Santa Maria Novella

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Or enter, in your Florence wanderings,
Santa Maria Novella church. You pass
The left stair, where, at plague-time, Macchiavel
Saw one with set fair face as in a glass,
Dressed out against the fear of death and hell,
Rustling her silks in pauses of the mass,
To keep the thought off how her husband fell,
When she left home, stark dead across her feet, —
The stair leads up to what Orgagna gave
Of Dante's daemons; but you, passing it,
Ascend the right stair of the farther nave,
To muse in a small chapel scarcely lit
By Cimabue's Virgin. Bright and brave,
That picture was accounted, mark, of old!
A king stood bare before its sovran grace;
A reverent people shouted to behold
The picture, not the king; and even the place
Containing such a miracle, grew bold,
Named the Glad Borgo from that beauteous face,
Which thrilled the artist, after work, to think
That his ideal Mary-smile should stand
So very near him! —he, within the brink
Of all that glory, let in by his hand
With too divine a rashness! Yet none shrink
Who gaze here now, — albeit the thing is planned
Sublimely in the thought's simplicity.
The Virgin, throned in empyreal state,
Minds only the young babe upon her knee;
While, each side, angels bear the royal weight,
Prostrated meekly, smiling tenderly
Oblivion of their wings! the Child thereat
Stretches its hand like God. If any should,
Because of some stiff draperies and loose joints,
Gaze scorn down from the heights of Raffaelhood,
On Cimabue's picture, — Heaven anoints
The head of no such critic, and his blood
The poet's curse strikes full on, and appoints
To ague and cold spasms forevermore.
A noble picture! worthy of the shout
Wherewithin along the streets the people bore
Its cherub faces, which the sun threw out
Until they stooped and entered the church door!