The painting of Our Lady that was stolen by the Nazis

Sistine Madonna, by Raphael

Having recommended Vasily Grossman’s great novel Life and Fate to a friend, I have been slightly disconcerted to discover that this same friend has now read more of Grossman than I have – viz. Grossman’s collection titled The Road: Short Fiction and Essays, first published in a paperback translation in 2011. The friend urged me to read Grossman’s essay, The Sistine Madonna, from this collection and having now done so I can understand his own enthusiasm for it.

Raphael’s famous painting of Our Lady and the infant Jesus had been stolen from Dresden Art Gallery by the Nazis. It was exhibited in Moscow in 1955, along with other stolen paintings, before being returned to Dresden; it was here that Grossman saw it. He relates that “huge crowds” had queued up to see the exhibition – a moving mention of ordinary Muscovites, living for decades under an atheistic regime, having endured an appalling War and innumerable material privations, still thirsting for great art and the mysterious soul food it gave them.

Grossman, an acclaimed secular writer from a Jewish background in the Ukraine, who was at odds with constant Soviet censorship of his work; a man and artist deeply humane though not religious, would have shared the impulse behind the queuing masses. Indeed, his first comment was that “As soon as you set eyes on this painting you immediately realise one thing above all: that it is immortal.” He does not mean “immortal” in the Christian sense; more a humanist idea of great art elevating mankind through each generation of life on earth. Indeed, Grossman mentions that the Sistine Madonna has been seen by “twelve generations” so far.

He compares his response to the painting – it “conquered” his mind and heart – to his purely aesthetic response to other great artistic achievements, such as works by Rembrandt, Beethoven and Tolstoy. The portrait of a young mother holding a child in her arms revealed the “mystery of maternal beauty”, the “spiritual force” of motherhood and an image of “the maternal soul.” It is almost as if Grossman can’t find the words to convey the depth of his response; it suggests an almost mystical experience inevitably far removed from his upbringing, education and life so far.

Then, as he writes, the man and the artist combine in a torrent of painful memories and images, borne from his work as a war correspondent, his memories of the Ukraine famine and his shock at visiting the death camp at Treblinka. “What had surfaced in my soul” at the sight of this gentle, infinitely compelling image of a mother and child, “was the memory of Treblinka” and its pitiful reminders of the thousands of Jewish men, women and children who had perished there.

Although he does not say so Grossman, an only child, would doubtless also have recalled his own beloved mother, who perished in the ghetto in Berdichev soon after the Germans invaded Russia and whom, to his permanent regret, he had failed to save when he had the opportunity. He concludes the essay saying that the painting helps to “preserve our faith…that there is nothing higher than what is human in man.”

Indeed. I think Grossman might have subliminally understood St Irenaeus’ words, “God became man so that men could become like gods” if he had known them. Raphael’s Madonna and Child had opened up a vista in his imagination which had taken him briefly into unknown territory, that of truly immortal beauty, tenderness and pity.