The story of Juan Latino’s portraitist, Esteban Luz, who enters this story when Don Juan of Austria visits Granada during the Alpujarras War (1568-70), otherwise known as the Civil War.
Near the city of Granada, in a village whose name has been forgotten–it was one of those Moorish villages wiped out during the war–a boy with an astonishing gift was born. He became a painter, an excellent one; he executed portraits that were both more faithful and inspired than any of his peers’. Wherever he placed his brush, the world magically appeared. People called him Esteban Luz. He was a Moorish boy from a small town, and to make the story even more extraordinary, his fellow townsmen despised him–they believed it was sinful to paint anything that looked so real. Indeed, his friends and enemies, his intimates and strangers alike scorned his gift, the Moors because they considered his livelihood despicable, while those Christians who made the long trip to commission portraits couldn’t comprehend why he stayed in that hamlet when he could have left those dirty Moors behind for a career in the royal court, surrounded by people of culture. The better he painted, the more he was detested by both camps. But his canvases were irresistible, hypnotic, and no sooner did his greatest critics lay eyes on them than they rushed to have their own portraits executed by that magical hand. All the aristocrats from neighboring towns had already approached him to be painted, and even the gentry; there was never a lack of money when it came to paying for one of his canvases. Nevertheless, he didn’t ask a single penny for his efforts, he accepted whatever people thought fit to pay. He did not know avarice, nor the fact that one needs to look after oneself, to protect oneself, and that money affords great protection. If he’d had the guile or the malice to suggest that his patrons donate the same pittance to the Church that they were paying for his works of art, it would have been a completely different story, the priest would have done whatever it took to ensure Esteban Luz continued painting, and he’d still be painting today, because at the time of this story he was barely sixteen years old.
Esteban Luz worked on his canvases from dawn till dusk, and if he stopped it was only for lack of light. The only thing he liked to do was paint. It was his all-consuming passion. He was perfectly happy so long as he was paid enough to buy brushes, canvas, paints, and food for himself and his elderly parents. If patrons brought their own materials, so much the better. The people in a nearby village profited nicely by selling these things to visitors.
He could have had a brilliant and lucrative career in any big city if he had learned the art of what I have called guile, he would have made it all the way to the royal court. He certainly painted no worse than, say, a Madrazo; he truly was a splendid artist. But Esteban Luz had no intention of abandoning his town, perhaps for one simple reason: his parents were blind. He always had two shadows following him, two shadows in complete darkness. But the truth was that he just didn’t want to leave. The more his neighbors despised him, the more he wanted to stay. He loved his home. Every morning he lifted his gaze to the green hills in the distance, and beyond them the vigilant sierra. He would never trade this landscape for a palace, nor for other hills and mountains. And least of all for the sea. At night he was tormented by visions of the sea, a black place, black as the blindness of his parents, dark without a glimmer of light, full of bodies being tossed about aimlessly.
Esteban Luz was not fond of painting the same model twice but even this didn’t compel him to leave his hometown in pursuit of new people and places, because there were always new births, and because physiognomies change over the years until they have become that completely strange and fascinating thing that is the face of an old man. Not to mention animals, which he also loved to paint, capturing the unique personality of each creature; there’s not a cat or a dog that doesn’t have one.
So that’s why he wasn’t wealthy, and why he didn’t have powerful friends; people were jealous of his talent and this jealously grew because he didn’t have the means to defend himself from the anger that the beauty he created in his paintings provoked.
A rumor was born out of this envy: that his parents were miraculously able to see anything that Esteban Luz committed to canvas. And that this was why he painted day and night, tirelessly, still-lives, palaces, people. Since the skies of his paintings were beyond compare, it was said that those two old blind folks could see them. Afternoons they could be found on their stoop, gazing at the sky in rapture. They’re seeing the heavens Esteban Luz painted instead of these leaden skies. And the villagers boiled with twice the envy.
This rumor spread, it became more specific and thus more credible, to the point that it was said when Esteban Luz received a visit in his humble home from one of his previous subjects, his parents recognized the patron immediately. Tongues wagged with the details of all these encounters, which were proof of Esteban Luz’s witchcraft. Did no one stop to think that, since they were blind, Esteban’s parents had developed a heightened sense of hearing and were able to recognize voices immediately? Everyone knows that blind people identify those around them by sound since nature has deprived them of sight.
This jealousy and envy grew and enveloped the poor painter, such that one day the ecclesiastical authorities appeared at his house and carted him off for engaging in witchcraft. To be fair, he was a sort of magician who knew how to create marvels out of nothing. But warlock he was not, and certainly not the kind to burn at the stake just so the children of the Church could sleep soundly.
They took him to jail. His elderly, blind parents had to leave their home to try to provide for themselves. People saw them and instead of feeling pity for the forsaken old couple they spread more rumors about them: that if they could walk down the street just like normal people then it was because they could see, and that if they could see it was because their son’s paint brush had restored their vision. Witch! Warlock! The village chanted in unison. The Inquisition made them quick to judge.
The painter was moved to the city. Upon arriving at the prison in Seville the warden provided him with paints and brushes–he too wanted to be immortalized by the great Esteban Luz. But the canvas the warden brought was of the very poorest quality, and on top of that it wasn’t primed. “I can’t paint on this,” the painter explained, “the canvas hasn’t been properly prepared.” What else could he paint on? “Bring me a canvas that’s been gessoed and I will gladly paint your portrait.” But the warden knew that the painter only had a few hours until his trials began. He knew all too well what the interrogations of the Inquisition were like; when they were over the painter would be unable to paint. If he regained any strength, it would be only to moan in pain. “Paint me on that wall there, it’s whitewashed,” he said. Esteban Luz considered the wall. The cell had recently been renovated due to a terrible fire; since he was a famous prisoner they had gifted him with whitewashed walls, which were, in effect, perfect for painting. Esteban Luz regarded the warden from head to toe as if he were taking notes on his personage. When he finished he said, “I’m going to begin painting now,” and he waved him off.
Esteban Luz arranged his brushes the way he always did before he began painting, he prepared his palette as best he could, and then he began his work.
First he traced the outline of a tree, both to put his stamp on the work and to make it more appealing, because the warden was not an attractive man. He copied from memory the tree that stood outside his home, an old elm that his mother loved and that he had painted time and again, discovering something new about it each time, a new expression, different gestures. Next he painted a horse. But once that was on the wall, Esteban Luz’s brush refused to paint the revolting warden into the saddle. Better, he thought, to fix this or that detail.
The horse seemed so real he looked like he would whinny. His coat shone, his eyes showed his character; they made you want to reach out and feel his breath.
The warden was growing impatient. He stopped by under the pretext of bringing him fire and water – night was falling–and he didn’t see anything but the horse. “What about me?” he asked. “You’ll be up there in no time, your feet won’t even touch the ground.” And the warden left, waited a little while, and then returned.
But he returned to find the cell empty. There was no sign of Esteban Luz or even of the horse. The elm was there in all its glory. But that was all.
Esteban Luz had not lied to him. A few hours later the warden dangled in the air, hanged for helping Esteban Luz escape. But before that, as soon as the painter had disappeared, a dutiful young man flew like the wind to Esteban Luz’s village to convey the news to his parents. Upon arriving at their humble abode, however, he found the doors wide open. Night was well-advanced, but with the help of a torch he entered the house in search of the parents, thinking that the old folks had forgotten to close the doors. Now, the whole town knew that every inch of those walls was hung with Esteban Luz’s paintings, but the walls were completely bare, there wasn’t even a mark where the paintings had been. The hastily-made pallets they slept on were empty. They had disappeared.
Some say that Esteban Luz mounted that horse he painted on the wall in Seville’s prison and that, grateful for being created as such a perfect specimen, the horse had carried him quickly away.
Others don’t believe the tale and say: “Someone offered to help Esteban Luz escape from prison and gave refuge to him and his parents in order to take advantage of his talents.” Which story is true? Neither? Did time itself do away with Esteban Luz, since he never understood that to practice his art he needed protection, money, friends in high places?
And protection from what?
Why such jealousy?
Why could he not just paint and be admired and bask in glory?
From La otra mano de Lepanto. Published 2005 by Ediciones Siruela, Madrid, and Fondo de Cultura Económica, México. © 2005 by Carmen Boullosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2006 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.