At the Burgos cathedral
It was already dark when we arrived in Burgos, Spain. We left Fatima (Portugal) early in the morning and made a side trip to Salamanca. On the bus I wrote a poem and slept, while the wife took pictures of the countryside with her phone camera.
We spent the first half of the next day exploring the Burgos cathedral, a spectacular Gothic-style construction, begun in the thirteenth and completed in the sixteenth century, in a class of its own, having been declared in itself a World Heritage Site.
It would be pathetic to have just one morning, no matter how stretched, to view and contemplate the riches of the cathedral, but that was all that we had, and, if we were not at the assigned place at the agreed time, the bus would leave without us. Our four or five hours felt like stolen time, and so virtual thieves we grabbed — with our eyes and cameras — whatever we could.
And the loot? First, the “Master of Burgos,” a fourteenth-century statue of the crucified Christ, fitted with human hair and buffalo hide, before which we attended a Holy Mass. Then, the burial site of El Cid (Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar), and the “Papamoscas” or “Flycatcher,” a statue which opened its mouth when the bells rang as the clock struck the hour.
There were innumerable other works of art — rose windows, chapels, statues — but what comes to mind first, if someone mentions Burgos, would be none of the above. Rather it would be a painting of Mary Magdalene, which the bishop, one of our companions, pointed to us.
When the bishop spoke and my ears caught the name Leonardo, my eyes widened. Suspecting the presence of a Da Vinci code, I drew closer to the painting. What the bishop said, however, was that the work was made by a student of Leonardo da Vinci’s, someone called Giampietrino, who imitated his master’s style and copied a number of his materpieces. This detail softened me to go along with the prelate that indeed the woman in the painting had a likeness to Mona Lisa, in the smile if not in the costume.
Because the Mary Magdalene in Giampietrino’s painting, unlike Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, wears nothing but her tumbling tresses, which, to be fair, were abundant and thick enough strategically to cover her skin. On the table before her is a vessel, which from its precious shape must hold a choice essence or salve.
This is all in accordance with an account in the Gospel of Luke, to which the depiction alludes, about a dinner given by a Pharisee, who had invited Jesus as guest. In the course of the meal, “a sinful woman,” in Luke’s words, who had learned of Jesus’ presence, came bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, and, positioning herself near the Lord’s feet, wept and bathed them with her tears, after which she “wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.”
The Pharisee was rankled by the sight and said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.” Reading his thoughts, Jesus addressed the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.”
Tradition has it that the sinful woman was Mary Magdalene, from whom, Luke writes, Jesus cast out seven demons — but, of course, there were other women who were likewise healed of evil spirits.
Jesus chose Mary Magdalene as the earliest witness to his Resurrection, giving her the privilege of being first to announce, “I have seen the Lord.”
If Giampietrino modeled his Mary Magdalene after Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, it was because, given his ability, this was the best he could do — both to pay tribute to a master and to celebrate a person recognized as among the top symbols of the compassion and tenderness of Christ.
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