The Painting of Water
Several months ago when featuring the first of two new poems by Kathleen Housley that reflect on the life, work, and faith of Leonardo da Vinci, I noted that the poet “deftly navigates the confluence of science, art, and theology, helping the reader see each of those defining streams of our humanity as emerging from the single source of the Creator.” The liquid imagery of that description is even more appropriate for the perceptions she shares in this, the second in that pair of poems, as she explores Leonardo’s fascination with water and fluid mechanics, simultaneously giving us new eyes to see da Vinci’s most familiar painting. Here again is the barely-submerged theme of our competing desires to understand, to wield, and to give reverent thanks to the Lord for the primal forces of the material world.
“The Painting of Wings” begins with an epigraph from da Vinci himself, an almost playful boast to a potential patron/client of his skills in hydraulic engineering. Though the sea and the power of untamed water had been associated with chaos and the radically unformed since Biblical times (think of the Genesis image of God’s Spirit about to make creation according to His own order and priorities, hovering over the inarticulable confusion of “the deep”), the Renaissance was a time of renewed hubris as much as an age of innovation and discovery: water was something to be managed and exploited rather than feared. As Housley makes clear in her concluding note, da Vinci’s commission from Machiavelli to design a great canal system for the conversion of Florence into a seaport is the backdrop of the poem, but also—more literally—of the painting of Mona Lisa. She connects the “imaginary” landscape behind the sitter in the painting with the artist’s multivalent fascination with the way water makes its ways in the world.
The three main sections of “The Painting of Water” that follow, then, are less about technical mastery over water than about the implicit struggle to understand fluidity itself—the way something so anciently fearful as flood may lift those who take the time and have the humility to seek understanding, carrying them even to an appreciation of its unsettling beauty. Science and technology (that is, knowledge on the one hand and the exercise of mastery over the material world on the other) are allied, but so are science and art. Housley’s da Vinci is as taken with the way blood moves through the veins and arteries of his sitter, and of the way water has scoured the Tuscan hillsides to give clues to upheavals in the ancient past, as he is with the Arno’s potential as a road to wealth for his city and patrons. More than that, he is compelled by the way all of these very different applications reveal a lawful unity of design that comes together symbolically as well as physically in the human person, even in the enigmatic smile of La Gioconda. As we might paraphrase Proverbs 25:2, it is to God’s glory when we, his creatures, seek to search out the mysteries He has given in His creation.
Yet the still-dangerous undercurrent of this most-appropriate “seeking out,” in this quintessentially human engagement with the world, is that our desire to know is so often diverted towards plans to remake for our own ends what God has made, our dreams literalized without adequate acknowledgement that information and skill do not translate necessarily to wisdom. Not just a matter of ill-fated earthworks, we must ask whether we see ourselves and our fellow human beings as works of the Creator or merely as things—extensions of the material world which we are free to use or ignore subject to our own whims and desires. More subtly, do we seek a material sort of completion, perfection and ultimately control, or a more tentative yet dynamic flourishing?
Housley’s Leonardo, while clearly drawn in both directions at once, ends with an embrace of irresolution, an unfinished painting standing for the unfinished journey we are each on, and which we are on together. Despite the hubris in our will to remake the earth (and even ourselves), ours is a life still marked by contingency. Change marks God’s presence in His cosmos more than stasis, flow as opposed to stagnation. Put another way, the world waits upon the Lord for its ultimate completion and final consummation, but also for His active, sustaining presence in the now. Through da Vinci’s complex and integrated sense of the way art, science and faith swirl together, Housley helps us see that the elegant dynamism of such incompleteness is the very lifeblood of the “not yet” in which we make our way.
The Painting of Water
by Kathleen L. Housley
-Leonardo da Vinci*
“I can give perfect satisfaction...
in guiding water from one place to another.”
Even in his dreams there are rivers,
murmuring to the Maestro of Water
to study the vortices of rapids,
the swirling formation of eddies,
to sketch the velocity of floods
roaring down the Tuscan hills,
comparing their hydraulic power
to the dark force of blood coursing
through narrow arterial tunnels,
to draw as well the slow process
of streambed sedimentation similar
to the silting up of veins in old age,
revealed to him by covert dissection
and rigorous analyses as clandestine
as his ideas of evolutionary change.
He wakes with a start, inundated
by the torrent of too many ideas
gushing from the headwaters
of his brain, and before sunlight
glints on the Adriatic and suffuses
pink the Apennines’ eastern slopes,
he jumps from his bed and lets loose
a little rivulet of sepia ink across
the flood plain of an empty page:
here winding into a design for wings,
there looping into a rotating bridge,
before diverting to vacant space
near the paper’s edge where it turns
into a cataract of mirror-imaged words
about shell fossils embedded in cliffs
and geological time far more vast
than Biblical reckoning—Noah’s flood
and crowded ark being replaced
by repeated submergences separated
by the slow uplift of stratified rock.
Given the super-saturation of his mind,
how can he paint her young anatomy
other than as liquid panorama?
Posing for him now, La Gioconda flows,
the ripples in her sleeves like standing waves
reflecting gold, the curlicues of her hair
under a diaphanous veil identical
to swirls of spray at a waterfall’s base.
Had there been no expectation by patrons
that a portrait be painted skin-side-out,
he would be delighted to draw her ribs
arching beneath the pleats of her dress,
the spreading delta of arteries and veins
within her hands, the pulse in her wrist
palpable beneath the hairs of his brush,
whispering of a hidden riparian system
more complex than that of the Arno
which he has recently surveyed,
drawing a detailed bird’s-eye view
as part of a scheme to divert the river,
making his beloved city of Florence,
fifty miles inland, into a prosperous port,
all of which he intends to include
in the background, underpainted blue,
along with jagged peaks, green valleys,
a stone viaduct crossing a stream,
a sinuous road and a bay leading
in the distance to a New World
beckoning in a warm golden haze,
light and shade blending like sea foam,
so that while he seems to portray
a beautiful woman, as he touches
her outlined lips with the brush’s tip,
he siphons into her ineffable smile
the confluence of her bloodstream
and the Earth’s primordial waters,
upwelling with his own heart’s awe
into a landscape beyond the curve of time.
he leaves a digit
in her left hand
as if he fears
a final stroke
will stop up
all of nature,
the laws of motion
the Prime Mover
who of necessity
or all the world
and her heart
*While Leonardo da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa, he was working with Niccolò Machiavelli as a hydraulic engineer (in Italian, maestro di acque) on plans to divert the Arno River with the goal of making Florence into a seaport. The recent discovery of the New World by Columbus and the subsequent voyages by the Florentine Amerigo Vespucci heightened the project’s importance. Leonardo completed extensive aerial drawings and designed an earth-moving machine. However, the engineer hired to do the job radically changed the design, decreasing the depth of the canal from 30 to 14 feet. In1504, the project was abandoned when a flood collapsed the walls and 80 soldiers drowned.
©Kathleen L. Housley, 2011.
Making her home in Connecticut, Kathleen L. Housley graduated from Upsala College and holds a Masters from Wesleyan University. Her research and writing interests display a faithful humanism that is both deep and wide, integrating such diverse fields of inquiry as 19th-century suffragism, abolitionism, and Bible translation, the history of art and art collecting in the Modern period, cosmology, anthropology, and the material sciences—all in addition to theology and poetry. Her latest three books are Black Sand: The History of Titanium (2007); a book of poetry, Firmament (2008); and Keys to the Kingdom: Reflections on Music and the Mind (2010), a collection of meditations on the transformative power of music and friendship. Her work has appeared in the journals Image, Isotope, The Christian Century, and Ars Medica, and her poem “A Psalm for a New Human Species” previously appeared on the BioLogos website, in addition to the first of her Leonardo poems, “The Painting of Wings.”