Wednesday, February 16, 2011
There are the memories evoked by the postcards with their bizarre images and unfathomable messages; it is as if each word is a portal to a memory palace.
And then there are the strange photographs of dubious provenance; and even when identified, still it remains unclear what I was thinking when I took them.
Here is a picture taken inside the Cathedral of León, Nicaragua. I know that because it says so on the back, and nothing more. The picture’s main feature is a dark green plaster dragon at the foot of a robed statue. Between its bared teeth, the dragon is biting something red and amorphous. Because it is in a church and inside a glass case, I am guessing this red dangling blob was once a bouquet of faux flowers; I only say this because on so many occasions I have been shocked to find plastic or silk flowers gracing a statue inside a tropical church, when just outside there are real flowers in profusion, agapanthus, datura, bougainvillea, jacaranda, birds of paradise, and wild ginger.
The statue is truncated above the knee by my photographic ineptitude, so without a renewed visit to the León Cathedral or a conversation with the current deacon of the cathedral (assuming there is one, which is an optimistic assumption given the dearth of clergy in Central America and everywhere else, except Rome), I can’t tell you which saint’s feet the dragon sits upon. I guess it is either Saint George or Saint Margaret of Antioch, because they are the two saints most commonly represented with dragons. St George is generally shown on horseback slaying the wicked dragon and thereby saving the princess about to be devoured by said dragon, as his daily meal of a beautiful virgin.
Recently I revisited the story of Saint George and the Dragon, on account of Leda, precocious and beloved granddaughter. As we sometimes do, I met up with Leda and her mother in Grand Central Station. They have come from hipster Brooklyn; I have debouched from Metro-North. The very first thing Leda showed me was a postcard of Raphael’s St George and the Dragon, this having been her choice of all the possible postcards in the bookstore in Grand Central. (In case you are wondering which Raphael version of Saint George’s heroic feat/ animal slaughter, it was the one in which the grateful virgin princess is off to the side in a prayerful position, not the one in which George’s candy-cane lance is broken and the dragon is nipping at his heels as the virgin flees in the background.) Precocious granddaughter explained to me that it was a good thing George was killing the dragon, which prompted us both to wonder exactly why are dragons always the villains (I am thinking pre-Puff.). We learned that one reason dragons were so fearful and feared, was that, along with their tongues of flame and their appetite for virgins, their exhalations spread plague over the countryside. Leda added, peripherally or perhaps not, that she sometimes has dragon breath in the morning. “But it’s alright, Nana,” she explained. “We all do. Even you.”
Back in Nicaragua, I am now persuaded that the saint only seen from the knees down is Saint Margaret, because she is wearing a gown and she is not on horseback, and the dragon is not dead. Saint Margaret of Antioch is the patron saint of childbirth for the very good reason that when she was swallowed whole by a marauding dragon, the crucifix she carried aloft tickled his throat and he coughed her right back up. Her emergence from the maw of the dragon being a rough version of childbirth, if you have a vivid imagination. If you perceive the dragon as representing Satan, as it generally was in medieval times, then the patronage becomes even more farfetched.
← Leda’s choice. Note praying princess. ←another Raphael St George, this time with the princess fleeing.
This morning – finding the postcard under our bed where it must have flown when Leda was practicing her somersaults - CSB asked me how Raphael died. Was this a trick question? (Would Watson know?) I knew he died young (37) but I didn’t know how. But I do now.
Vasari tells us that after a night of riotous sex with his beloved mistress, Raphael developed a raging fever and died on Good Friday of 1520. This was the same year Magellan sailed through the Straits of Magellan, though they were not yet so-named, and also the first year of the smallpox epidemic that would kill half the Aztec population (Gracias, conquistadores.) Most importantly, in 1520 chocolate made its first journey across the ocean from Mexico to Spain, so that 490 years later more than $1 billion could be spent on chocolate hearts on or about February 14.