Sacré Coeur & Wound Man

Sacré Coeur & Wound Man

(First published in The Cincinnati Review, Issue 15.1, 2017)

A painting of the Virgin hangs at the foot of my bed. She wears her sacré coeur like a brooch, fastened with a sword through her chest.


Mary’s sacred heart is crowned with flowers, just as gravestones are. I wish I were capable of such vulnerability, exposing my melancholy like a provocateur, a coquette, a fetishist. She’s the foremost exhibitionist, her heart painted outside of her body without mantle, wimple, or rib. The organ’s only modesty is the Madonna lily. Each stem is pronounced, rendered in relief like a vein—a Madonna lily is immune to disease—perhaps that’s why the Virgin holds it close, the petals a softer, stronger skin.infusion of perfume.

Mary’s is the first face I see when I awaken and the last when I fall asleep. Her eyes don’t follow me like I was afraid they would. She couldn’t care less about me. She’s in a rapture, a reverie. My gaze holds her to the wall. Though I’m a nonbeliever, it’s easy for one mother to believe in another. Five years after having my first child, a baby’s cry can still rouse the maternal animal under my blouse: breasts swelled with milk, the same sweet pale color of Mary’s neck.

Her heart is arranged like a still life between the folds of her cloak, as if her chest were a window display or a Florentine street shrine jutting out of crumbling ocher walls between sewage pipes and graffiti. It seems there should be a candle burning beneath her, a bouquet of stiff plastic flowers, and a clear soda bottle half filled with holy water. I wonder what my heart would resemble, which talismans and weapons would wreath it. Which flower would memorialize me?

While I was doing research at the University of Oxford a couple of years ago, I leafed through gorgeous medieval manuscripts looking for illustrations of Bavarian talismans. Instead, I stumbled across drawings of a popular medieval character known as the Wound Man; a fitting epithet, since he is commonly depicted as having suffered every killing method of his day—mace, club, slingshot, poison, noose. He’s suspended on the page with arms and legs splayed, susceptible to blade, blister, plague, and hurricane—his body a natural history of death. He’s held to the page with sharp instruments the way Mary’s heart is held to her body with a sword. Apparently these diagrams were instructive for healers or used as cautionary tales. This is what happens if . . .

The Wound Man from Hans von Gersdorff_s Feldbuch der Wundarznei (1530

I spent days in the library with these illustrated corpses—bodies maimed every which way—each death orchestrated by a different instigator. My favorite Wound Man illustration features dozens of disembodied red hearts that create a floral pattern. Up close, each flower is besieged by a memory, a weapon, Cupid’s arrows. A couple of years ago I saw a reality TV show about a woman who kept track of her life’s heartaches on calendars, transferring the pains each New Year’s Eve so she could grieve again each grim anniversary, the days pricked with blood. The reminders were her id and identity. I wish I could turn back her calendars’ pages, erase the X’s from each box until she becomes little again, on my knee, wreathed in nothing sinister, comforted by the pillows of my breasts and the smell of warm milk. We all drive the days into our hearts and burn candles inside ourselves. It’s beautiful and necessary.

The Bodleian Library’s medieval section isn’t all doom and gloom. Each canker has its cure; each poison, a cousin. The shelves are heavy with medieval “herbals,” medical texts that combine botany with prayer. The vivid plant illustrations call to mind The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady—a book with water paintings so realistic, it could be mistaken for a flower press. Herbals also included prescriptions, some written by the famous mystic and poet Hildegard von Bingen. The modern Rx stems from the word recipe, as preparing cures was much like preparing meals. Both grew in the garden. Convent gardens produced cures for pain, tinctures that could staunch the blood from Wound Men. As I researched, I imagined placing a Wound Man against an herbal’s drawings of curative salves, unguents, balms, and ointments. Could I heal him retroactively by rubbing a painted plant against him—a little magic caught between the pages, a prayer shut tight like a flattened lily?

At the 2006 Frankfurt Book Fair I came across a Taschen book of Russian jailhouse tattoos: Wound Men in the flesh, riddled with images of guns, knives, women’s faces—everything that could kill them. They’ve turned the weapons against themselves, shot themselves with tattoo guns. Inked knives and naked women aren’t as benign as you’d think. All edges are sharp when they’re tattooed; even a dagger’s wooden handle and a woman’s smile draw blood when etched by a needle. The blade swells, the smile swells. The inmate’s skin reddens and scabs, attacked by his own body’s immunity. Years later the tattoos have faded. The knife has entered the blood, and the woman, too—his body having sucked the pigment from her lips like a leech.

A year after I moved to Italy I serendipitously came across a flaking fresco of a Wound Man in San Miniato al Monte, a basilica overlooking Florence. I’d never seen one in person. How was everyone walking past without noticing? The wall fresco was larger than life, outlined in monochrome sanguine tones. I hadn’t believed those unlucky men existed anywhere but in medieval manuscripts and textbooks. This Wound Man’s trauma seemed to be the focus of the Gregorian chant echoing behind me—a Latin dirge for his many insults… I felt a deep resonance with and empathy for this crudely represented figure, as if my wounds whispered to his in the candlelight.

As I examined his blood, a group of tourists shuffled by and knocked me into the wall, staining my shirt with rust-colored paint from the fifteenth century. I know it’s a sacrilege to touch artwork, a misdemeanor akin to stealing library books. It’s just not done. Having worked behind the scenes in galleries from Oxford to Vienna, I’d learned to treat art as sacrosanct; white gloves, acid-free tissue, holding one’s breath. My chest burned sienna red with indignation and shame.

But I have to admit, the illicit touch thrilled me: an irreverent brush with a man long dead, a man who never lived, whose non-life was threatened every which way. I had stolen a smudge from a virtuoso artist, blotted the fresco’s hemorrhage with my breasts. My closet harbors a souvenir: the blood of an authentic Wound Man. The same pigment that bled onto his stone skin from a Renaissance artist’s paintbrush now embellishes my blouse. Like the woman who preserves her wounds on the calendar, I still haven’t washed the sacré coeur away. The red color could be a woman’s lipstick or a badly dressed gun wound. Incriminating, no matter how you slice it. Despite that, I’ve decided to keep the stain intact. It’s like a relic of a saint, a small dose of death to remind me of mortality, an art historian’s souvenir and homeopathy.

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