Many years ago my father took a trip to northern Italy, his mother’s birthplace. My tiny Italian grandmother had arrived in America on a boat, accompanying her new husband after World War I. They settled in my grandfather’s hometown just west of the Missouri river and, as far as I know, never traveled to Europe again.
Dad returned home from his trip to Italy with this painting of the Madonna and Child:
He always said he stumbled upon it in a burned down church, though I’m not quite sure how Italian customs agents would have let him leave with the painting, if that were the case. Maybe it was just a good story. But however he acquired it, dad had the painting restored and framed and hung where he could always see it.
Growing up I recall feeling the painting’s constant presence. There was something sort of magnificent about it that spoke to me, as it had to my dad, obviously. Looking at it was like glimpsing a whole other world, a time long past, and connecting with that world for just a moment. The Madonna’s lovely smile and warm embrace of her child touched some softness deep within my heart. An image of the eternal power and importance of love over all things that never left me, even when I left home. I’m not quite sure the photos I took do it’s beauty any justice.
The painting has no signature and can’t be attributed to any particular artist. No one could ever tell my dad or me who painted it, or even exactly when. I think that mystery and my dad’s story of how he discovered it add some intangible allure that gives the painting even more power. Plus, it has played a unique part in my family’s own tale.
Dad was on the hunt for paintings long before he supposedly happened upon the old church and it’s forgotten lady. He ran a small art gallery as a side business, helping add a bit of culture to his little hometown on the Missouri river. He had gone to Catholic school there (although he never finished, dropping out and running away at age 17 to sign up and fight as a Marine in World War II), and liked to share his stories of tormenting the nuns, who he portrayed as equally tortuous.
Later on my father became one of those lapsed Catholics; I think the war might have had something to do with that. But he continued to appreciate the beauty and power of religious iconography. This was evidence for me that his faith never entirely left him.
Eventually I came into the picture (pun intended) and as I already wrote, I remember the painting always being there. But during my younger life it watched over more bad times than good. It hung in my dad’s house when he was drinking heavily and my mom and I didn’t live with him for many years. Then it took up residence when my parents decided to move back in together, a choice that caused more arguments than ever before. It continued to look out on my rough teenage years, and saw the beginnings of trouble between my dad and I. And eventually it witnessed the losing battles both my mother and father fought against cancer.
Still, in all that time, the painting’s powerful message remained with me.
Throughout my adult life my dad and I had a pretty difficult relationship. But I always remember thinking that because he loved the painting so much, it meant there was a deep, warm, and loving part of him I rarely got to see. That gave me hope for him and I. Eventually that sense of hope helped heal our relationship when I was at his bedside, taking care of him at the end of his life.
Since the painting isn’t signed, I’ve been informed this renders it of little monetary value. But valuable or not, it remains priceless to me. Not only is it a beautiful, moving work of art from another time, it also represents my history, or at least a very significant part of it that shaped and formed me into the person I am today. And it has become an icon of my family’s journey, all the ups and downs, loves, losses, successes, and failures that we have endured.
I brought the painting with me back to New York after my father died. It hangs in my house now, telling it’s stories, ever vigilant with it’s message about the enduring power of love. Religious beliefs aside, we have a shared history, the Madonna, her Child, and I, and we continue on our journey together. Scars and all, we survive.