community. It is the only one to have achieved that for so long. Who knows? Maybe the miracle that produced this most sumptuous of all heavenly houses might one day have manifested itself to me too. As it is, while I continue to consider that this possibility is not reality, I acknowledge – and what’s more, I feel – that Christianity is a possibility.

As if the darkness were not seclusion enough, invisible hands closed the shutters from inside so that we now saw only the icon, not the room behind it. Nothing is extant but Mary’s face in the most astounding colors, the edge of her veil, two gilt hands, which could be pointing a way or signaling aversion, and the cross at the position of her heart – nothing else but her silhouette. And of course the gold background! The icon painters call it “light,” my friend whispers, because the gold surrounds the saints like the light of Heaven. There is no side lighting, no imagined light source; instead, the colors themselves are light, and the lightest of them is the gold. As my friend withdrew to say a rosary, I had some time with the Virgin. But why do I call her Virgin if I don’t believe in her as the Mother of God? One word: touched. God has touched her. That is both grace and torment; it raises up and strikes down; it is both a caress and the blow of a hammer. All is lost and God suffices.

Her big brown eyes look at you as if her much smaller mouth had cried at first, like the mystic Hallaj, “Save me, people; save me from God.” And so she did at first; she cried for help when she found out, I’m certain she did. “Glad tidings!” the kings bellowed, bringing gifts, but I am certain she was anything but glad. She carried it, bore it, as the saints bear it; that’s what made her one – not being chosen, but being able to stand it. Having become an enemy of the state overnight, she fled, sleeping in barns, in cellars, and in the wilderness if necessary – it was a real wilderness two thousand years ago – her child always with her, and always her care, which was not increased or diminished by the question whether he was a or the son of God. Her care was that of every mother. Later she stood by as they struck him in the face, drove him with whips through the spitting mob, saw the thorns piercing deep into his brow, saw him carrying the cross, saw them nail him to it, saw the cross erected and the people jeering, saw her son hanging upon it, bleeding, groaning, thirsting, crying out in pain and despair hour after hour. Perhaps he was not the only one to look toward heaven and ask why God had forsaken him. Certainly the son looked down from the height at which the people displayed him towards his mother. Does the painting show her before or after that?