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Couldn’t be more different, I suppose.
In Rome’s famous Borgese Galleries’ Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s David is an immensely commanding presence that isn’t just to look at. As the shepherd boy winds up for Goliath, you know you’re in a battle because he is coiled like an Olympian, but the discus is a sling. He’s a moment away from leaving an indelible mark on a giant forehead.
Bernini wanted you to feel the story, to experience its life-and-death drama. Reformation renegades were upsetting the church’s applecart. Something had to be done. Bernini and other baroque artists claimed you couldn’t just idealize biblical characters on some Renaissance flannelgraph. People had to feel Bible stories, had to be there. If you want to understand what the term baroque means, step into the room with Bernini’s cocky David. You’ll know. He fills the room–his determination will not countenance doubt; it’s that far beyond hope. He is soon to fell a monster. David is a 600-year-old marble action figure, facing off against a diminutive giant.
If you’ve never been moved by sculpture, you’ve probably never been to Rome. But you don’t have to tour Italy to see impressive work. I know one just off the road to the Omaha airport. It’ll take your breath away, even though the two characters are not identified or ever will be. Names are not the point. What is profoundly ours is the agony that surpasses all others, the death of a child.
Avard Fairbanks’ Tragedy at Winter Quarters has none of the naked beauty of Michaelangelo’s David, or the mercurial action of Bernini’s. But make no mistake—Fairbanks wants you to feel the story, to experience its life-and-death drama.
The couple’s faces are indistinct: but who this was is of little historical interest. The huge sculpture in the cemetery at Omaha’s Mormon Trail Museum is not meant to commemorate who suffered but how they suffered–and how suffering, how grief along the trail west, required preposterous hope, hope enough to handle, however painfully, even the death of a child.
They’re young, these two grieving parents. No clinging child means the baby in a makeshift open casket beneath their feet is their first and only. They’re standing, perilously, on uneven ground. He’s trying to balance himself in a striking wind that heaves his coat–a blanket?–away, while he holds grimly the broken woman he loves.
Their faces are darkened, but we don’t need to see their swollen eyes to know what it is they feel. Soon enough, they will leave that beloved bundle behind and, in 1847, likely never return. They will walk away but never leave.
The bizarre early history of the Latter Day Saints might be cartoonish if it didn’t, once upon a time, create evil the saints appeared to want so badly to shed. But Tragedy at Winter Quarters is not simply a Mormon story. It’s bigger. What this couple is suffering can be bested only by hope that will, eventually, maybe, allow them live with the darkness.
Grief and hope–thus, these burdened two live by grief and hope. That’s what’s here in Fairbanks’ moving sculpture, a piece that stands in North Omaha because it holds particular meaning in the Winter Quarters cemetery, where only three graves remain from the many who died here while LDS faithful were waiting for winter to abate and get on the path to Zion. Avard Fairbanks’ own ancestors were here before departing with so many others for Salt Lake.
But Tragedy at Winter Quarters is not just a Mormon story. I come back every once in a while because the anguish reaches beyond time and place. It’s a Mormon masterpiece that belongs to all of us.
When for the first time in months he’s with his mother, a jailed addict, at her bond hearing, a fifteen-year-old Cherokee boy named Sequoia in Brandon Thompson’s Where the Dead Sit Talking, says that when that day he saw his mother’s warm smile, he couldn’t help but realize something he’d never considered before. “It struck me then how strong grief and hope were.” He sees it in the mom he’s loved even though, a year before, she appeared to have abandoned her own little boy. “Grief and hope,” he says to himself, and us, “are our anchor.”
Something about that couple in the stone brings me back time and time again. It’s just so very telling.
Couldn’t be more different, I suppose–David and the Mormons. But then, as Annie Lamott says, “Hope begins in the dark.”