The Wings of the Dragon
How Padraig Made Irish Wit a Journeyman to Florentine Genius
ADRAIG was having his first view of a foreign country. England, to be sure, was somewhat strange to a boy who had never before been outside Ireland. Brother Basil, who had taught him all that he knew of writing, reading, painting and other arts, had come to England on business for the Irish Abbeys and was going no further. Padraig felt that he wanted to see more of the world.
Perhaps the wise monk felt that unless his pupil had the chance now to wander and come back, he would run away and never return at all; at any rate he told the youth that this would be a good time to make the pilgrimage to Rome if he could. There was peace in Lombardy for the moment, and the Pope, driven out more than once by the warring Emperor of Germany, was now in the Vatican, again.
A fishing-boat, slipping over to Calais in the light of a windy dawn, carried one passenger, a red-headed boy in a hooded cloak of rough black frieze. Padraig's own feet bore him from town to town until now, in a French city, he stood in the doorway of a gray and stately church alive with pictures. On a scaffold slung up behind the altar a painter sat working on a new altar-piece.
This was something which Padraig had never seen. He had painted pictures himself on parchment, and drawn designs in color for the craftsmen, but a wall-painting so full of life and color that it looked like a live angel come down from the skies, he had never seen made by any man.
It was in three parts, filling three arches, the middle one larger than the others. In the center was the beautiful brooding Mother with the Child in her arms, and her dull red mantle seemed to lift and float like a sunset cloud. In the narrower spaces were figures of saints. One, already finished, was an old man in the dress of a hermit, with a hind; the graceful creature nestled its head against him. An arrow transfixed his knee, and Padraig knew that this was Saint Giles, patron saint of cripples. The last of the three, on which the artist was now working, was Saint Margaret and the dragon. The dragon was writhing away, with a dreadful look of rage and fear, before the cross in the hands of the brave, beautiful young girl. The sun crept through a loophole window and made the pictures, at the end of the long vista of gray arches, as real as living beings.
Even at this distance, nevertheless, the trained eye of Padraig detected something the matter with that dragon. The artist painted, scraped out, scowled, pondered and finally flung down his brushes in impatient disgust. He moved away, his eyes still on the unfinished work, and backed directly into Padraig.
"What—oh, I did not know that there was any one here. Look at that dragon, did you ever see such a creature!"
"Softly, softly, Matteo," spoke a superior-looking man in the dress of a sub-prior, behind them. "What is wrong with the picture? It looks very well, to me. We must have it finished, you understand, before the feast of Saint Giles, in any case. You must remember, dear son, that these works are not for the purpose of delighting the eye. The figure of Our Lady would be more impressive if you were to add a gold border to the mantle, would it not?"
Padraig retreated. He was still grinning over the expression on the artist's face, when he took out a bit of crayon and at a safe distance made a sketch of the pompous churchman on a convenient stone. Having caught the likeness he took from his scrip a half-completed "Book of Legends," and in the wide-open mouth of a squirming dragon which formed the initial he drew the head and shoulders of the half- swallowed Sub-Prior.
Just as he sat back to survey the design, Matteo strode down the path and stopped with his hand on the gate.
"Did you see him?" the artist spluttered. "Did you hear him? Because he is the secretary of the Archbishop and keeps the pay-roll he thinks he can instruct me in my work! If I had to paint the things he describes I would whitewash every one of my pictures and spend the rest of my days in a scullery! There, at least, no fault would be found because the work was too well done!
"That monster will be the death of me yet. I know that Le Gargouille never looked like that. He was a great dragon, you know, who lived in the Seine and ravaged the country until he was destroyed by Saint Romaine. They do not infest our rivers any more—they have taken to the church. My faith, if I knew where to find one I would lead that stupid monk down there by the ear and show him what a dragon is like. I never saw a dragon—it is not my business to paint dragons—but I know that they ought to be slippery shining green like a frog, or a lizard—and I cannot get the color."
"Is this anything like?" asked Padraig, and he held up the book.
Padraig's mind worked by leaps, Brother Basil used to say, and it had made a jump while the artist was talking. The most that he had thought of, when he made the sketch in his book, was that the face of the Sub-Prior would be a good one to use some day for a certain kind of character; and then it had occurred to him to fancy the dragon showing his appreciation of the dignitary in a natural way. He had already done the dragon with the last of the green that he and Brother Basil brought from Ireland, before he came to France, and it was a clear transparent brilliant color that looked like a new-born water-plant leaf in the sun. He had watched lizards and frogs, in long dreamy afternoons by the fishing-pools, too many times not to remember.
The painter's mobile dark face changed to half a dozen expressions in a minute. He chuckled over the caricature; then he looked at the work more closely; then he fluttered over the other leaves of the book.
"Where did you get the color for this?" he queried.
"I made it," said Padraig.
"Can you make it again?"
Padraig hesitated. "Is there a forest near by?"
259 "Forest—no; but why? For the hunting of dragons?"
"N-no, b-but—" Padraig was apt to stammer when excited—"if I had balsam like ours I could make the green. We had none, and so we hunted until we found the right resin—Brother Basil and I."
"Basil Ossorin, an Irish monk from England?" asked Matteo quickly. "I met him ten years since when he was on his way to Byzantium. If he was your master you have had good teaching."
Padraig nodded. Brother Basil was the man whom he best loved.
"There is no trouble about the balsam if you know it when you see it," the artist went on. "I will take you to a place where anything may be bought—cobalt, lapis lazuli, cinnabar, orpiment, sandarac—and it is honestly sold."
Padraig numbered the matters off on his fingers. "Copper,—and Venice turpentine,—and saffron, to make him yellow underneath like water-snakes in an old pond. His wings must be smooth—and green—bright, and mottled with rusty brown—the sun comes from behind, and he must look as if it were shining through the halo round the maiden's head."
"I wonder now about that balsam," mused the painter.
Padraig drew an outline in the dust on the stone flags. "The tree is like this—the leaf and berry like this."
Matteo laughed with pure satisfaction. "That is all right; the tree grows in the abbey gardens. Come, young imp with the crest of fire, come quickly, and we will have a glorious day."
It is not certain who painted more of that dragon, the master or the journeyman. Padraig directed the making of the vivid gold-green as if he were the artist and the other the grinder of paints. Matteo dragged old Brother Joseph, the caretaker, from his work in the crypt to scrape the original dragon off the wall until only the outline of curling body and webbed wings remained. The design was all right, for that was Matteo's especial skill. He could make a wall-painting as decorative and well-proportioned as the stiff symbolic figures, and yet make the picture natural.
There was a fearful moment when the paint was ready and they made the trial, for neither was sure that the pigment would look right on this new surface. But it gleamed a living green. Padraig brightened the scaled body with yellow where the light struck it. Matteo used his knowledge of armor to deepen the shadows with a cunning blend of blue and bronze that made the scales look metallic. Each worked on a wing, spreading it with sure swift strokes across the base of the scene. Just as Padraig drew his brush for the last time along the bony framework of the clutching talons, the painter caught him by the arm and drew him back down the nave.
"Now look!" he said.
The dragon wallowed at the feet of Saint Margaret in furious, bewildered rage. Old Brother Joseph, coming out of the corner where he had been sitting half asleep, looked actually frightened at the creature. Matteo, well pleased, did not wait for the verdict of the monks, but took Padraig home to his lodgings in a narrow street of the town, and they sat up late that night in talk over many things.
The painter was a Florentine, and when at home he lived in a street even then called the Street of the Painters, in Florence. He had been in London years before, in Paris, in Rome, in Spain, in Sicily. Now he had commissions for the decorating of a palace in Rouen, and he took Padraig's breath away by suggesting that they work together.
"Some day," Matteo averred thoughtfully, "there will be cathedrals in Italy, France, Normandy, Aquitaine, England, greater than the world has seen. There will be cliffs and forests of stone-work—arches, towers, pinnacles, groined and vaulted roofs, hundreds of statues of the saints. Every inch of it will be made beautiful as the forest is—with vines and creeping mosses, blossoms and the little wood-folk that shelter among trees. There will be great windows of stained and painted glass. There will be altar-pieces like those that we only dream to-day. I tell you, Patricio mio, we are in the dawn of the millennium of the builders. What has been done already is nothing—nothing!"
Padraig found in the following months that a group of young Italians, Matteo and some of his friends, were working along a new line, with models and methods that accounted for the beauty of their achievements. The figures that they painted met with scant appreciation oftentimes, for many of the churchmen desired only symbolic figures of bright colors, with gilding to make them rich. Moreover, there was a very general disbelief in the permanence of wall-painting. Walls were damp, and the only really satisfactory decoration thus far had been the costly and tedious mosaic. Made of thousands of tiny blocks of stone of various colors, the design of the mosaic had to be suited to the infinite network of little cracks and the knowledge of the worker. Kings and noblemen usually preferred tapestry which could be saved in case of disaster, and carried about, to costly wall-paintings which must remain where they were. Yet Padraig found Matteo's rich and graceful figures equal in their way to the stone sculptures of any French master, and said so.
"It is like this, comrade," the Florentine explained, slipping his arm across Padraig's shoulders as they strolled past the church of Saint Ouen. "A picture is a soul; its life on earth depends upon the body that it inhabits; and we have not yet found out how to make its body immortal. I do not believe that my paintings will live more than a few years. You see, a mural painting is not like your illuminations. You can keep a book safe in a chest. But a painting on plaster—or on a wooden panel—is besieged day and night by dampness, and dryness, and dust, and smoke, changes of heat and cold,— everything. The wall may crack. The roof may take fire,—especially when pigeons and sparrows nest in the beams. The mere action of the air on any painting must be proved by years. I got my lesson on that when I was not as old as you. I heard from an ancient monk of a marvelous Madonna, painted from a living model—a beautiful girl pointed out for years as the Madonna of San Raffaele. I tramped over the Apennines to see it. Patricio mio, the face was black! The artist had used oil with resin and wax, and the picture had turned as black as a Florentine lily! I never told the old man about it, and I praised the work to his heart's content; but to myself I said that I would dream no more of my own immortal fame. I dream only of the work of others."
"But suppose that a way could be found to make the colors lasting?" queried Padraig.
"Ah, that would be a real Paradise of Painters—until some one came along with a torch. I think, myself, that some day a drying medium will be found which will make it possible to paint in oils for all time to come. There is painting on wood, and on dry plaster—and fresco, where you paint on the plaster while it is still damp. In fresco you must lay out only the work that can be finished that day. Me, I am content for the time to be a fresco painter."
"And if it is all to vanish in a few years, why do we paint?" mused Padraig with a swift melancholy in his voice.
Matteo's hand fell heavily upon his arm. "Because we must not lose our souls—that is why. The life of our work will last long enough to be seen and known by others. They will remember it, and do their work better. Thus it will go on, generation after generation, until painters come who can use all that we have learned since Rome fell, and cap it with new visions. Every generation has its dragon to dispose of. When I have tamed my dragon he will take me to the skies— maybe."
It was not long after this that Matteo, overhauling the flat leather-bound coffer in which he kept his belongings, dragged up from the bottom of the collection some parchments covered with miscellaneous sketches, mostly of heads and figures. He had received a message from a sharp-faced Italian peddler- boy that day, and had been looking rather grave. On the plaster of the wall, in the sunset light, he began to draw, roughing it out with quick sure strokes, a procession of men and horses with some massive wheeled vehicle in the center. Presently this was seen to be a staging like a van, drawn by six white oxen harnessed in scarlet. Upon it stood churchmen in robes of ceremony, grouped about a tall standard rising high above their heads—a globe surmounted by a crucifix. Padraig knew what this was. It was the Carocchio or sacred car bearing the standard of Milan—but Matteo was a Florentine.
"Patricio caro," said the artist turning to his young pupil, "to-morrow we shall have to part. I have told the Prince that you are quite capable of finishing his banquet-hall, and that I have other business. So I have, but not what he may think. I had word to-day that Barbarossa has crossed the Alps. This time it will be a fight to the end.
"You know, for we have talked often of it, that the League of the Lombard cities is the great hope of the Communes in Italy. Moreover, it is your fight as well as ours. If the Empire conquers it will stamp those Communes flat, and take good care that the cities make no headway toward further resistance. The next step—for Frederick has said that he is another Charlemagne—will be the conquest of France, and then he will try to hurl the whole force of his Empire against Henry Plantagenet, his only great rival. Myself, I doubt if he can do that. When men do not want to fight they seldom win battles.
"Now there are three hundred young men of the leading houses of Lombardy who have sworn to guard the Carocchio with their lives. The Archbishop and his priests will stand upon the car in the battle and administer the sacrament to the dying. If the Emperor takes it this time it will be after the death of every man of the 'juramento.' I am a Florentine, that is true, but I shall be a foot-soldier in that fight. If we live, we will have our cities free. If we die—it is for our own cities as well as theirs.
"This is what I want you to do, little brother. Ah, yes, to die is not always the most difficult thing! These are the names and many of the faces of the 'juramento.' Keep them, and to-morrow, when I am gone, copy this sketch of the Carocchio going into the battle. Then, if I never come back, there will still be some one to paint the picture. When you find a prince, or some wealthy merchant, who will let you paint the Carocchio on his wall, do it and keep alive the glory of Milan. You will find some Milanese who will welcome you, however the game goes. And the picture will be so good—your picture and mine—that men will see and remember it whether they know the story or not. If they copy it, although the faces may not be like, they will yet carry the meaning—the standard of the free city above the conflict. Your promise, Patricio mio—and then—addio!"
Padraig promised. The next day, when he came back to the little room at the end of the narrow stair, there was only the picture on the white sunlit wall.