Life of San Bartolomeo, detail
Chiesa di San Gottardo, Carmine Superiore
I'm always interested in characters in frescos that look directly out at me. Those figures that seek eye contact, as if they want to communicate something important. And in our little church this particular woman always catches my eye, and I immediately fall into imagining what is happening in this fragment. The woman on the edge of what seems to be a group at the left seems to know something is happening behind her back, but what? And how does she feel about it?
Perhaps she has been causing trouble, and the man in the centre of the group to the right, perhaps her husband, is placating irate neighbours.
Perhaps she's simply aware she is the subject of the conversation and is straining her burning ears trying to hear what's being said about her.
Perhaps she is a mere bystander, eavesdropper on the pivotal conversation taking place among the men.
Perhaps there is no connection, and her purpose is solely to draw the eye to something happening further to the left, now lost in the plaster dust of centuries.
And there must be layers and layers of thought and meaning here. Not meant by the fresco's creator(s), but still there. The Christian meaning of this episode in San Bartolomeo's story (1st century AD). The experience in the face of the model as she posed for the piece. The intention of the 15th-century Lombard who crossed the lake to paint the fresco. Even some brushstrokes from the 21st-century restorer in her white overalls. And, of course, the meaning I as the viewer bring to bear whenever I catch her eye.
For me, this figure is the epitomy of paranoia, poor thing. Every half-word she overhears she interprets as being about herself. She exists suspended in neverending uncertainty - friend or enemy? Well-wisher or betrayer? Ally or detractor? Every offhand word a veiled criticism. Every silence an accusation. For her, "hell is other people", and that hell exists within herself, isolating her from everyone around her, even those who seek to be her friend.
So what is she saying to you?