The Madonna Wore Red Lipstick

The Madonna Wore Red Lipstick

In Milan, there is a painting called the Red Madonna by Lorenzo de la Vega. Many art students attending the Scuola Superiore d’Arte Applicata del Castello Sforzesco are familiar with it, but not the average tourist, as it lies in an almost empty corridor of the Bagatti Valsecchi Museum. The figure of the Madonna has vermilion lips, and what this signified was never revealed by de la Vega,, before he unexpectedly passed away twenty years ago.

Two men sat before it on an uncomfortable marble bench. One was a grizzled old man, old enough to be a contemporary of the master Lorenzo himself, who was born in 1921. He sat on his end of the bench, with his arthritic elbow on the armrest and his chin balanced in his palm. He patted one pocket of his coat, found nothing, and went on to the other pocket.

On the other end sat a seminary student, about twenty-two, young and fresh-faced, holding his ball cap respectfully on his lap. The young man’s gaze fell over the famous painting with genuine ecstatic ardor. Not one word flowed between the two and the twelve or so inches between their bodies could have been in different galaxies for all they cared, since both were lost in contemplation, until…

“Just look at her,” the student gushed, twisting his cap ecstatically, “She’s so beautiful and saintly in her suffering!”

“It appears that way to you. But my experience with her is different. I take a different view.

You see, the Madonna you’re worshiping isn’t the figure of biblical history. Julieta Montage made her way to heaven in 1946, just after the war, a victim of pneumonia. She was a nurse in the Italian resistance who saved Lorenzo when he was wounded and hiding from the Gestapo. She made him stop drinking, and after the war ended, convinced him to turn his anger to art. Look at the face of Christ. It’s Lorenzo’s face.”

“It’s the same as the one on our commemorative stamp! And the Madonna?”

“See here.”

He reached into his upper pocket and pulled out an old Kodachrome photograph he’d folded so many times it was scotch-taped on the back. It was a portrait of a threesome in their twenties, standing on a bridge, armed to the teeth, surrounded by rubble. Two dead Germans were slumped over a machine gun like broken toy soldiers. And the girl in the middle, with her arms around the waists of both men, wore the compassionate face of the Madonna.


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