Avignon, France, 1771
The brush was a hickory twig, its end hammered into a soft, pointed fringe. The painter drew it across the canvas, tracing a long stroke of cobalt blue - the light of predawn. Another dash, a smear, a twist of the bristles, and a cluster of areca palms silhouetted the horizon. The only movement was a blur of wind across a colony of stars.
It was the first day of winter. The inside of the church was so cold that he could see his breath in the candlelight. The painting was a rectangle of oils on sheepskin, stretched on a wooden frame. Its image resembled nothing of the splendor and immensity of the surrounding medieval architecture but was cast in the bold colors of his imagination. Hanging by cords over his wool coat was a collection of curios - fragments of broken clay pots, pinecones, a metal goblet, clumps of feathers, a bird's wing. The rest of his belongings were leaning against the wall - five rolls of unfinished paintings, sketches, and a bundle of soiled clothes.
A deep voice echoed outside the realm of his concentration. Across the room, a priest was reading from his notes to an assemblage of novices.
These tall palms, with trunks as straight and smooth as masts on a ship, have simple crowns of large fan-shaped leaves. They grow in the deep shadows of the ancient forest, surrounding picturesque rivers, mountains, and villages. I have traveled through the mysterious lands of ancient Tsiampa, visited the ruins of Angkor in Cambodia, and witnessed the vast grace and wealth of the coastal cities of Cochin China . . .
The artist stepped back and examined his work. Its balance pleased him, but it needed detail. He cleaned his brushes, fumbling through his pockets for another color, a light green with a touch of blue. He imagined a bed of vegetation carpeting the forest floor, as if anticipating the sun in the lush landscape.
Around him in the cathedral, sumptuous paintings, tapestries, and fresco murals depicted the lives of saints and angels, their faces serene under golden halos. Although it was his first time in Avignon, he knew its history. At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Palace of the Popes had been erected as the new home for Pope Clement V after the authority of the Holy See was shifted from Rome to Avignon. Now more than four hundred and fifty years later, the palace complex was still one of the most impressive Gothic castles in Europe, an imposing fortress made up of towers linked by stone galleries. But to him, the wealth and the beauty lay in the artwork.
There in the exotic lands of Asia, the voice was reading, I beheld the wide variety of human types, communities, and political regimes, which are unknown to the Western world . . .
The cathedral he had chosen to work in was housed in the Tower of Saint John - the quarter that was reserved for the resident scholars. As the first pale gleam of sunlight glanced over a row of gray stone corridors, the young man shivered. His eyes were burning, his stomach grumbling, his body aching. It had been days since he had eaten a good meal or enjoyed a restful sleep. The bustling city of Avignon had little hospitality for drifters, vagabonds, and artists.
Ahead of him, a long narrow passage led to the nave. Beneath a series of tapestries depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, seminarians from many orders huddled on pews facing a black-robed priest. It was his voice the painter was listening to. Above the altar, Christ hung on a cross, carved from wood - his head bowed, his face hidden beneath a tangle of hair. It was an image that the artist had copied over and over, trying to invoke Jesus' essence.
From Le Colonial by Kien Nguyen, pages 3-8 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2004 by Nguyen-Andrews, LLC
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