An Excerpt From “The Madonnas of Leningrad”

The Rubens Room. Even here, in a room riotous with flesh, the painting at the center of the long wall gives one pause. Here is a young woman suckling an old man. She is young and plump and fresh-faced. He is naked, with only a black cloth draped over his genitals. His hands are bound in chains behind his back. Although his musculature is beautiful- the arms and legs fully sculpted, the chest and abdomen defined- his head is a horror: the beard and hair matted, the eyes bulging as grotesquely as a gargoyle’s and focused downward on the girl’s exposed nipple.

Before you either turn away in disgust or wink knowingly at one another, you should know that the artist insists that this is a picture about love. Filial love. The old man has been condemned by the Roman senate to die of hunger, and his daughter has come to his prison cell and offered her breast to feed him. This has nothing to do with the decorous love or amorous passions one is more accustomed to seeing in a painting. It is raw and wretched and demeaning. In the end, we are physical bodies and every abstract notion about love sinks beneath this fact.

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