Stand in front of Massachio’s mural in the Carmine Chapel in Florence, take a deep breath, and look. The faces of people living centuries ago seem alive. You pick out strength, imagine personality and character, feel you could talk to various ones, sense their emotions. How old was this Massachio when he stood with brush and paint, shivering in the cold of stone and plaster walls, and painted on a flat grey surface people talking to one another, taking part in a passing moment of history but preserved in a way that no changes of time and situation could touch?
One moment, preserved in paint by an artist who had to be younger than twenty-seven, because he died at twenty-seven before the whole wall was complete. How did his hands have such skill? How could his mind conceive of new, delicate ways to bring out perspective, to mix his paints? How could he place the features and also the personalities of people he knew or had seen on a cold hard wall, to make them alive for so many centuries? Inherited? From whom? Who first had such skillful hands, such workable ideas?
Come to Ghent and walk in the little room where Van Eyck’s painting is well lighted, to be carefully looked at. Sit and look and wonder. Walk up close and find the detail of delicate flowers in the grass, birds flying, the fine hairs of men’s beards so realistic one feels one could brush them, the pearls embroidered on robes standing out with roundness and luster that take one’s breath away. Sit and contemplate the marvel of the subject matter—the Mystic Lamb, standing on the altar, bleeding yet standing, bespeaking the Messiah who came as the Lamb to die and rise again. Look at the fantastic colors, the bright greens, scarlets, blues, yellows mixed by a secret formula ...1
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