Apocalypse, Umbrian Master, about 1490
by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
He is not as young as he used to be. With a groan
he chooses a sizable canvas. He broods on it.
He wastes his time haggling about his commission
with a mean Carmelite monk from the Abruzzi,
prior, or canon, or whatnot. It is winter now.
His finger joints start cracking like the brushwood
in the fireplace. With a groan he will ground
the canvas, let it dry, ground it once more,
will scrawl his figures, impatiently, ghostlike,
on small cartoons, and set them off with white lead.
He temporizes and idles away a few weeks,
rubbing down his colors. But at long last—
Ash Wednesday has gone by, and Candlemas—
early one morning he dips his brush in burnt umber
and starts painting. This will be a gloomy picture.
How do you go about painting Doom? The conflagrations,
the vanishing islands, the lightning, the walls
and towers and pinnacles crumbling ever so slowly:
nice points of technique, problems of composition.
Destroying the world is a difficult exercise.
Hardest to paint are the sounds—for example
the temple veil being rent asunder, the beasts
roaring, and the thunderclaps. Everything, you see,
is to be rent asunder and torn to pieces,
except the canvas. And there can be no doubt
about the appointed time: by All Souls’ Day
the frantic sea in the background must be coated
over and over again with a thousand layers
of transparency, with foamy green lights,
pierced by mastheads, by ships reeling, plunging down,
by wrecks, while outside, in mid-July,
not a dog will stir on the dust-covered square.
The women have left, the servants, the disciples.
In the forlorn town only the Master remains.
He looks tired. Who would have thought that he, of all people,
would look dead tired? Ochre—everything seems ochre now,
shadowless, standing still, transfixed in a kind
of evil eternity, except the picture. It grows
and darkens slowly, absorbing shadows,
steel-blue; livid, dull violet, caput mortuum,
absorbing demons and horsemen and massacres,
until Doom is happily consummated and the artist,
for a brief moment, is, like a child, unmindfully merry,
as if his life has been spared, and in his relief
on this very night he asks his friends to a feast
and treats them to truffles, to grouse and old wine,
with the season’s first rainstorm pounding away at the shutters.
“Apocalypse, Umbrian Master, about 1490” from “Selected Poems” by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Copyright © 1999 Sheep Meadow Press.