"Autobiographies of great nations are written in three manuscripts – a book of deeds, a book of words, and a book of art.
Of the three, I would choose the latter as truest testimony." - Sir Kenneth Smith, Great Civilisations

"I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine." - Leo Tolstoy

I have never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think the pleasures of not writing are so
great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again. - John Updike

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another; and his humblest hour
is when he compares the volume as it is with what he vowed to make it." - J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

Monday, September 5, 2011

Kathleen L. Housley - The Painting of Wings

The Painting of Wings

by Kathleen L. Housley

“The bird is an instrument functioning
according to mathematical laws,
and man has the power to reproduce
an instrument like this with all its movements.”

- Leonardo da Vinci*

*The opening quote is from the Codex Atlanticus. The quote “tomorrow morning I shall make the strap and the attempt,” is dated January 2, 1496. In his notebooks, Leonardo wrote that the attempt should be made over a lake with a wineskin for a life preserver. He also wrote that destruction could occur if “the machine breaks” or “turns edgewise.” There is no record of whether the attempt actually took place. The Annunciation was probably painted around 1472 when Leonardo was still in Verrocchio’s workshop. There is disagreement as to whether he painted it entirely, but there is agreement that he painted the angel.

The Painting of Wings


More like copious field notes than paintings,
Leonardo finishes few, and even those he considers
works in progress that stopped progressing,
like lava that spewed from a fiery vent
then congealed into a cold parody of motion.
Regretfully, he recalls his half-fledged angel,
painted years before careful observation
and anatomical sketches of hawks and swifts
riding effortlessly on rivers of wind
revealed to him that flight is achieved
by force of air, not physical strength.
Weighed down by short muscular wings
that jut from his scapula, the angel
would have been forced to deliver
the annunciation message on foot,
trudging across a landscape, lovely yet awry,
to kneel at last before the Virgin who reads
from an out-of-perspective Bible. All wrong.


Now he prepares to make amends,
not with paint but with real wings
made with reed bones and linen skin,
designed to finesse the air instead of
pommeling it into submission,
more like those of a bat than a bird.
He jots in his notebook “tomorrow morning
I shall make the strap and the attempt.”
Yet he hesitates, sharing with Daedalus
a concern for catastrophic system failure,
which leads him to decide against jumping
off the roof of the Corte Vecchia,
choosing instead to launch from a cliff
beside a lake, wrapped in soft chamois
to protect his bones, with an empty wineskin
tied securely around his waist
in case the whole thing come unglued
and he plummet, like Icarus, from the sky.


Leonardo deems it the boy’s own fault
for not paying attention to his father’s warnings
about the narrow operating parameters
and material limitations of wings,
specifically the low melting point of beeswax
if he should fly too near the sun,
and the weight of water on the feathers
if he should fly too near the waves.
But Daedalus had to share some of the blame
for perceiving of wings as nothing more
than a practical means of escape,
impervious to the joyous uprush of blue.


Darkness descends, and Leonardo recalls
his childhood dream of a hawk hovering
over his cradle, while in the refectory,
the dim glow from a lamp illumines
the scaffolding before The Last Supper,
and in his workshop candlelight flickers
on the clay model of a great horse,
both awaiting his hands and mind
to reach perfection, heightening his fears
that he may have miscalculated
the mathematical laws of flight,
and that the morning’s planned attempt
should be postponed until he is sure
the sum does not equal his own death.


As he falls asleep, he thinks he hears
the ominous vibration of wing struts.
He centers his weight, struggling
not to turn edgewise to the wind,
until all at once, in equilibrium,
he glides on the streams of the sky
before beginning a spiral descent,
landing at last by an earth-bound angel
who listens raptly to a woman reading aloud
from the Codex on the Flight of Birds.

Kathleen L. Housley, 2011

About the Author

Making her home in Connecticut, Kathleen L. Housley graduated from Upsala College and holds a Masters from Wesleyan University. Her research and writing interests display a faithful humanism that is both deep and wide, integrating such diverse fields of inquiry as 19th-century suffragism, abolitionism, and Bible translation, the history of art and art collecting in the Modern period, cosmology, anthropology, and the material sciences—all in addition to theology and poetry. Her latest three books are Black Sand: The History of Titanium (2007); a book of poetry, Firmament (2008); and Keys to the Kingdom: Reflections on Music and the Mind (2010), a collection of meditations on the transformative power of music and friendship. Her work has appeared in the journals Image, Isotope, The Christian Century, and Ars Medica, and her poem “A Psalm for a New Human Species” previously appeared on the BioLogos website.

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