Friday, 26 July 2013

A face in the dark

It’s been uniquely hot in England over the last few weeks – we wait a decade for a spell of good weather like this then I find myself spending much of my days in a cool darkish room in our three hundred year old stone cottage, writing. My companion on the desk has been this picture. It’s an image on a book mark for a book that I bought – hence the names of the authors visible on the section I’ve reproduced. I didn’t particularly choose to have it there but the desk tends to accumulate objects that take up residence – until it all gets too crowded and I shoo them off, but I like this face, and it’s survived the recent clearing back.

It’s a portrait of Vasco da Gama, painted at the very end of his life. I’ve seen the original in a museum in Lisbon, which is surprisingly small. It’s an exquisite image. The face glows against the dark background; a gentle, almost serene expression, the beard caught by a soft radiance. The gold cross gleaming out of the blackness is that of the Order of Christ, Portugal’s crusading order, the successor to the Templars who uniquely escaped persecution in the country by a crafty piece of rebranding just as they were being wiped out.


It seems to me the face of a man who has lived his life and come to terms with everything. The cross is evidently there as an emblem of his faith and deeds as a crusader for Christ. I have to say the meekness of the face rather clashes with the known facts. Da Gama enjoys a terrible reputation as the conquistador of the Indian Ocean, guilty of some awful atrocities, possessed of a violent temper and not in the least tranquil. Maybe in old age serenity came upon him; maybe he was flattered in the painting. Whatever, he gazes calmly up at me. The days are hot. Outside the bees rummage the flowers. I write on.

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