Michael van Ofen illuminates a Madonna in response to Umberto Eco’s ’The Name of the Rose.’
Michael van Ofen illuminates a Madonna in response to Umberto Eco's 'The Name of the Rose.' (Image courtesy of Williams College Museum of Art)

She wears "a rose-colored straw hat decorated with flowers, the kind of hat the girls in Florence wear in the summer," and she holds "her head to one side, gazing gravely and softly into the distance as if posing a question."

In the painting she is young, but the man looking at the painting is a general -- and her son. They are characters in Sándor Márai's novel, "Embers," and the description appears in a new exhibit at the Williams College Museum of Art, "Painting between the Lines."

I walked through the show, and wished I had read all the books in it. Fourteen contemporary artists have painted scenes drawn, in some way, from descriptions of paintings in classic novels. The show has also gathered first editions of the novels -- the writers are Hungarian, Czech, Russian, Japanese, British, French, American -- and newer editions of the books to lend to visitors who want them.

Sometimes, the vivid paintings have clear connections to the fictional ones. But at others, a transition, a conversation has happened between the book and the painting. Jakub Julian Ziolkowski's painting, beside Márai's description, does not show flowers, a summer hat, a young woman looking sensual and thoughtful in a stiffly brocaded office. Ziolkowski shows a figure all but hidden in a kind of surreal anatomy lesson.

Across the room, the young monk in Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" palpitates over the painting of a woman in the book of Revelation.


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He is shaken by the female body. And beside this passage, a luminous painting in spare, entreating lines shows a form female only by a veil and a robe, a woman who does not have the firm lines of thigh and chest and brow that have set the boy monk trembling.

I want to ask Michael van Ofen, who painted her, what he thinks of Eco, and what he feels when he reads Adso's forray into the forbidden library -- and Ziolkowski why he loves "Embers."

But even more, I left the show wondering about Márai's young woman, squaring her bare shoulders and asking her question, in her frame above the cherry wood chest. He says, "she does not belong here."

What would happen if she walked out of the room, and took off the rose-colored hat to fan her forehead -- and Adso, closing his book, went down to meet her in the courtyard -- and they went out for a walk?