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Some Famous Madonnas

( Originally Published 1920 )


THERE has been no subject more frequently treated in art than the Madonna in its various forms and phases. Ever since the beginning of Christianity, it has been the object of loving care and tender reverence on the part of painters of all kinds. It is associated with all that is finest in modem art.

The various stages of development of the Madonna theme in early art are interesting to both the student and the lover of painting, for the more clearly one understands them, the greater is the discovery of charm in half-appreciated paintings. Roughly, the historical development illustrates somewhat the following line of growth, proceeding from the earliest ascetic portraiture to the more modern intimate treatment.

The earliest Madonnas were portrait-like figures, stiffly arranged, with the utmost formality and severity. Usually they were about half-length, and the background was of the slightest importance. From this it was a natural step to the development of a throne or dais on which the mother was seated with her child in her arms. The further representation of this aspect led to the introduction of a celestial back-ground, the heavens opening up and down to disclose the Holy Mother. Still later, the Madonna was represented in the open fields surrounded by lovely and beautiful scenery. The last phase was the domestic one, in which the Madonna was represented in the environment of a home, a stable, or other interior scene.

The oldest of the portrait Madonnas were the so-called Byzantine Madonnas, because they were brought from the ancient city of Byzantium, now Constantinople, to Italy. Most of them show a background of pale gold, reminiscent of the Eastern devotion which attaches gold and precious stones to the object of its adoration,-as may still be seen in Russian churches at the present time. The portraits themselves show little in the way of beauty, but they have been so long worshipped that one cannot but feel a regard for them, out of all proportion to their actual merit. In many cases, legend has attributed these pictures to the workmanship of some saintly artist.

One of the earliest Italian painters to undertake the painting of the Madonna with the thought of something a little more natural than the older pictures had shown, was Jacopo Bellini, a Venetian, who painted at the beginning of the fifteenth century. He too ornamented his back-ground with gold, and faintly indicated angel-heads adorned it. This, as it is one of the most artistic of these early portrait Madonnas, is also one of the last, for with the growth of technical skill, painters made use of increasingly complicated effects.

Many of these early painters of the Mother and Child were monks, and their representations are painted on the walls of old convents, in churches and private chapels; and they all show a profound religious feeling. There are later instances of the portrait Madonna; and one of the most interesting is the so-called "Madonna of the Napkin," which takes its name from a curious tale. Murillo, the artist, spent a time in a Capuchin monastery, painting as the monks desired. When it came time for him to leave, the cook in the institution, who had done him some services, begged a small painting as a gift. The painter agreed, and, as there was nowhere a canvas upon which to execute the picture, he accepted a napkin which was offered to him as a substitute. The resulting Madonna is one of his most beautiful.

In its next phase, the Madonna is shown seated on a sort of throne, surrounded, often, by a group of saints or worshippers. The saints may be identified by the various symbols which they carry, each pertaining to the special form of martyrdom to which they were the victims. Sometimes, too, the figures of special persons, contemporary with the painter, are introduced for one reason or another,-the figure of the ruling duke or king, of a personal friend of the painter's, or of some wealthy patron of the arts.

Probably the greatest picture of Andrea del Sarto, the "faultless painter," is a picture of this kind. It is often called the "Madonna of the Harpies," because of the harpies which are twisted into a design around the throne on which the Virgin stands. Another famous Madonna is that of Perugino, in which Mary is accompanied by two of the reverend bishops and a couple of saints. This picture was one copied in varied form by Raphael and Pinturicchio, who were pupils of Perugino. These are among the notable models of the kind.

Among the artists of the Venetian school the prejudice in favor of the royal Madonna was very great. It appealed to the Venetian love of color and magnificence, and it offered opportunity for all the lavish elaboration of detail and gorgeous workmanship in which the painters of Venice loved to clothe their portraits.

One of the earliest Venetian Madonnas which makes use of this type of arrangement is that of Giovanni Bellini, the "Madonna of San Zaccaria." This was painted when Bellini had grown old,-he was past eighty,-and it shows his maturest art.

A painter who followed Bellini, and stood between him and the later artists was Georgione, and his "Madonna of Castelfranco" is one of the supremely lovely things of the kind. There is in the face of the mother a curious brooding expression which reveals an intensity of contemplation and a profound sympathy with all the sorrows of the world, which stands alone as an artistic presentation.

But it was not enough to represent the Madonna on the throne; the Italian painters wished to find still another way of emphasizing her separation by her high calling from other mothers. 'To satisfy this desire there was developed the fashion of representing her in the sky, in company with angel figures of various sorts. Fra Angelico painted such a Madonna, the "Madonna della Stella," so-called from the star that is poised like a jewel above her head. Around her, but yet at a considerable distance, are ranged angels in a great circle, paying her homage. This is the earliest form of the glorified Madonna.

There are any number of devices for representing the Madonna after this style. Sometimes the whole picture is arranged against a background of upper air; sometimes again there are two sections, showing the ethereal realms and the earth below, with but slight separation of the two, and sometimes the Virgin is represented with a very distinct line separating her from the rest of the picture.

In all these pictures the definite school to which the painter be-longed is plainly evident both from the special variation of the principle which he adopted, and also from the physical and intellectual type from which he drew his subject. Thus the Venetian school shows a vivid, robust, voluptuous figure, while another is distinguished by the meagre, ascetic expression of its Virgins, and a third by the mysticism of its handling. All these elements must be taken, into account in deter-mining the importance or character of a special picture.

With the development of the art of painting came the use of landscape as a setting for the Madonna figures. The knowledge of how to handle the problems which the painting of nature involves was one of the last technical problems to be solved by the artists of the Renaissance, and it is often a matter of curiosity to see how they attempt to meet it. One recalls the difficulty of the frescoes of Giotto, and the famous illustrations of the life of St. Francis, in which the background seems to overwhelm the picture in the foreground. In many of the pictures, a mountain in the distance seems about to fall on the shoulders of saint or devotee; or the dark forest behind the Virgin looms over her like a vast canopy. Often, too, the rivers which wind through the plains behind her flow most strangely to the modern eye, trained as it is in the appreciation of perspective. All this the artists of the Renaissance had to learn, and they set about it in many ways.

Among the earlier Madonnas of Raphael there are a number which show bits of open country behind the group of holy personages; and often these are employed in the enthroned Madonnas, to fill in special spaces. Thus in Georgione's picture, there are exquisite glimpses of open country shown in the distance, behind the figures of the two saints which stand at the base of the throne. The Madonnas of Raphael which show this treatment especially are that called "La Belle Jardiniere," the "Madonna in the Meadow," and the "Madonna of the Gold-finch." In all of these the landscape is of the open, quiet sort which fits so perfectly with the type and characteristics of the mother and child who are represented in it.

A distinctive rendering of the Madonna was achieved by the Venetian artists, who represented what has been called the "Santa Conversazione." Its merit lies in the naturalness of pose and action which it makes possible, for it represents the mother and child sitting in the open with a group of figures about them, in the easy and familiar attitudes which might be expected on such an occasion. Palma Vecchio is supposed to have been the inventor of this form of treatment.

There are not a few paintings in which the Virgin is represented in a garden, surrounded by flowers, and with or without a considerable number of accompanying figures. Such a one is the "Madonna of the Rose-garden" of Filippino Lippi. This is an exquisite bit of painting, showing the enclosed garden in which the Virgin kneels beside her Child, with angels about her, and all surrounded by blossoming shrubs.

One of the latest developments of the Madonna-theme was that which permitted the adoption of an interior setting, such as we see so frequently in all kinds of modern portrait work. For a long time this was not held to be permissible, owing to the veneration which the painters and buyers felt for the sanctity of their subject. It is a matter of interest that this development of the subject was made by the painters of the North, German and Flemish and Dutch.

Significantly enough, this development in the representation of the Madonna is one which foreshadows the latest development of art, which has found its inspiration of late years in the life of humble folk, and which in doing so has achieved the union of poetry and realism. Millet, in representing the peasants of France, found the same dignity and profound sanctity that is possible in this type of Madonna.

In all these pictures, we have noticed the manner of treatment, rather than the essential conception of the subject. The understanding of maternity is, necessarily, of such breadth and largeness that it is impossible to comprehend its whole significance in one picture, or in one form of art. No two painters see it through the same eyes, or with the same significances. It is therefore possible to recognize the work of a painter or a school by the expression of the Madonna as well as by other more tangible evidences.

The simplest type of Madonna is that which shows the affection of the mother for her child, without endowing that love with any superhuman qualities. Such a Madonna fits best with simple settings, unhampered by the trappings of the throne and celestial attendants which the Madonna seated among the clouds requires. The Madonna of the Chair shows this simplicity and universal, human affection in a high degree; there is no subtlety of conception or execution to puzzle or perplex the beholder; all is plain, human, lovely, with only its superb humanity to suggest its divine origin. In the same way Correggio shows the human qualities in his Madonnas. The "Vierge au Lapin" of Titian is another instance of the kind. The same phase of maternal affection is especially characteristic of the Flemish and German painters, and may be seen in the work of Rembrandt, Rubens, and Albrecht Durer.

There is a different conception of the Virgin Mother, however, and this is no less remarkable than the other. In this is recognized to the full the sacred duty imposed upon Mary, and she is shown in all the various stages of humility and awe. Her position suggests her mental attitude. Sometimes she stands before the Child, at other moments she kneels before him, while at other times she may be seen brooding over him and his destiny with a profound appreciation of the honor which has been granted her in being the bearer of the precious life.

From this the gradations by which the Madonna slips into the conscious Mother of God, knowing her duty, and foreseeing the agony which awaits her, yet calmly and earnestly accepting the charge laid upon her, are easily made. It may be seen in the pictures by Giovanni Bellini, in the pale, devout Madonnas of Botticelli, and in the grave, wondering Spanish faces of Murillo's paintings.

In this way some of the great masters of painting have sought to show the beauty of the Madonna, and to emphasize the effects of the various phases of religious and emotional conception. No two people can be found to see the Virgin in the same way, or to appreciate the simple fact of motherhood alike; and it is one of the perennial charms of art that it finds opportunity for the expression of all these varying forms of understanding. Great though the variety of Italian paintings of the Virgin is, there is yet room for an additional treatment, if there can but be found a painter of sufficiently high skill and character to undertake it.

It is most notable that the purer the artist's own understanding and character, the purer and finer will be his rendering of the Madonna theme. In a certain sense the highest development of this belongs to a past age, in which the religious fervor of nations as a whole had reached a point which seems incompatible with modern civilization. The Madonnas of the future will be more intimate than those of previous centuries, more humanly dependent, less regal; but they will all hold the same fundamental reverence which has made the older Madonnas famous. Under all the variations of form which the passing of time has laid upon the treatment of the Madonna, its essential dignity and holiness becomes increasingly evident in the hands of competent artists.

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