The photograph at first appears to be a landscape shot—an open field with a single hill in the center. Black and white, slightly blurred. An early landscape in an artform that was new and as yet unpolished. The marvel is that this picture along with countless others survived the war. The Civil War was one of the earliest wars documented by still photography as Vietnam was the first televised war. In each case the conflict, the details of battle, heroic, grim, ugly and poignant, were brought into our homes, into our hearts, so we could not avoid the discomforts and horrors. In this way we came closer to those who fought our wars, came closer to understanding their night terrors after they returned home.
The landscape appears neutral and somewhat puzzling. Where was this photograph taken, and why? It seems storyless as well as unextraordinary in beauty. Film was precious. To take a picture meant packing a camera along and setting it up and developing images out in the field, perhaps in a light-proofed tent, while the war raged all around. So why this field? Why this lone hill? What story is hidden there?
A closer look reveals the horror. The hill is not a hill made by nature but by men. It is a hill made by war. It is a pile of limbs—arms, legs, with hands and feet attached—outside a medical tent somewhere in Virginia. Or anywhere the war was fought. Anywhere. The Civil War was one of the first wars documented by photographs and one of the last wars before the advent of antibiotics. Amputation was the common cure. Life over limb was every surgeon’s motto. The legs, the arms, are piled high, and the last ones on the pile appear to be kicking and waving. Waving a long goodbye to the body from which they were parted moments before.
We would catch the train that night from Milan to Trieste, and from there on through Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. But first, jet-lagged as we were, I insisted on a visit to the Brera Gallery in Milan, a pilgrimage to see a work of art I’d waited years to lay eyes on. I wanted only to stand in its presence for a moment or two.
We had lunch in a little café and though we had heard how expensive the city was we weren’t prepared for the price tag that came with our single shared sandwich. I hadn’t been to Italy in decades and didn’t trust my currency conversion skills but after a good deal of thought and basic math I came up with the verdict: “That sandwich cost us thirty dollars.”
What I remember most from that sleep-deprived day was the painting, of course, but also, just as vividly, the sight of my first cell phone. A woman riding by on a bicycle was unmistakably holding a phone to her ear and talking into it. Just as surprising was the fact that she could hold the contraption with one hand and the handlebars with the other and steer through the narrow, crowded street.
At the museum we found our way without difficulty, and notably not fighting a crowd, to the object of my pilgrimage, Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ. An exceedingly human Christ, unabashedly male and draped in the skimpiest of linen sheets, lies on a stone slab after crucifixion. The view—and this is the magnificence of the painting—is from the foot of the slab so the feet are large and at the center of the painting while the rest of the body is foreshortened. Mantegna was known for his great understanding of foreshortening. He lived at a time when humans in paintings didn’t always look realistic and human; they often seemed made of wood. But Christ, though dead, exudes vitality. He’s fleshy. His feet are dusty and it’s impossible to stand before those feet and not feel a tenderness, a regret, a sorrow that some well-intentioned young man, a misfit and visionary who wanted so much to help, was put to death. All of that comes with the feet. Though I didn’t know it before I stood in front of the painting, it was the reason for the pilgrimage. To see those feet. The nail holes were disturbing and meant to disturb, and the head flopped to the side, but the real emotion I encountered was not disturbance or pity. The painting didn’t compel me to sigh. I wanted to hold the man’s feet. Here was a man, without question. Here was a mortal, without question. And to hold those feet felt like a way to comfort myself, all of us, all of us who try to be decent at what we’re born into.
A few hours later we caught our train, and in the morning woke up to Croatia where the Serbs and Croats, the Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics, were still engaged in their cruel and punishing religious war.
Margaret Erhart’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, Hypertext Magazine, Nashville Review, and Cagibi. Her novel, The Butterflies of Grand Canyon (Plume), was a finalist for an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She lives and works in Flagstaff, Arizona. Find out more about Margaret at her website.