Chapter One, Martin of Gfenn

“The feathers can wait!”

Book One —Augustine Canons of St. Martin 

Chapter One

Brother Siegfried rushed to the dormitory to see the Provost’s long nose, pious mouth and solemn eyes staring at him from the plaster wall. Fifteen little boys in homespun tunics waited for Martin to draw the next line. He could not help smiling before stepping in and grabbing Martin sharply by the wrist. He shook the boy hard, sending the charcoal flying across the room. “On your knees! Ask God to forgive your vanity.”

Turning to the others, “And you, unless you want what is coming to Martin, go to the chapel and pray for forgiveness. Go!” Certain nothing good was coming to Martin, the boys scurried down the passageway.

Brother Siegfried dropped Martin’s wrist. “Do not even breathe. I will come back with the Provost.”

Martin froze.

In this way, the Provost learned that, along with vanity and irreverence, Martin had a gift. “God grant us a way to turn that to good use.”

“Martin must wash the wall and paint it again. That will teach him how hard others work for him. He can help me in the kitchen. He can chop wood, feed the chickens, pluck the feathers, care for the pigs, the geese and the garden; he can help prepare our meals.”

“Yes, yes, Brother Siegfried, keep him busy,” The Provost looked again at Martin’s drawing, “but he will need a teacher.”

“One-hundred fifty Our Fathers,” Brother Siegfried said, looking down at Martin trembling on the stone floor. “A willow switch across his hands.”

Martin’s teacher arrived five years later, Michele, a young canon from Verona, exiled to what he called, “The cold, dark wastes of Zürich.” His animated gestures and the melodic pitch of his Latin reflected the warmer, urbane life south of the Alps.

Martin’s first artistic task was using a shovel. The day after Michele arrived, they began digging a pit on the east side of the cloister wall. “A good surface,” he said to Martin, “needs time. We must wait a year for this, but without it, we have nothing to work with. Longer would be better,” Michele sighed, “but, God- willing, I will not be here forever.”

Besides his own lime, which he prepared from Dolomite limestone that had followed him on the backs of mules, Michele sent for the leavings from the quarries at Carrara, and made his sand from marble that crossed the Gotthard Pass. “This will only be the top. It is too precious for the other layers.”

Martin helped Michele mix the lime with water for slaking. “Add the water slowly! No, no, NO! Don’t stir yet, no! Let the materials work. Do you know what it is, Martin?”

“Lime, Brother Michele.”

“More than that. It is life. If you go to the mines, you see seashells, animals. Imagine! A sea where now there are mountains? Nature,” said Michele, “is full of mysteries. We know how to use them, but not where they came from.”

“Did not everything come from God?” asked Martin.

“Of course, but the question is HOW? How did sea creatures arrive on mountaintops?”

Martin had never asked, “How?” The question awakened his sense of wonder. All his life, questions were answered simply and immediately with, “It is God’s will.”

The moment the scaffolding was up, Michele grabbed a chunk of charcoal, climbed the ladder, and danced along the boards. “I need to feel the walls,” he called out to the Provost, gaping below. His strong hands, cracked from the lime, flew across the surface of rough plaster lightly sketching the general shapes of a new mural.

“Martin! Why are you down there? Everything is here! HERE!” Michele pounded the wall with the flat of his hand.

Martin climbed, and Michele handed him charcoal.

“Can you draw what I showed you last night, do you remember? Here. Draw it here, we can wash it off.” The night before Michele had told Martin to look long and hard at the Provost, to notice as much detail as he could so he could draw the face from memory.

“This is how it all started!” Martin laughed.

“What started?”

“Me, here with you. It started when I was ten. I drew the Provost’s face on the dormitory wall!”

Michele clapped Martin on the shoulder, “And then?”

“Hundreds of Our Fathers, and I went to work for Brother Siegfried in the kitchen.”

Michele smiled, “Well, now you must draw it. Draw it here.”

Martin closed his eyes and tried to summon that face, the long and pointed nose, the thin lips, the mole on the left jaw with its protruding grey hairs, the ropes of skin and vein winding into the neck of his cassock.

Michele sent Martin to the hen yard to draw chickens. Time after time, the boy started to draw a particular hen, her chicks or the rooster, and they moved. Each drawing ended in a few tentative charcoal strokes. Afraid of Michele’s passionate temper, Martin gave up and drew chickens as he thought of them. Michele shook his head at the drawing, “This is not a chicken. You haven’t seen them. A chicken is a chicken from the inside. Look at the chicken and draw what you see. Don’t draw this,” Michele tapped Martin’s head with his knuckles, “this is NOT a chicken.”

“They move!”

“Of course they move! They are alive. Draw that life.” Michele took the board, looked up at a speckled hen, and in a few deft lines, she appeared in charcoal. “There. It takes but a second or two. Catch the life. The feathers can wait.”

Michele told Martin to draw an angel. For days, between chores in the kitchen, Martin worked on this angel, finally bringing it to Michele. “Bah! Unbelievable. Have you seen an angel? Do you know an angel, his face, his glory? If you have not seen an angel then how can you draw an angel?”

“Have you, Brother Michele?”

“I have seen the angel,” sighed Michele. The look on his face left Martin bewildered. “Go. See an angel,” said Michele pushing Martin out of the room.

“Brother Siegfried, have you seen an angel?” Martin asked as he split kindling outside the kitchen door.

“No, Martin.” Brother Siegfried wiped his hands quickly on the apron that protected his cassock from the medicinal powders and the liquids that stained his hands. “I have not. Our blessed Saints have been visited by angels. You must pray, and fast and scourge your flesh, then, perhaps, an angel will visit you.”

Martin stopped eating, drank only water and prayed continuously until the Provost called for him and demanded, “What keeps you from your work? Brother Michele is complaining!”

“I am waiting for the angel,” answered Martin.

“Return to Brother Michele. Summer does not last forever.”


“If you can learn all he has to teach you, you will be our artist when he goes.”

“He is leaving?”

“Certainly he will be called back to his Order.”


“I don’t know. We must take advantage of the season, however long. In any case, if an angel wants to see you, you will see Him. It is not up to you. Go.”

“Did you see an angel?” demanded Michele.

“No, but…”

“What did you see?”

“Nothing. The Provost sent me back telling me not to waste time.”

“Ah,” said Michele, laughing.

“Angels must look like this,” Martin pointed at the altar screen showing angels flying above the shepherds, giving the good news.

“Can you be sure? Maybe they are just pictures of pictures of angels.”

It was a point far out of Martin’s reach. “I don’t know, Brother Michele. What did your angel look like?”

“The picture of love, Martin, offered in a time of great pain. When you see it, you will know. Well, never mind.” Michele lifted Martin’s cap and rumpled his hair. “Come. I’ll teach you now how to mix the plaster. We have two parts — sand and our lime putty. The sand must be clean. The two must be mixed with pure water. Best of all is the water from the top of the lime putty. Nothing is more important, Martin. If the plaster beneath is not good, the painting will not last.”

“Ow!” exclaimed Martin touching the mixture.

Michele slapped his hand away. “Imbecile! Burn your hands and what use are you?” He lifted his arm to strike Martin, and stopped suddenly. “Forgive me.”

“For what, Brother Michele? You were protecting me from harm.” Still, when they finished that day, Michele confessed and for two days remained alone, his penance silence and hundreds of Our Fathers.

For his part, Martin had learned early to fear Michele’s temper, but not Michele.

For months, they worked repairing the wall, and then more months putting on a new surface that would be the rough plaster undercoat. Martin practiced laying plaster on old tiles, bricks, the walls of the barn, the chicken house. Michele’s plaster reached for the wall, while Martin’s fell straight to the floor.

“Up and forward, into the wall. The earth calls it back. Don’t let the plaster decide.”

Michele took great care with the undercoat, using his wooden float to roughen the surface so the topcoat would cling, “Otherwise,” said Michele, “it is like snow in the mountains. When fresh snow falls on the deep frozen crust of old snow, the top slides down destroying everything.”