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The Artist’s Dream


The Artist’s Dream

In the days when Henry VII sat on the throne of Charlemagne and Clement V in the Chair of St. Peter, and when Dante Alighieri was discovering, in bitterness of soul, how steep was the path of one who trod another’s stairs, there lived in Italy an Artist. Though not the greatest or most famous of his time, he had laboured diligently and well for many years, and in grey stone churches and red-tiled monasteries all over the peninsular, murals and altar-pieces testified to the skill of his hand.

Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Greenwich
Erasmus and Thomas More visit the children of Henry VII at Greenwich
One afternoon in early summer, when he had been working all through the heat of the day, he fell asleep, and while he slept he had a dream. The sky opened like the sudden drawing apart of curtains, and before him, as though depicted on a great wall, he saw a new heaven and a new earth. There, against a background of burnished gold, was God the Father on his throne, with the Divine Son on his right hand and the Virgin Mother on his left, while all about them stood choir upon choir of angels with multicoloured wings. Below the steps of the throne were apostles, and saints, and martyrs with branches of palm, and below these a great company of the blessed. As the Artist looked he saw the angels that were nearest to the throne put to their lips trumpets of gold, and as they blew a loud blast the whole host cried, “Holy, holy, holy!” So great was the sound, and of such unbearable intensity the joy it produced, that the Artist awoke. His brush was still in his hand, and it was night.

For two years the Artist worked but though he worked hard every day, at the end of this time he had made very little progress. Scaffolding had to be erected, the surface of the wall cleaned and made ready, colours ordered. There had also been many argu ments with the abbot about the cost of all the gold that would be required for the background of the work, for the latter, though a worthy and pious man who wanted the wall to look as rich and splendid as possible, doubted if the monastery would be able to raise the funds necessary to meet the Artist’s demands. More over, the Artist himself was now growing old, and was unable to work as fast or for as long as he had done in the days of his youth.

When five years had passed the Artist had completed only the top left hand corner of the wall, amounting to not more than a twentieth part of the whole undertaking. There had been many difficulties. The old abbot had died, and the monks had elected in his place a hard, austere man who thought that the wall would look better simply whitewashed and begrudged all the money that the monastery was having to spend on ultramarine and vermilion and gold. More unpleasant still, a few months earlier two local artists, angry that so important a commission had gone to a foreigner, had plotted against his life. Stealing one night into the great chapel where he worked, they had climbed up to the top of the scaffolding, sixty feet above the ground, and sawn through the plank on which, they knew, he would be standing next day. Only luck – or a special providence – had saved the Artist. As the plank gave way beneath him and he fell with a great cry the hem of his jerkin had somehow caught on a projection, so that instead of dashing his brains out on the flagstones below, as the rival painters had hoped, he remained suspended in mid air until rescued by his assistants. Though uninjured, the Artist had been badly shaken by this experience, and unable to paint for several days.

Thinking it all over, and reflecting on the greatness of the work he had undertaken and the shortness of the time that, he felt, remained to him, the Artist realized that it would be quite impossible for him to paint the whole wall single-handed. Depicting the face and hair of one angel was the work of weeks, and there were hundreds of angels. Obviously he would have to get help. But from where? All those who had been his fellow students were now dead, or had forsaken painting, or turned out only indifferent artists. After much thought he eventually decided that he would teach and train two or three of the young men who ground his colours and prepared the surface of the wall for painting. They were good lads, and even though they might not have much talent, and perhaps would never be great artists, under his supervision they would undoubtedly be able to accomplish much useful work.

The very next day, therefore, he started putting his plan into operation. Elated by the prospect of becoming artists, the young men threw themselves into the work with a will and before long were able to help fill in some of the bigger patches of colour, where not much skill was required. For a while this arrangement worked quite well. Under the expert guidance that they were receiving the young men grew more proficient in their work every day, and the Artist began to think that it might be possible for him to finish the painting of the entire wall before his death.

Nevertheless, when another year had gone by the Artist was forced to admit that despite the assistance he was now receiving the great work had not really made much progress. Since he had started teaching he had not been able to spend so much time painting as before. Moreover, hearing that he had opened a training school for artists all the young men of the locality had poured into the chapel and stood at the foot of the scaffolding begging to be taken on. Every one of these candidates the Artist had had to interview personally. Some of them he had accepted. Others – and these were the majority – he had turned away. All this had not only taken up time that should have been devoted to painting but been a serious drain on the Artist’s energies. Still, it was over now, he reflected, and he had as fine a band of young assistants as any artist in the land. Once they had completed their training be would be free to devote all his time to painting, they would be able to help him, and the great work would at least make rapid progress towards completion. True, there had already been a few casualties. One of the young men, coming up onto the scaffolding a bit drunk, had overbalanced and fallen to his death on the flagstones below. Another had decamped with some of the gold dust that was being used for the background of the painting, while yet another, whom the Artist had considered a promising youth, as soon as he had received a few lessons had gone and set himself up in business as a painter of street signs. Still, on balance it had been worth it, he thought, and the time that had been lost in the course of the last year would surely be more than made up in the next.

During the months that followed it indeed did seem that the Artist’s plan was succeeding and that what was now the one hope of his life would be fulfilled. Working more and more independently, the young men covered a larger and larger part of the wall with the first layer of pigment, while the Artist was able to devote an ever- increasing proportion of his time to his own more exacting task. Two or three of the more highly gifted young men, moreover, asked him what it was that he was painting on the wall, and to them he had the satisfaction of telling the story of his dream. Soon they were almost as eager as he was that the new heaven and the new earth that he had seen should be depicted on the chapel wall.

At this stage a serious disturbance occurred. Some of the young men had wives and sweethearts in the town, to whom they went home in the evening, or whom they saw on holy days. As the painting of the wall progressed, and the Artist’s passion for the completion of the great work seized hold of them too, they got into the habit of sleeping in the chapel with the Artist so as to be able to get back to their painting as soon as it was light, without having to waste time travelling to and fro. Not only that. Sitting with the Artist at night, and sharing the simple food provided by the monastery, they listened to his tales of the great artists he had known and the fine paintings he had seen. They also got to know one another better. Before long most of them were thinking that there was no life on earth like the life of the artist, and nothing better than painting one’s dreams on empty walls.

One day, when none of the young men had left the chapel for more than a month, and when the work was making really good progress, twenty or thirty women suddenly appeared at the foot of the scaffolding. Some were weeping, others shouting angrily. One, seeing a young man grinding colours at the foot of a ladder, seized him by the belt and tried to drag him away. The women were the wives and sweethearts of the Artist’s assistants. They were tired of living on their own, they declared, and wanted the young men to go home with them. Several of the young men at once agreed, and walked off with their arms round the waist of wife or sweetheart as though they had already completely forgotten about painting. Others were undecided, and stood arguing with their women in corners before either going off with them or returning to their work. One young man, who frankly told his wife that he had never been so happy before, had his face badly scratched for his pains. Only two or three of the Artist’s assistants remained undisturbed by the commotion. These were the same young men who had asked him what it was that he was painting. Ignoring the shouts and cries of the women, they quietly carried on with the work.

When the uproar had died down and the women had all gone away the Artist found that he had lost well over half his helpers. He also found that very little work had been done that day. Moreover, some of the young men who had argued with their women and decided to stay did not seem to be working with the same enthusiasm as before. Every now and then they would glance in the direction of the chapel door, half hoping and half fearing to see there the figure of wife or sweetheart. Indeed, when night came, and the young men gathered round the Artist for the evening meal, two more of their number were found missing. Yet the Artist did not despair. If they all redoubled their efforts, he told those who were left, the great work could still be completed before he died.

A week later, however, there came another disturbance even more serious than the first. This time it was not only the wives and sweethearts of the young men who appeared at the foot of the scaffolding but their mothers as well. Indeed, there were even a few aunts, sisters and grandmothers in the crowd of angry, excited women who stood there brandishing their fists in the direction of the Artist and loudly demanding the restoration of their menfolk. Strange to relate, young men who had stoutly resisted the entreaties of wives and sweethearts left without a murmur as soon as they saw their mothers.

Seeing how angry and upset the women were, and realizing that in their fury they might tear down the scaffolding, the Artist decided to try pacifying them. Coming down a few stages, and standing on a plank only a few feet above their heads, he called out to them to listen to what he had to say. At first they refused, and so loud, indeed, was the chorus of “Husband-stealer!” and “Sweetheart-snatcher!” that greeted him that for some time he was quite unable to make himself heard. However, when the young men too came down, and shouted to the women to be quiet, order was eventually restored and the Artist enabled to speak. After telling the women about his dream of the new heaven and new earth, and explaining that he needed the young men’s help in depicting it on the chapel wall, he assured them that the work would be finished within the next five years, and that he had no wish to keep the young men away from their homes any longer than was absolutely necessary – any longer, in fact, than they themselves wanted to stay. As for himself, he was now an old man. The one hope of his soul was to see the painting finished before he died. Would they not allow him to complete the work to which he had devoted himself for so many years and die in peace?

From the expression on the women’s faces it was clear from the beginning that they did not understand a word of what he was saying. Some looked bewildered, others deeply suspicious. Even before he had finished there were murmurs of disapproval, and the words of his final appeal were hardly out of his mouth before there burst from the crowd at the foot of the scaffolding a perfect volley of abuse and protest. “He’s crazy!” shouted some. “He wants to make our men crazy too!” “Burn him at the stake with his own scaffolding!” shrieked others. “He’s a wizard! He’s bewitched our boys!” In vain the Artist tried to explain that he was neither a madman nor a wizard but only a man who had had a dream and wanted to preserve it for the benefit of all mankind. Frantic with rage, some of the women started swarming up the scaffolding, while others, with blood-curdling shrieks and howls, lifted up their skirts and exposed themselves to the young men. Four or five of the latter, unable to resist so direct an appeal, jumped from the scaffolding into the midst of the women and were borne in triumph from the chapel, not without receiving a few loving scratches and bruises in the process. A few of those who were left on the scaffolding were so disgusted by the behaviour of the women, however, that they vowed never to go home again.

By this time the Artist was in serious danger. The women who had climbed up onto the scaffolding were tugging at the plank on which he stood while from below half a dozen others pelted him with mud. Some of the mud hit the Artist. The rest spattered the wall behind him, where the more expert of his assistants had already started work on the white robes of the blessed. Fortunately the monks, alarmed by the uproar in the chapel, had already sent for the town guard, and twenty armed men arrived before further damage could be done. After he had cleared the chapel of the half-demented women, the captain of the guard arrested the Artist for causing a breach of the peace and brought him before the magistrates.

What with explaining himself to the magistrates, who confined him to a dungeon for a week while they were deciding whether or not he was guilty, as well as cleaning up the wall where the women had spattered it with mud, and getting together again the young men who still wanted to help him, it was a full month before the Artist could get back to work. But at last everything had been done, and he stood once again at the top of the scaffolding, his brush, loaded with gold, poised above the crown of the Divine Son. Only six assistants were now left. Among them were the two most gifted of all the young men, and though he could no longer be sure of being able to finish the painting before his death he pressed on with his work as best he could, and both by word and example encouraged the others to do likewise. The week he had spent in the cold, wet dungeon had not improved his health. Every now and then his frame was racked by a hard, dry cough that seemed about to tear his lungs out, and sometimes, by the end of the day, he felt so weak and exhausted he was hardly able to stand.
When six years had passed yet another disturbance occurred. Compared with the disturbances of the previous year it was of a minor nature, but so few were the hands that were devoting themselves to the great work, and so slow the rate at which it was now progressing, that if anything it had a still more disruptive effect. Four of the young men still occasionally went home to their wives and sweethearts. One morning these women appeared in the chapel and respectfully saluting the Artist begged to be allowed to stay and help. The young men had told them all about the painting, they said, and they were anxious to do whatever they could to help bring it nearer to completion. Now the Artist had never had women assistants before, and at first he was extremely doubtful whether such an arrangement would work. However, the women seemed so sincere in their desire to be of assistance, and the young men so happy at the idea of having them around, and so confident they could be of use, that in the end he agreed to take them on.

For a week the arrangement worked quite well. The women soon learned to wash brushes and rinse out rags and in the evenings, after supper, they carried the dirty wooden platters back to the monastery kitchen and replenished the jugs with wine. During the second week however, the Artist noticed that the painting was making hardly any progress. The women spent all their time laughing and talking with the young men, who, in consequence, did very little work. One of the women even snatched the brush from her lover’s hand and with shrieks and giggles tried to finish painting the folds of the robe on which he had been working. Her efforts were not very successful, and to the accompaniment of much mirth, and many kisses, her lover wrested the brush from her hand and rubbed out what she had done. Eventually the Artist realized that the women had, in fact, no interest whatever in the painting of the wall and only wanted to be with the young men. At the end of the fourth week, having warned them about their behaviour several times, and received more than one impertinent reply, he told them that they would have to leave. Noses high in the air, skirts scornfully lifted, they at once swept out of the chapel. With them went three of the young men. “If our women aren’t good enough to help you in your work”, they told the Artist, “then we aren’t good enough either.”

Only three of the Artist’s assistants now remained. Since there were so few hands working on the wall the rate of progress was so slow as to be almost imperceptible, and the Artist realized that unless a miracle occurred there was now no possibility of his being able to finish the painting before he died. Yet he carried on. Though it was winter, when the chapel was cold as a tomb, and though his cough sometimes almost tore him apart, he still spent the greater part of the day on the scaffolding, frequently working by the light of a pine torch held by one of his assistants. At the end of the day he was usually so stiff, and so faint with cold, that he would have to be carried down to the ground.

When ten years had gone by only a quarter of the space had been covered with pigment, and the Artist knew that he would not live to see the new heaven and the new earth depicted on the chapel wall. Still, he had done his best and he was content. All that he now wanted to do was to make it possible for his assistants, and their assistants after them, to continue and if possible complete the great work that he had begun. Accordingly, though so weak that he had to be hoisted up onto the scaffolding by a sort of pulley, and so blind that he could hardly see, he somehow managed to finish drawing the outlines of the angels and the apostles, the saints and the martyrs, as well as every member of the company of the blessed, all of whom, he hoped, would one day be depicted on the wall in all the glory of golden aureoles, white robes and multi-coloured wings. As for the figures of God the Father on his throne, the Divine Son, and the Virgin Mother, these were almost done, and only a few finishing touches remained to be given.

One freezing cold morning, when he saw the celestial faces on the wall through the white mist of his own breath, he was painfully putting the finishing touches to the aureole of the Divine Son when his sight suddenly seemed to clear, and he saw, to his astonishment, that the brush strokes he had been about to make had already been given. The aureole was complete. Thinking that his mind must have been wandering, and that he had finished painting the aureole without realizing it, he glanced along the wall to the bowed head of the Virgin Mother, intending to put the finishing touches to her aureole. But her aureole too was complete. Not another stroke was needed. Now convinced that he was thoroughly out of his mind, the Artist looked down the wall to the figures of the apostles, on whose aureoles he knew that he had not even started working. But they were all complete. By this time the Artist was aware that he was no longer on the scaffolding but somewhere out in the middle of the chapel, opposite the spot where he had just been working, and that he was as it were suspended in mid air. From his present position he had a perfect view of the entire chapel wall. To his amazement it was crowded with brilliantly coloured figures, all complete in every detail. There, against a background of gold, was God the Father on his throne, with the Divine Son on his right hand, and the Virgin Mother on his left, while all about them stood choir upon choir of angels with multi-coloured wings – not one of which, he knew, he had had time to finish. Below the steps of the throne were apostles, and saints, and martyrs with branches of palm, and below these a great company of the blessed. It was all exactly as he had seen it in his dream.

He was still wondering who had finished the painting when he saw that God the Father was smiling at him, that the Divine Son was smiling at him, that the Virgin Mother was smiling at him. There were three smiles, and yet they were one smile, and he had never painted that smile. It was real! Then, as the angels that were nearest the throne put their golden trumpets to their lips, he saw that the company of the blessed had as it were overflowed from the wall and stood all around him – that the walls of the chapel had expanded to infinity. But it was only when the angels blew a great blast on their trumpets and he found himself shouting “Holy, holy, holy!” with the rest, and when looking down he saw that he was robed in white and gold, that all at once in the midst of the intensity of his joy, he knew that he had died, and that the new heaven and the new earth were eternal, and himself for ever a part of them.

Source : www.sangharakshita.org

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