Monday over Coffee: "Translating Easter"

Published April 18, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

She listens, listens, holding her breath.
— Denise Levertov, "The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez)"

Our church's remarkable organist, Yuri McCoy, at a recent service played a piece by the Russian composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, called Etude-tableau in G minor, Op. 33, no. 8. With just a little research, I gathered that "etude" means a study, "tableau" means a picture or a scene, and that Rachmaninoff's creative process with respect to this composition was quite interesting. What Rachmaninoff would sometimes do is take a work of art he was drawn to—a painting, a drawing, an etching, perhaps—then sit down at the piano with it and in effect, translate it into music.

This particular piece wavers sorrowfully between minor and major keys, then builds in tempo—dipping, turning, then thundering ahead before resolving into a beautiful though melancholy conclusion, all provoking the question, "What was Rachmaninoff looking at? What was he translating into music?" When asked, he declined to answer. "I do not believe," he sniffed, "in the artist that discloses too much."

Denise Levertov was born in 1923. At age 5, she declared she wanted to be a writer. At 12, she sent her poems to T.S. Eliot, who responded with a two-page letter of encouragement. Raised by a Welsh mother and a Russian father who was a Hasidic Jew and later became an Anglican priest, Levertov's poetry often focused on spiritual themes, but unlike Rachmaninoff, she was not averse to revealing her sources of inspiration. For instance, Levertov saved us all some trouble when she subtitled her poem, "The Servant Girl at Emmaus," with the words, "(A Painting by Velázquez)." It's clear the tableau from which Levertov's "The Servant Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez)" emerged was her study of Diego Velázquez's 1618 painting, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus. It was this painting she chose to translate into poetry.

Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus is on display at the National Gallery of Ireland. It's one of Velázquez's earliest works. He completed it as a teenager, just a few years before leaving his home in Seville for the Spanish royal court in Madrid to paint for King Phillip IV. While it was in Madrid that Velázquez became famous for his portraits of princesses and popes, it was back in Seville that he had produced a number of striking religious paintings, including a powerfully rendered crucifixion scene and the compelling painting that would later inspire Levertov.

The painting shows a young servant distracted from her kitchen labors, magnetized instead by what we see happening through a small kitchen window behind her in the next room. There, a haloed Christ, seated with a man at a table, signals that what Velázquez is translating for us is a familiar story from the book of Luke but from a wholly original point of view. Earlier in the day, Jesus had appeared to some of His followers on the road to Emmaus following His resurrection. However, they didn't recognize Him. Still unrecognized, they have now reached their destination and are sharing a meal. The young woman, awakening to the miracle, readies a pitcher of wine as Jesus prepares to break the bread she's just served.

Let's turn to Levertov here:

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he'd laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they'd crucified for sedition and blasphemy,
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb,
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don't recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching 
                    the winejug she's to take in,
a young black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

The season of Eastertide calls us to study and explore the tableau of what's just been laid before us on Resurrection Sunday and to then translate it creatively into our lives. Sometimes though, even for those who are open to the divine, our translation of the miracle of Easter suffers in the commotion of our work, around the bustling kitchen table, and under the limits we tend to place on God. Perhaps this painting, this poem—these artistic meditations on spiritual awakening—might help you to detect the resurrected Christ's presence within you right now. If not, hold your breath just a beat. Now listen again.

God — Magnetize me to Christ's presence. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk