The Painting of Wings
Poet Kathleen Housley 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. But in so doing, she is just as often pointing out how each jostles and intrudes on the others as she is describing their flow towards unification in a new creation. For though all things, all forms of knowledge, must hold together in Christ, Housley recognizes and reminds us that we have not yet reached the time of promised clarity. In the meantime, our calling to glorify the Lord and husband His creation includes studying both Word and world with precision and humility, but also joy.
In a new poem, “The Painting of Wings,” Housley looks back to a time when intimate connections between science, art and faith were assumed; before the first two sought to chart their courses independent of the last; before they came to be considered by some as gods in and of themselves. In the crux of that moment was Leonardo DaVinci, who gave the Western Church some of its most treasured images of God’s story, but who is also regarded as a patriarch of secular science for his unblinking desire to dissect and study the material world.
Through Leonardo she asks “Where is the truth of things, and how do we represent it?” Is it in the tales we tell of wings? Is it in the mathematics, the mechanics of flight? Do we best approach the mystery of the world by dispassionate study, hoping at last to dispel our uncertainties? Or, ought we savor as gift those moments when we experience the “joyous uprush of blue” on account of rather than despite the “operational parameters” of earth and air?
Housley’s Leonardo is an appropriate guide through the struggles we face in bringing science, art, and our faith to bear on each other, for he is both clear-eyed and hopeful. With him we can recognize the seriousness of the matters at hand—the critical importance of getting things right. With him, too, we can dream of that moment of equilibrium and grace when our inevitable errors will be both judged and forgiven. And finally, with Leonardo and even the angels, we can attend to God’s voice as it comes to us in the scriptures and as it goes out in all the earth, sitting in rapt attention before both the books through which He so powerfully speaks.
The Painting of Wings
by Kathleen L. Housley
“The bird is an instrument functioning
according to mathematical laws,
and man has the power to reproduce
an instrument like this with all its movements.”
Leonardo da Vinci*
More like copious field notes than paintings,
Leonardo finishes few, and even those he considers
works in progress that stopped progressing,
like lava that spewed from a fiery vent
then congealed into a cold parody of motion.
Regretfully, he recalls his half-fledged angel,
painted years before careful observation
and anatomical sketches of hawks and swifts
riding effortlessly on rivers of wind
revealed to him that flight is achieved
by force of air, not physical strength.
Weighed down by short muscular wings
that jut from his scapula, the angel
would have been forced to deliver
the annunciation message on foot,
trudging across a landscape, lovely yet awry,
to kneel at last before the Virgin who reads
from an out-of-perspective Bible. All wrong.
Now he prepares to make amends,
not with paint but with real wings
made with reed bones and linen skin,
designed to finesse the air instead of
pommeling it into submission,
more like those of a bat than a bird.
He jots in his notebook “tomorrow morning
I shall make the strap and the attempt.”
Yet he hesitates, sharing with Daedalus
a concern for catastrophic system failure,
which leads him to decide against jumping
off the roof of the Corte Vecchia,
choosing instead to launch from a cliff
beside a lake, wrapped in soft chamois
to protect his bones, with an empty wineskin
tied securely around his waist
in case the whole thing come unglued
and he plummet, like Icarus, from the sky.
Leonardo deems it the boy’s own fault
for not paying attention to his father’s warnings
about the narrow operating parameters
and material limitations of wings,
specifically the low melting point of beeswax
if he should fly too near the sun,
and the weight of water on the feathers
if he should fly too near the waves.
But Daedalus had to share some of the blame
for perceiving of wings as nothing more
than a practical means of escape,
impervious to the joyous uprush of blue.
Darkness descends, and Leonardo recalls
his childhood dream of a hawk hovering
over his cradle, while in the refectory,
the dim glow from a lamp illumines
the scaffolding before The Last Supper,
and in his workshop candlelight flickers
on the clay model of a great horse,
both awaiting his hands and mind
to reach perfection, heightening his fears
that he may have miscalculated
the mathematical laws of flight,
and that the morning’s planned attempt
should be postponed until he is sure
the sum does not equal his own death.
As he falls asleep, he thinks he hears
the ominous vibration of wing struts.
He centers his weight, struggling
not to turn edgewise to the wind,
until all at once, in equilibrium,
he glides on the streams of the sky
before beginning a spiral descent,
landing at last by an earth-bound angel
who listens raptly to a woman reading aloud
from the Codex on the Flight of Birds.
*The opening quote is from the Codex Atlanticus. The quote “tomorrow morning I shall make the strap and the attempt,” is dated January 2, 1496. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote that the attempt should be made over a lake with a wineskin for a life preserver. He also wrote that destruction could occur if “the machine breaks” or “turns edgewise.” There is no record of whether the attempt actually took place. The Annunciation was probably painted around 1472 when Leonardo was still in Verrocchio’s workshop. There is disagreement as to whether he painted it entirely, but there is agreement that he painted the angel.
©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.