It is said of the ancient days that a beloved Queen grew sick, being great with child. Though such was ordinary, even expected, her King worried. Against the counsel of his advisors (and his wife), the King sent for every skilled doctor, priest, and magician to remedy her illness — but to no avail. When the time came, the birth required the life of the mother. And price was paid twain, heavy and perpetual on the King. Eventually he re-married, but time never eased the weighty sting of the Queen’s death.
Nonetheless, his daughter grew into beauty, and the King increasingly saw his Queen in her eyes and in her laugh. And his love for her grew two-fold into the infinite. A year before the age of her marriage, the King desired the best for his beloved; he wanted to express to her, in the smallest sense, the joy her life gave to him. So he sent out a proclamation: a painting contest to win the hand of his daughter. The honorable man who could best represent “joy” in paint would marry her and join the royal court.
Many wealthy men hired famous painters of the day to make works depicting lavish banquets: the gods imbibing wines of opal and eating vermilion fruits, cured meats, and aged cheeses. Some commissioned large narrative works: depictions of precious metals and stones, beautiful women and mansions to rival the King. Others gambled, granting their commissioned artists creative freedom to paint what joy meant for them. Those pictures mainly consisted of paintings about painting, or the beauty of the arts. Some portrayed large collections of books and knowledge. Others showed the vast and immense beauty of the earth with vibrant colors and lines soft as powdered snow. And nearly all paintings were framed in pure gold.
Men of more humble circumstances tried their own hand at painting but never quite took pride in their work so as to present it to their King; nor did they think they had ever felt real joy. Other, yet humbler men, made no attempt to paint at all, considering themselves especially unworthy of the King’s daughter — except for one.
When the year expired, the King collected the works and spent a month in solitude observing each painting. The astounding variety and synthesis of beauty overwhelmed him. But one particular work quietly eased the King’s anxiety at choosing an unworthy husband for his daughter (no man can truly give of his daughter to another, no matter how great or noble). He emerged from isolation and announced his decision the following day. All gathered from east to west, and at the break of dawn the King unveiled his selection. Below crimson velvet sat a seemingly endless, boundless canvas, radiating terror and fury within a humble frame, barely holding the scene together. A horrifying thunderstorm shook nearly every tree in the landscape, with the rain beating down hard, as though the paint were eternally wet. Lightning struck bright with claps from all sides and the sky’s abyss hung thick in a heavy black. The work stood so large that nearly all gathered could feel the intensity for themselves. And nearly all thought the King meant to teach his people that joy was not real; that life was, and is, only suffering.
But the King knew this would happen. As he marveled at the work once more, he opened his mouth and shouted to the many gathered, “My people, amidst the terrible storms and darkness of this picture there is one detail you missed.” He raised his regal hand and pointed to an aged tree that did not sway so easily. In the branches of the tree clung a small nest, anchored at multiple points. Within the nest lived a family of violet-green sparrows, huddled together, raging the storm. “My people,” said the King, glancing at his queenly daughter, “to have one’s family, in the midst of the storm, is to have joy.” Tears fell down his cheek and onto his chest, so moved was this good King by the painting. “Where is the one responsible for this, that I may see him personally, that I may touch the holy hands that made such a work?”
From the back of the crowd emerged a humble man — one of the poorest in the kingdom. The King came down to meet him among his people and asked what inspired the painting. Kneeling before the King, he looked up, met his gaze, and said, “your holy eminence, this painting is a story my mother used to tell me when I was young, when we lived on our small plot of land and thunderstorms came at night, before she passed into the other world. Her loss and her life are in this painting. This, to me, is joy.”
The King pulled the man from the dirt and embraced him as an equal. After peering into his eyes he kissed his cheek, and said “me too, son.” And on that day, the burden of his Queen’s absence waxed light, and the King breathed the breath of new life.