The Alba Madonna

I sit meditating
  before the Adoration of the Magi —
Fra Angelico and Fra Filipo Lippi
   together captured this joy
                     of Christ’s birth
     in a wonder filled circle.
An echo of hands rise up in Hallelujah
                . . . and here
     . . . and here
             in the crowd of shepherds.
Blacksmiths shoe the Magi’s horses.
     Children dance on a wall
          to better view the new child.

I sense another, also unable to break away,
   from this vision of the brothers.
      We exchange glances but remain silent.

Galleries later I am caught by the same scene,
  this time by Botticelli —
       Magi bowing to Child and Virgin
   amidst Classical ruins.
    “Look, the Magi are the three ages of Man.
       This one mature
                     . . . him aged
    . . . and here the young one.”

It is my companion of the first Adoration,
   speaking a gentle brogue.
       We explore together, quietly noting
                          Joseph’s sweet smile,
    a Magi’s horse rearing with excitement.
I say, “Isn’t this human nature too,
              not just Auschwitz?”
He is Father Sean from Ireland,
   here on a Sabbatical of prayer and study.
I walk on alone.

Then another painting glows so intensely
       I cannot break away —
Dosso Dossi’s Aeneas and Achates on the Shore of Libya.
The crowd of Trojan sailors,
    two tall trees,
                 and the curving shore
        all an Impressionist dazzle,
   with the two heroes alone
        still living in Renaissance clarity.
And again Father Sean stands besides me.

   “Father, I am so baffled by evil!”
My hand sweeps around the bright scene.
      “How, when we have such beauty in us,
         how do we choose
                  to do so much evil?”

“That’s a hard one, son.
    St. Augustine wrestled with your question.
   His answer,
         Evil is a state of deprivation.
      You can only understand it
    in the context of the good.
                       It can’t stand alone.”

Then I come finally to Rafaello’s Alba Madonna,
               again a circle,
      a painting I thought I knew well.
The Christ Child’s translucent nakedness
    reclines against Mary’s thigh,
       holding a toy in his right hand.
His mother gazes serenely at the toy.
      Young John the Baptist,
             clad already in animal skins,
  looks up at the toy.
They sit upon wildflowers.
             Orchards and fields,
        farmhouses and forested hills
  stretch off behind the three.

The Christ Child
        is total peace
                 in a circle
    of total peace
       and the toy He holds
              the crucifix.

July 1991, at the National Gallery