Isolation and “Courage” in Martin of Gfenn
by Martha Kennedy
“I realized then. Compassion requires the highest order of courage, not battle, not childbirth, not facing death. Those are easy. God designed us for them. Compassion, Martin. I never again suffered the darkness in my soul I had known all my life.”
In medieval times physical courage was a big deal, the virtue of warriors, an attribute of crusading knights, romantic heroes such as the Knights of the Round Table, and real live men such as Richard the Lionhearted. This heroism was linked (as it is today) with the willingness to risk one’s life for something vague and worthy such as the True Cross (or Democracy). There were other kinds of courageous heroes, too, those whose heroism was manifest in their charity, for example Saint Francis and Saint Martin of Tours who, in imitation of Christ, gave their possessions to the poor and even (gasp!) kissed lepers. These examples of courage are public and dramatic, the stuff of legend and song.
As a writer, I’m not much interested in this dramatic kind of courage. I’m interested in the courage we all need to fully live the life that has been given to us. I am continually awed by the heroism of those who face a personal challenge in which they lose all they hold dear and yet emerge from the dark pit transcendent, confronting their lives, their futures, the world with compassion rather than bitterness. I am surrounded by these people every day, ordinary people with extraordinary courage. This is a major theme in Martin of Gfenn. Martin, the protagonist, is challenged to find the courage to live life as it has been given to him.
Martin of Gfenn is set in mid-thirteenth century Switzerland. Martin is a young artist with tremendous talent and drive — and leprosy, a disease that disfigures, weakens and ultimately kills a person. In the middle ages, leprosy also had complex spiritual ramifications.
When his leprosy is discovered, Martin is only around nineteen years old, his life as a painter in front of him. He’s sent away from the Augustine Cloister. where he grew up and had begun his career, and he’s sent to the community of the community of the Knights of St. Lazarus — the Leper Knights — in the village of Gfenn two days walk away.
Naturally Martin is angry and sad, but he is also terrified that his leprosy will prevent him from painting — cripple his hands, blind him, eject him from society. He knows it will ultimately kill him, but it isn’t death that frightens him. He resists going to the leper community, fearing that if he surrenders to the reality of his affliction he can no longer paint. Determined to hide his illness, Martin becomes a successful mural painter in Zürich. His disease goes into remission, and he hopes against hope that the diagnosis was wrong. He experiences professional success and forms friendships, he is always profoundly alone, trapped in the fear that his illness, which goes into remission, will come back. He’s always afraid that he will be discovered and sent away or that he will no longer be physically able to paint. The combination of secrecy and fear leaves Martin psychically isolated, in terror of his future. Martin’s isolation ends only when he surrenders to his illness and joins other lepers at the leper hospital in the village of Gfenn.
He arrives at the community in the gray dismal days of November having been injured by hunters’ dogs who found him in the forest. At first, Martin is numb, defeated, seeing nothing around him but men waiting for death, living a cloistered life in which — Martin first believes — they are imprisoned. He sees his own future as an involuntary monk waiting to die.
The cloister is dismal and cold. The un-plastered, unfinished, unpainted walls of gray stone echo Martin’s misery, used as he is, as all would have been, to the brightly colored interior and exterior walls of medieval European cities. Learning that the buildings are new, the rough walls waiting for the right season to be plastered and finished, Martin founders in a sorrowful abyss of hopelessness. What might have been a project for Martin the Artist is nothing for Martin the Leper.
Martin reaches a psychological and physical crisis, collapsing on the floor of the unpainted chapel during the sanctification ceremony. He is delirious and fever-ridden for several weeks. During this time, everyone around him takes their turn caring for him. When he regains himself, he finds himself outside on a beautiful spring day. The first thing he sees are apple blossoms, beauty. Brother Heinrich is beside him on a bench beside the south wall of the chapel.
“I would…” Martin’s sentence broke off. “Could you get me something? I would like a piece of charcoal, a small one, some parchment? And a board? I would draw this scene, if I can.”
Brother Heinrich returned with all that Martin had asked for and found him sleeping. “It is best,” he said. He placed the board where Martin would see it, and placed the piece of charcoal in his hand.
When Martin woke, the sun was still high and the day still warm. Finding what Brother Heinrich had left, he sat up, and setting the board at an angle on his knee, held it with his left hand. He drew the branches in first blossom just as it was above him. Drawing filled his mind until there was no other world.
Martin slowly becomes part of the community at Gfenn, learning that “…where all are lepers none are lepers.” He makes friends with Brothers Hugo, Lothar and Heinrich and develops a complex and mutually rewarding bond with the Commander of the order. In the passing of time he is inspired to paint the chapel. In his box of tools, which he had named “La Mia Vita,” “My Life,”, he has some pigments left over from his painting days in Zürich and he finds more during his walks in the fens around the cloister. He begins a campaign to persuade the Commander to let him paint the walls of the now-plastered chapel, but he faces a challenge. The Commander is not sure WHY Martin is so determined to paint — is it for the glory of God or for the glory of Martin?
In afternoons spent reading to the Commander — who has all but lost his eyesight — Martin makes his pitch as well as he can. His main argument is that the people living at Gfenn should have the same beautiful images around them during worship that they had when they were living outside, that if any people in the world needed Christ’s message of hope, it is a community of lepers. Martin admits there is a personal component; he wants to paint while he is still able:
“For all your kindness, you have not heard me,” said Martin, softly. “Everything in my life, everything… I have read and interpreted and understood God’s word through these.” Martin held out his hands to the Commander, one hand robust, articulate and strong, the other rapidly losing its usefulness. “And through these I have worked to interpret it for others. I am terrified I will lose what little remains to me.”
But, persuasive as his argument is, it doesn’t work. Finally, in December, a year after his crisis, Martin summons the courage to draw, in chalk, the images he would paint. He chooses the east window of the chapel, a window that represents the Light of the World, the body of Christ. His determination is inspired by the misery of those around him, his sudden awareness that in his paintings might bring hope to others.
He looked through the arched opening to the refectory where the others sat at the long table knitting scarves and bandages, mending felt slippers and cassocks. They worked awkwardly, struggling with twisted hands, crumpled fingers, half-blind eyes. Each action, each stitch, reminded them of what they could no longer do. Martin’s heart filled… “This is no good,” he thought. “We go now from one dark, sad room to another.” He clenched his fist in frustration and decided to wait no longer.
He chose the darkest day, the shortest of the year. After breakfast he went directly to the chapel, his pouch filled with the good black charcoal he had made and what remained of brightly colored pastels he had made in Zürich. Above the small arched window, he drew the head of Christ, the window forming the body of the Lord. To the left of Jesus, Martin drew John the Baptist; to Christ’s right, St. Lazarus the Leper leaning heavily on his crutch, shaded from the heat by an apple tree. Each movement of Martin’s hand took his thoughts to this wall and restored his life. If the Commander didn’t like it, Martin had only to wash it away.
Martin grinned without flinching when the numbness of his face reminded him he could only half smile. God existed outside of time, as St. Augustine had proven, but Martin did not have the illusion of forever with which healthy people live. He had almost lost one hand to this disease. He decided then that if the Commander allowed him to paint, he would work directly on the walls. He would not paint for the future, but for the moment.
When the residents go to the chapel for mass, some of them see the drawings around the window. They are stunned, thrilled, by what they regard as a miracle.
(Martin) heard someone gasp, “Commander, look!” But the Commander’s weak eyes could not make out the shapes around the window.
“What are you talking about? What is it?”
“The Lord, Commander!” Hans Ruedi pointed at the window, but even the faint light coming through the Body of Christ was too much for the Commander’s eyes and blinded him to the shapes, lines and colors around it.
“Just tell me, my son, what is it you see?”
Others came to the front of the church to see what Hans Ruedi had seen.
“It is a marvel,” a hoarse voice spoke in wonder. Martin’s argument was made.
Martin wrests from the Commander permission to paint the chapel and he is given a helper, a healthy boy, Hans Ruedi who becomes almost a son to Martin. The familiar images of the church gradually appear on the walls, first in the chancel and then all around the sanctuary. At the same time, little-by-little, Martin loses his physical abilities.
In due time, the Commander dies. Though the Lazarite Order mandates that Commanders must be lepers, the population of lepers in Europe has declined, and there is no one to take the Commander’s place. He is replaced by a man who has no sympathy for the leper residents. Prior Werner, fears, detests and avoids them, does not give mass to them, does not take their confession. They are isolated within their own community which is now being shared with the healthy poor. The Commander had once said to Martin, “…compassion requires the highest order of courage…” In the cowardice of Prior Werner, Martin finally understands why this is so.
In the darkest time, Martin’s paintings — and Martin painting — take the place of religious services for the few remaining leper residents who come daily to the chapel to watch him paint. In Martin’s perseverance, and the emerging images of a beloved story, they find hope. And Martin no longer fears the moment that he will no longer be able to paint. He fears that he will finish the walls.
He awoke shaking. He washed as well as he could, and went to the chapel to await the day. He hoped it would be fine and that the body of Christ would be lit by the sun. He stood beneath his paintings, remembering all he had dreamed and fought for just to paint them. Where was that man? He seemed so far away. On his walls, Christ was dying. At each step, he died a little more. He had no faith. He did not know what would happen to him; God’s son, and yet? “The human Lord is the only Lord who could love us,” thought Martin. “Only a God of flesh could feel what it means to be human, to carry death with you always, to be frightened, hopeless and resigned.”
Light took the horizon bringing a clear day. Turning his back to the window, Martin walked into the nave to begin work. He was halfway through the scene of Christ being lowered from the Cross. Christ’s eyes were black slits, his mouth a slash across his lower face. Martin stared, remembering different work, fluid lines, the elegant expression of a dragon at St. George’s feet, the soft blue eyes of a girl soon to be a bride. Martin awkwardly dipped his brush into the red earth that would cover the green under painting of the faces on the wall, but as he lifted it, the brush fell and splattered red paint everywhere. Martin tried picking it up, but his arm could not respond to his will.
He stepped down … and tried to gather his tools into the box, but that, too, was more than he could do and so, leaving everything behind, he walked outside into a world that had become suddenly spring.
Certain that he cannot continue, Martin “…went to Prior Werner’s latticed window and said, “Father, I can no longer paint. In any case, I could not have placed that poor man into the cold ground.” Martin takes his leave of the Prior and goes for a walk along the fens. His fear that he could no longer paint has long vanished, replaced by compassion for what he is painting and those for whom he paints.
The Lazarite Church in the Swiss village of Gfenn is a real place and the paintings described in my novel — some of them — are really there. No one knows who painted them. I tried to depict them in the story as I saw them on the walls and ceilings of the church. I imagined the painter having been a leper, a resident of the community. Such a thing is not impossible, still Martin and all the others are fictional characters. Where I found historical facts, I used them as the scaffolding on which I’ve hung my story.
Martha Kennedy was born in Denver, Colorado. She attended Colorado Women’s College and the University of Colorado, Boulder where she earned a BA in English. She then went on to earn a master’s degree from the University of Denver, also in English. At the time, her main focus of interest was Godey’s Lady’s Book and her thesis looks at the first few years of the editorship of Sarah Josepha Hale and the role of the magazine in promoting work by American writers. For thirty years, Kennedy lived in the San Diego area and taught writing at the university and community college level. She has recently returned to Colorado and now lives in Monte Vista, a small town in the beautiful San Luis Valley.
In 1997, Kennedy made her second trip to Switzerland. She’d become intrigued by medieval history after reading two books — How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill (she bought the book thinking it was a joke) and A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman. Having learned of the evangelical journey of the Irish monk, St. Columbanus with his colleague, St. Gall (who remained in what is now Switzerland and is Switzerland’s patron saint), Kennedy wanted very much to see the places in real life. That journey led her to the Lazariterkirche im Gfenn (the Church of the Knights of St. Lazarus in Gfenn). Though the church has nothing whatever to do with St. Gall, the history of the church inspired Kennedy to learn more about the Knights of St. Lazarus and to write the novel Martin of Gfenn. In the process, she became a Swiss medievalist historian.
Martin of Gfenn was named an Editor’s Choice book in the Indie Novel category by the Historical Novel Society in 2015 and long-listed for the Indie Award. It is also an B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree.
Kennedy has published a second novel, Savior, which tells the story of a young man who goes on Crusade to save his soul which he believes is in the grip of Satan. Kennedy has also written a third novel, The Brothers’ Path, which looks at the effect of the Reformation on a family of brother living in the Canton of Zürich in the early 15th century during the ascendancy of Huldrych Zwingli.
B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree