“A fifteenth-century chapel in a backstreet of an unnamed northern European town. It is early afternoon on a sombre winter’s day and a middle-aged man shakes down his umbrella and steps inside. The space is warm and dark, lit only by several rows of candles that throw a dance of shadows across the limestone walls. There are comfortable, well-worn pews and, on the floor, prayer cushions, each one embroidered with the words Mater Dolorosa. An elderly woman kneels in the far corner, mumbling to herself with her eyes closed.
The man is exhausted. His joints ache. He feels weak, vulnerable and close to tears. No single event has brought him to this point, just a run of minor humiliations that have cumulatively contributed to an overwhelming sense of mediocrity, superfluousness and self-hatred. His career, once so promising, has for a long time now been in descent. He knows how unimpressive he must appear to others, how keen they are to move on from him in social gatherings and just how many of his proposals and letters have gone unanswered. He no longer has the confidence to push himself forward. He is appalled by the seams of impatience and vanity in his character which have led him to this professional impasse. He is stricken by feelings of remorse, foreboding and loneliness. He knows, however, that he couldn’t possibly bring these worries home with him. The boys need to believe in his strength. His harried wife has too much on her plate already – and he has learned from experience how badly things turn out when he presents himself to the household in this mood.
He wants to fall asleep and be held. He wants to cry. He wants to be forgiven and reassured. There is music playing through concealed speakers in the chapel, the aria “Erbarme dich, mein Gott” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. He searches for ideas he can cling to, but nothing seems solid. He is unable to think logically and even making the effort to do so has become more than he can bear.
Having fallen to his knees, he looks up at the painting that hangs above the altar. It shows a tender, sympathetic, gentle young woman with a halo around her head. She gazes back down at him with infinite care – and, without his having to say a word, seems to understand everything … ”