Sunday, December 26, 2004

Room 63A

Catalina MichaelaMuseo del Prado, Paseo del Prado

He told me that I looked like her, Catalina Micaela, the daughter of the Spanish king Felipe II, in the 16th century portrait by Sánchez Coello. I failed to see a resemblance when I found her portait online. She was just an image on my computer monitor.

Months later when I found myself strolling through the rooms of the Prado, I had forgotten Catalina. But after a while, after my gaze poured over Velazquez and Goya, took in Ribero and Zurbarán, she slowly emerged, invisibly, out of many canvases. Where was she? In the Prado? Thyssen? Did I even know? It’s as if I began to miss her, to call out to her.

Around 5 PM I wandered into a room, my sight saturated with so much exposure to beauty, my feet tired, my mind groggy. A bell rang. Visitors rushed past me, bumping into my bag. I stood fixed at the threshold, staring at Catalina.

She didn’t look like me, but I recognized her. She was on the other side of the room, but she was real, almost in the flesh. Her presence was imposing, larger-than-life, coming out of the blackness of an oil canvas, begging to be three-dimensional, to be alive once again. I took her in all at once, with uncanny familiarity: the details of her ornate dress, the stiffness of her collar, the austerity of her life, the fatigue in the eyes of this woman, who died giving birth at 33.

The bell rang again. The room was empty. I took one step toward the painting and the guard told me to leave. I pleaded with an urgency that surprised me. “You don’t understand, I’ve come all the way from America to see this one painting.” She showed no sympathy. “Pues no,” she replied, pointing her finger to the Puerta de Murillo exit.

The next day, on my way to Atocha to take the train to Toledo, I stopped just past the Prado and turned around. Toledo can wait, I thought. But Catalina can’t. I was drawn to the Prado, to her. This time we would not have a chance encounter. I found her deliberately, looking at the museum map: Room 63 A, by way of Bosch’s room, just around the corner from The Garden of Earthly Delights.

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