The Madonna at Torcello

When we took a boat across from Venice to three lagoon islands, it was Torcello I was most eager to see. Mary McCarthy had written about the church there in her quiet, brilliant book Venice Observed, and what she had written about the Madonna in the church, I had envisioned so clearly. Now, as we walked up to the seventh-century Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, with its curved lines and spacious restraint, it would be time for me to see this Madonna for real. I was excited and anxious, wondering what it would be like.

Mary McCarthy writes:

What remains most haunting, however, is that strange figure of the Virgin, small and slender and taut, like a serve little statue raised up to a great height. She is not Byzantine, despite her austerity. . . . [T]here is nothing like her in Venice, and her sad, accusing gaze seems to be fixed on the Venetian caprices . . . as if in condemnation. She appears, an isolated perpendicular, to be a peculiar place-spirit of Torcello, a sobering, unwavering beacon of the empty Cathedral, itself a lighthouse of an extinguished faith.

I can’t remember why I was so anxious to see this “isolated perpendicular” — why I wanted to set my eyes on this austere, somber portrayal of Mary. Maybe it was the thought of how stalwart this figure must remain, in an empty stone cathedral so much older than most things in Venice, across the lagoon waters, centuries after centuries. I know that McCarthy's language had drawn me in, and I wanted to partake of some core experience, be it cold perhaps, that Torcello had meant for her. 

I could not have been more surprised.

We stepped in from July’s crispy sun and grassy, salty-sea air. The shade of the church was quiet. Our footsteps made hollow, old sounds on the stone floor as we approached the altar from the right.

I walked forward, seeing gold first, a thousand tiny pieces of gold, and then, as a wash of deep, ocean-deep blue, with lighter gold shimmering through, Madonna holding the Christ child. Her narrow hand was held up against her chest. 

And then I saw her face.

It was waiting, open. 

The narrow slopes, the long neck, the wide lines of the brow — her face faced mine. We faced each other.

This is no accusing austerity. This is the austerity of face-to-face encounter. It is the austerity of one face looking out, and out, and out. 

I stared up at Mary. Was she staring down at me? I turned to my husband, standing beside me. “That face,” I whispered. “What is it?”

“Tranquility,” he said, quickly and quietly. He too was impressed. “As in,” he continued, “despite everything.”

Yes. It was something like that, a kind of tranquility that has so little to do with peace and so much to do with resolve. With resolve of being. With being present, face out and receiving. Unflinching. The openness of her eyes: she had seen all of Venice’s dynasties, the way that had plundered what they plundered. She had been watching, steadily and without reserve, for centuries. But I did not see any cold judgment. I saw a kind of steadiness, not of repose or even of watchfulness. Watchfulness is too passive for this face waiting in deep blue and shimmering tiles. Her face means more like seeing. A kind of seeing that is at the same time holding. She is, her face and even her hand, the way it is pressed against her chest, beholding. 

We explored the old cathedral in its Byzantine, terra cotta light. At the end of our visit, I saw something else. We were walking along the back of the cathedral, and I looked one last time at the Mary that had surprised me, impressed me, so much.

And then I saw right where her gaze landed.

It was on Christ, crucified.

Halfway in the church, across the wooden beams that separated the nave from the chancel, hung Christ, head bent, facing down to those who approached the altar or sitting in the pews. His back is turned from Mary — but she is watching, watching, watching her son, bleeding, drooping, arms splayed upon the cross.

In her arms is Jesus, the little babe. This is one reality.

Across the distance, another. Her grown son, pierced with nails.

Yet Mary does not look away. The steady gaze of the unflinching face beholds, endlessly, minute to minute, alone on an ancient island in an ancient seaport, this suffering. 

I didn’t leave; I couldn’t. I sat in the back pew and let what I was watching wash over me. 

In time I stretched my legs and exited the church. I went back out into the Mediterranean garden, the rosemary and hibiscus. It was like the salt in the air made the sunlight too bright.

* * *

I find it hard to sit with people.

I wish I meant that I find it hard to sit with people in a cramped room with a broken A/C or in a bad jury trial or even in a hospital waiting room. To my mind this is more understandable. But I mean I find it hard to sit with people in general. Like at a diner for more than half an hour. Or at a party. Or at the dinner table. Or at a park. Or on a walk. My social self, though, operates pretty adroitly, and I can spend hours at a diner or a party or a dinner table and have a pretty good time — it’s just that after awhile, something under my skin starts to crawl. 

 And even though I might be having a genuinely good, sweet time, there is a part of me that starts to panic. It’s too long to be facing these people. This person. My reservoir for being in the same space with another starts to become grainy dregs at the bottom of a glass. I am ready to go. I am ready to hightail it out of here, to get into my waiting car or empty room or whatever, even the bathroom stall.

Now, I know a good deal of this is my acute nervous system, my pretty well-looked-after introversion. But these things are not hindrances, and I don’t see them that way. Because I also know that these traits don’t explain all of this — this puzzle of a self that craves as much as she scrambles from, bridges of friendships and long, good exchanges of the soul. 

It’s the puzzle of shared space. Is it so hard to share? It is, somehow, scary. Because we fill the space between each other so effectively — with small, rote chat and smart phones in the palm — there really is something to suspect here, about ourselves. The unease and discomfort that we know to side-step in swift, adept ways: what are we being cagey about? It’s like someone else’s face shines a light against us . . . the way a car’s headlights will catch slivers of a forest on a country road at night. You look at me. I look at you. The beam of light is too bright to look for long.

It’s as if intimacy has the same singe as firelight. It’s bright and warming. We can cook things over it and it’s nice to sing songs around. But get a little too close, and something inside us curls up, furls up. The air gets cold. Words — of any type, even wisecracks or sturdy-worded ponderings — can’t seem to do their job of filling the space between that ‘I’ and another. 

One definition of the self is that it is a horizon waiting to join another. The fundamental aspect of having a being, of being alive, is that we are a waiting-ness to unite with God, and we find our fullness as God makes His home evermore deeply in us. But our everyday and human-to-human relations are echoes of this deep, waiting reality: that deep-water twinge we see in the face of another, whether it be an old friend or a stranger at the supermarket, is actually just that: the deep recognition that “I” am not enough, that the most real and living I is this openness to being in union with another.

This is a beautiful definition of the self and something in me resonates with the truth of it. I think of the ocean five miles from my house, the way the grey-blue waves leap up to the sky — I think of that sky, placid yellow-gray, hovering over the water, pulling toward that horizon line to join and meld with the waters. It’s like a symphony, a prismatic crescendo of living things.

But I’m not the waves. I’m not merely a mix of salt and water. There’s fear in these deeps, and a kind of outrageous ability to kick back from too much closeness: I don’t so easily go toward any horizon line of joining and melding. The outlander lines of someone else’s face makes me anxious and afraid. I think it’s a fear of failure, exposure, grief. Of being thought of as inconvenient or slow. Of finding others unable to hold all this. The floorboards of my own house are so much safer than the outback territory of another person. 

The Madonna at Torcello, though . . . her face haunts me with a kind of a possibility of holding . .  . of facing another, fear of exposure being tread beneath the feet, moment into moment.

As I am pondering this habit of the heart to break away or hunker down or laugh it off, anything to look away, I think to a time this last year in a little chapel on campus. The Rose of Sharon Chapel is a prayer chapel in a nook on the Biola campus right beside the library. Its simple lines of brick and wood make for a gentle stopping place. 

I had been assigned a “prayer project” — a set time to open to God about certain things. I don’t really remember the prompt, but I do remember how, sitting in the hushed pretty chapel with some undergrad students scattered around, there was a strand of prayer that cut so deeply into the hidden heart, that exposed such a solid line of defense, that I started weeping. The tears and the strength of them surprised me — but with others there, I was weeping with absolutely no noise.

An image arose: a part of me has wounds. And the wounds are disgusting. They are festering with blisters and gunk, all oozing out with foul, putrid slime. 

I have done such a swell job with the gauzy bandages, taped up and around. But now, Christ wants to sit with me, bandages undone.

But He doesn’t want to immediately get to fixing the wounds. He just wants to sit beside me, so that we can look down at these nasty wounds together.

He just wants to sit, to let me allow Him to see.

To allow Him to look, and not look away.

It’s a kind of seeing that sears, sears, sears with a scorching iron of love: to be seen like that, no bandages, no defenses, both of us just looking down at these bloody, white-gooping wounds.

Mary looks not away from Jesus, torn as He is with wounds. Jesus looks not away from me. Are these the wounds He bore?

This is a kind of seeing that is a kind of holding that is, really, a way of loving.

Oh, love, unflinching: You do not look away. You behold and hold and in your eyes we find a place of being (being-loved) like no other.

So here I was, weeping silently in the back of the chapel on campus, desperately hoping not to see one-time students, wondering how on earth I’m going to exit with my face swollen and wet with tears and snot, when a girl of about twenty rose from her curled-up prayer time at the front of the chapel near the altar. 

No, I told that gentle prompt. I’m not going to ask a stranger for help.


And yet, here I was stretching out my arm, catching her eye.

Here face was so gentle as she turned to me. “Are you okay? How can I help?”

“Can you get me some tissue?”

She nodded and swept out.

She came back a few minutes later with a big ball of toilet paper. “I couldn’t find anything else!” she whispered, out of breath. “Are you okay? Can I pray with you?”

There was something so reliable, so present and giving in her care. Tears burned again, and I stumbled through something about a prayer project. She nodded with understanding, seeming to know how dangerous these prayer projects could be. Her prayer for me that followed was kind and rich and helpful. She gave me a hug before she left, and added one of the sweetest encouragements I have ever received.

When she left, it was like I was in a pool of clear, cool, cleaning waters.

I am learning so much about holding, about opening to being held. 

* * *

Grace does not look away, and in that, grace teaches us to not look away either. It deepens and widens our capacity to face another. It deepens and widens our capacity to allow others to look back at us. Grace teaches us, like that face of the Madonna at Torcello, like the face of the young woman in the chapel who helped me, to turn out, and out, and out. And though we be like an island in a lagoon, paced against the endless motion of the sea, histories of maleficent plundering always nearby, there can arise in the deep heart a face that refuses to look away. It sees through the prism of Christ on the cross and the great cost it was for Him to make His home in us, and to teach us how to make homes in each other. These homes are hard-won, priceless, and realistic places of being-with-another. They are hand-hewn of cedar and elm from the backwoods of the self.

With time, and with attempts, and with many painful scrapes and bruises, the scary outlander of another yields the region — light that does not blind us, headwater all cold — where we can become whole.

Jessica Brown lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. With graduate degrees in literature and creative writing, she is now studying at the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot School of Theology. Her essays have appeared in Dappled Things, Image Journal’s Good Letters blog, Journal for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, and in the book Jane Austen and the Arts. You can follow her blog Salt+Water at

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