Zurbarán’s Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei, Francisco de Zurbarán, c. 1635-1640. San Diego Museum of Art (California)

In honor of Easter Weekend, following is an excerpt from my long-delayed chapbook about animal-human transformations in art. If I can arrange for even modest distribution, I will print it this summer.

Hatch of feet, 2 back through 2 front. Shadow up neck, little hedge of shadow. Neck straightened along the table, jaw nearly flat to surface, smiling mouth tucked over, the long wilted slope of the nose—the flesh of the nose beneath the flesh of its bridge; the bridge extends further than the flesh of the nose.

Looking at the light on the forefoot I recognize the painterly shorthand of strokes—before then it had seemed to me, overall I mean and in impression, like a Dutch still life, like Dutch realism. Zurbarán has more to do with slimily wet clay, fine mud from a lake’s floor than he has to do with glassine realism, cold hard hyperreality, realistic—I am referring to Dutch realism—in sense that 80s Japanese airbrush art of fruit breaching out of water is realistic.

I am looking now at a St Francis in Meditation. The weird smokey haze around his hood, like burnt pan submerged in water, shapes softened by darkness, receeding into darkness: sea glass.

Back to lamb. Its archaic smile, pulled up by the architecture of its face, like a drawing in which the brows and bridge of nose make one line, picassoid. Neck out like a dinosaur along table, and as I have said before mouth goes over edge of table. Rolling on throat so that eyelid is a canopy to the surface of the table rather than leaned back along it.

Jaw and chin and throat immediately below head are turning on the table like an unsteady object leaning back and forth as it comes to rest. Never before fully appreciated how whole, of a piece, the shape of a sheep’s head. The eye turns down in its head because the bone of the brow slides from forehead to eye socket smooth as an O’Keeffe angle of sand.

On the whole, a heap of lamb like a slouchy BoHo bag swung onto this ambient desk. I have told you about this mouth which has so often affected me. A mouth at the end of a throat-shaped whole-body. You think of how his lip feels turning his head as he does. Now his jaw and throat are on the mysterious table: the tongue is made firm and packed in the mouth. When he turns his head his lips, wide and half-exterior like a cat’s will touch the table, whatever it’s built of. 

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