The knock on the door was loud. The voice imperious. ‘Oswald of Canterbury!’
I turned, a harsh rebuke on my lips, but knelt instead. ‘Your majesty.’
‘Stand up, man!’
He dropped a small coin pouch on the work bench. Coppers only, by the sound of it.
‘Five sovereigns on completion of the work.’ He slapped fine leather gauntlets together. ‘I want a life size, life like, crucifix painted for the abbey’s alter, Master Craftsman. Installed by Good Friday, if you value your life.’
When the sound of horses hooves had faded I shouted, ‘Out, you cowardly lot!’
My apprentices appeared from behind barrels, propped up oak boards and the thread bare tapestry.
‘A masterpiece in under forty days! Ethelred, cut and glue the boards. See they’re properly cured, mind. No skimping on the application of chalk and rabbit skin glue.’ I pulled a quarter penny out of the king’s purse and tossed it a Stephen. ‘To the market – we need ermine tail hairs for new brushes and three fresh eggs.’ Stephen’s eyes lit up. ‘Not to eat boy! It’s Lent, remember. Pray that we have enough dried herrings to keep us alive, because the king’s pennies won’t!’
Felix sighed as I led him to a workbench. He was the only one I trusted to the precise grinding and combining of poisonous substances, before they were mixed with the egg yolk binder to obtain the coloured paints I required.
Their tasks were easy compared to mine. I pulled a three legged stool out into the courtyard and sat in a sheltered corner, enjoying the meager warmth of the winter sun.
Abandoned on the doorsteps of a monastery, illustrating manuscripts had become my first language, Latin a close second. Until I’d run away and, by a great miracle, become apprenticed to Master Craftsman Odell. But I didn’t remember much about the crucifixion. How could I paint the likeness of one I’d never met? Worse one who was dead. And a Jew! What did a Jew look like? What colour hair did he have? What tone was his skin? Would he be dead or alive? Eyes opened or closed?
My apprentices moaned when I woke them early the next morning.
‘It’s not the Sabbath, Master. Why must we go to the abbey?’ Ethelred whined. ‘You’re not going to make us go nine times a day are you?’
‘Just to Prime, boy. It’ll keep your mind off being hungry. Be grateful I don’t have you going nine times and scrubbing the floor.’
It was perhaps a little unfair of me. They couldn’t understand a word that was said or sung, but I was reluctant to leave them unsupervised in my workshop. I wished I’d paid more attention as a child. I needed to understand this man. Listening to the liturgies each day would surely teach me something, but I hesitated to declare myself to the monks I’d abandoned.
Each day we rose before sunrise and walked to the abbey, Stephen’s stomach complaining loudly. The one Lenten meal was at sunset; herrings again. Each day I listened as the liturgy followed its well worn path through the Gospel of Matthew to the crucifixion.
Once I started painting, I was immensely happy with the progress. It was as if God himself guided the intelligent use of my gifts – until I came to paint the eyes.
That was the morning the Abbot read ‘autem eorum longe est a me.’ (1)
All work on the painting ceased. I could not eat. Water barely passed my lips. If the painting was not installed in time we were all dead men and it would be my fault. In desperation I sought out the Abbot.
‘So, young Oswald, you return to us a successful man of the world. And entrusted with a great commission, I understand.’
He listened as I poured out my fears. When I finished he reached for his breviary and read the troubling words. ‘Translate for me, please.’
I bowed my head. ‘Their heart is far from me.’
‘What did the centurion at the foot of the cross say, Oswald?’
‘Truly this was the son of God.’ I mumbled.
‘Perhaps you fear that when you paint the Saviour’s eyes you will see who he really is. It is now for you to decide.’
On the day before Good Friday I braced myself, breathed deeply and painted the eyes of the dying Christ. Open. In agony. In love. In love with me.
Truly this is the son of God.
(1)Latin translation of Matthew 15:8 taken from http://noshadow.cnc.net/matthew/15.shtml
Matthew 15:8 KJV
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