The best companion for a writer

As they toiled, each of the Gospel writers had a companion (as depicted by famous painters): Matthew, an angel; Luke, a bull; John, an eagle; and Mark, a lion.

At the Gallerie dell'Accademia, that treasure house of Venetian painting, there are four ceiling panels of the Gospel writers painted by Titian.

An angel stands behind the seated Matthew. Writing is a solitary undertaking, so Matthew benefits from both the companionship of the angel and the inspiration that it presumably imparts. What more could a writer want?

On the other hand, the angel's presence could be a distraction. Writers choose to work undisturbed for a reason. Worse still, what if the angel has a fondness for editing? To have an angel-editor peer over your shoulder, scrutinizing your every word, would be intolerable.

In the sacristy of the Church of San Sebastiano in Venice, Paolo Veronese has also painted the Gospel writers at work. Luke is making good use of the bull as a desktop. He has placed his book on the animal's flank.

Here again there is a downside. A restless bull means a moving writing surface, and there are considerable expenses related to the care and feeding of a bull.

Elsewhere in Venice, on a chapel wall in the Church of San Zaccaria is a 15th- century painting depicting John the Evangelist. John "stands with an absorbed look sharpening a quill which he appears to have plucked from the disgruntled eagle at his feet," writes Hugh Honour in "The Companion Guide to Venice." Nearby, Luke scratches his ear with yet another quill. That poor eagle!

No writer wants to spend time with a sulking eagle. And no writer uses a quill today, anyway. So John's eagle seems eminently dispensable. But not - in my opinion - Mark's lion.

A lion is useful for keeping bothersome people away. And this lion is a reader. (What every writer wants.) He holds open a book with his paw.

For my writing companion, I would choose the literate lion.

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