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The Virgin Mary and Child Enthroned

( Originally Published 1895 )



Lat. Sancta Dei Genitrix. Virgo Deipara. Ital. La Santissima Vergine, Madre di Dio. Fr. La Sainte Vierge, Mère de Dieu. Ger. Die Heilige Mutter Gottes.

THE Virgin in her maternal character opens upon us so wide a field of illustration, that I scarce know where to begin or how to find my way amid the crowd of associations which press upon me. A mother holding her child in her arms is no very complex subject ; but like a very simple air constructed on a few expressive notes, which, when harmonized, is susceptible of a thousand modulations, and variations, and accompaniments, while the original motif never loses its power to speak to the heart, so it is with the MADONNA AND CHILD — a subject so consecrated by its antiquity, so hallowed by its profound significance, so endeared by its associations with the softest and deepest of our human sympathies, that the mind has never wearied of its repetition, nor the eye become satiated with its beauty. Those who refuse to give it the honor due to a religious representation, yet regard it with a tender half-unwilling homage ; and when the glorified type of what is purest, loftiest, holiest in womanhood stands before us, arrayed in all the majesty and beauty that accomplished Art, inspired by faith and love, could lend her, and bearing her divine Son, rather enthroned than sustained on her maternal bosom, " we look, and the heart is in heaven ! " and it is difficult, very difficult, to refrain from an Ora pro Nobis. But before we attempt to classify these lovely and popular effigies, in all their infinite variety, from the enthroned grandeur of the Queen of Heaven, the SANCTA DEI GENITRIX, down to the peasant mother swaddling or suckling her infant, or to interpret the innumerable shades of significance conveyed by the attendant accessories, we must endeavor to trace the representation itself to its origin.

This is difficult. There exists no proof, I believe, that the effigies of the Virgin with the infant Christ in her arms, which existed before the end of the fifth century, were placed before Christian worshippers as objects of veneration. They appear to have been merely groups representing a particular incident of the New Testament, namely, the adoration of the Magi ; for I find no other in which the mother is seated with the infant Christ, and this is an historical subject of which we shall have to speak hereafter. From the beginning of the fourth century, that is, from the time of Constantine and the condemnation of Arius, the popular reverence for the Virgin, the Mother of Christ, had been gaining ground ; and at the same time the introduction of images and pictures into the places of worship and into the houses of Christians, as ornaments on glass vessels and even embroidered on garments and curtains, became more and more diffused. (Vide Neander's Church History.)

The earliest effigies of the Virgin and Child may be traced to Alexandria and to Egyptian influences ; and it is as easily conceivable that the time-consecrated Egyptian myth of Isis and Horus may have suggested the original type, the outward form and the arrangement of the maternal group, as that the classical Greek types of the Orpheus and Apollo should have furnished the early symbols of the Redeemer as the Good Shepherd, — a fact which does not rest upon supposition, but of which the proofs remain to us in the antique Christian sculptures and the paintings in the catacombs.

The most ancient Greek figures of the Virgin and Child have perished ; but, as far as I can learn, there is no evidence that these effigies were recognized by the Church as sacred before the beginning of the sixth century. It was the Nestorian schism which first gave to the group of the Mother bearing her divine Son that religious importance and significance which it has ever since retained in Catholic countries.

The divinity of Christ and his miraculous conception, once established as articles of belief, naturally imparted to Mary, his mother, a dignity beyond that of other mothers her Son was God; therefore the title of MOTHER OF GOD was as-signed to her. When or by whom first brought into use does not appear ; but about the year 400 it became a popular designation.

Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople in 428, had begun by persecuting the Arians ; but while he insisted that in Jesus were combined two persons and two natures, he insisted that the Virgin Mary was the mother of Christ considered as man, but not the mother of Christ considered as God; and that, consequently, all those who gave her the title of Dei Genitrix, Deipara were in error. There were many who adopted these opinions, but by a large portion of the Church they were repudiated with horror, as utterly subverting the doctrine of the mystery of the Incarnation. Cyril of Alexandria opposed Nestorius and his followers, and defended with zealous enthusiasm the claims of the Virgin to all the reverence and worship due to her; for, as he argued, the two natures being one and indivisible from the moment of the miraculous conception, it followed that Mary did indeed bring forth God, — was, in fact, the Mother of God ; and all who took away from her this dignity and title were in error, and to be condemned as heretics.

I hope I shall not be considered irreverent in thus plainly and simply stating the grounds of this celebrated schism, with reference to its influence on Art, — an influence incalculable, not only at the time, but ever since that time ; of which the manifold results, traced from century to century down to the present hour, would remain quite unintelligible, unless we clearly understood the origin and the issue of the controversy.

Cyril, who was as enthusiastic and indomitable as Nestorius, and had the advantage of taking the positive against the negative side of the question, anathematized the doctrines of his opponent, in a synod held at Alexandria in 430, to which Pope Celestine II. gave the sanction of his authority. The Emperor Theodosius II. then called a general council at Ephesus in 431, before which Nestorius refused to appear, and was deposed from his dignity of patriarch by the suffrages of two hundred bishops. But this did not put an end to the controversy ; the streets of Ephesus were disturbed by the brawls, and the pavement of the cathedral was literally stained with the blood of the contending parties.

Theodosius arrested both the patriarchs, but after the lapse of only a few days Cyril triumphed over his adversary; with him triumphed the cause of the Virgin. Nestorius was de-posed. and exiled; his writings condemned to the flames; but still the opinions he had advocated were adopted by numbers, who were regarded as heretics by those who called themselves " the Catholic Church."

The long continuance of this controversy, the obstinacy of the Nestorians, the passionate zeal of those who held the opposite doctrines, and their ultimate triumph when the Western Churches of Rome and Carthage declared in their favor, all tended to multiply and disseminate far and wide throughout Christendom those images of the Virgin which exhibited her as Mother of the Godhead. At length the ecclesiastical authorities, headed by Pope Gregory the Great, stamped them as orthodox, and as the cross had been the primeval symbol which distinguished the Christian from the Pagan, so the image of the Virgin Mother with her Child now became the symbol which distinguished the Catholic Christian from the Nestorian Dissenter.

Thus it appears that if the first religious representations of the Virgin and Child were not a consequence of the Nestorian schism, yet the consecration of such effigies as the visible form of a theological dogma to the purposes of worship and ecclesiastical decoration must date from the Council of Ephesus in 431 ; and their popularity and general diffusion throughout the Western Churches, from the pontificate of Gregory in the beginning of the seventh century.

In the most ancient of these effigies which remain, we have clearly only a symbol ; a half figure, veiled, with hands outspread, and the half figure of a child placed against her bosom, without any sentiment, without even the action of sustaining him. Such was the formal but quite intelligible sign; but it soon became more, it became a representation. As it was in the East that the cause of the Virgin first triumphed, we might naturally expect to find the earliest examples in the old Greek churches ; but these must have perished in the furious onslaught made by the Iconoclasts on all the sacred images. The controversy between the image-worshippers and the image-breakers, which distracted the East for more than a century (that is, from 726 to 840) did not, however, extend to the West of Europe. We find the primeval Byzantine type, or at least the exact reproduction of it, in the most ancient Western Churches, and preserved to us in the mosaics of Rome, Ravenna, and Capua. These remains are nearly all of the same date, much later than the single figures of Christ as Redeemer, and belonging unfortunately to a lower period and style of Art. The true significance of the representation is not, how-ever, left doubtful ; for all the earliest traditions and inscriptions are in this agreed, that such effigies were intended as a confession of faith ; an acknowledgment of the dignity of the Virgin Mary as the " SANCTA Dei GENITRIX ; " as a visible refutation of " the infamous, iniquitous, and sacrilegious doctrines of Nestorius the Heresiarch."

As these ancient mosaic figures of the Virgin, enthroned with her infant Son, were the precursors and models of all that was afterwards conceived and executed in Art, we must examine them in detail before proceeding farther.

The mosaic of the cathedral of Capua represents in the highest place the half figure of Christ in the act of benediction. In one of the spandrils, to the right, is the prophet Isaiah, bearing a scroll, on which is inscribed, " Ecce Dominus in fortitudine veniet, et brachium ejus dominabitur," — " The Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him " (Is. xl. 10). On the left stands Jeremiah, also with a scroll, and the words, "Fortissime, magne, et potens, Dominus exercituum nomen tibi," " The great, the mighty God, the Lord of hosts is his name" (Jer. xxxii. 18). In the centre of the vault beneath, the Virgin is seated on a rich throne, a footstool under her feet ; she wears a crown over her veil. Christ, seated on her knee, and clothed, holds a cross in his left hand ; the right is raised in benediction. On one side of the throne stands St. Peter and St. Stephen ; on the other, St. Paul and St. Agatha, to whom the church is dedicated. The Greek monogram of the Virgin is inscribed below the throne.

The next in date which remains visible is the group in the apsis of S. Maria della Navicella, Rome, executed about 820, in the time of Paschal I., a pontiff who was very remarkable for the zeal with which he rebuilt and adorned the then half-ruined churches of Rome. The Virgin, of colossal size, is seated on a throne ; her robe and veil are blue ; the infant Christ, in a gold-colored vest, is seated in her lap, and raises his hand to bless the worshippers. On each side of the Virgin is a group of adoring angels ; at her feet kneels the diminutive figure of Pope Paschal

In the Santa Maria Nuova, the Virgin is seated on a throne, wearing a rich crown, as queen of heaven. The infant Christ stands upon her knee ; she has one hand on her bosom and sustains him with the other.

On the façade of the portico of the S. Maria-in--Trastevere at Rome, the Virgin is enthroned, and crowned, and giving her breast to the child. This mosaic is of later date than that in the apsis, but is one of the oldest examples of a representation which was evidently directed against the heretical doubts of the Nestorians : " How," said they, pleading before the Council of Ephesus, " can we call him God who is only two or three months old ; or suppose the Logos to have been suckled and to increase in wisdom ? " the Virgin in the act of suckling her Child is a motif often since repeated when the original significance was forgotten.

In the chapel of San Zeno, Rome, the Virgin is enthroned ; the Child is seated on her knee. He holds a scroll, on which are the words " Ego sum lux munch," " I am the light of the world ; " the right hand is raised in benediction. Above is the monogram M-P OY, MARIA MATER DEI.

In the mosaics, from the eighth to the eleventh century, we find Art at a very low ebb. The background is flat gold, not a blue heaven with its golden stars, as in the early mosaics of the fifth and sixth centuries. The figures are ill-proportioned ; the faces consist of lines without any attempt at form or expression. The draperies, however, have a certain amplitude ; " and the character of a few accessories, for example, the crown on the Virgin's head, instead of the invariable Byzantine veil, betrays," says Kugler, " a northern and probably a Frankish influence." The attendant saints, generally St. Peter and St. Paul, stand stiff and upright on each side.

But with all their faults, these grand, formal, significant groups — or rather not groups, for there was as yet no attempt either at grouping or variety of action, for that would have been considered irreverent — but these rows of figures, were the models of the early Italian painters and mosaic-workers in their large architectural mosaics and altar-pieces set up in the churches during the revival of Art, from the period of Cima-bue and Andrea Tafi down to the latter half of the thirteenth century ; all partook of this lifeless, motionless character, and were at the same time touched with the same solemn religious feeling. And long afterwards, when the arrangement became less formal and conventional, their influence may still be traced in those noble enthroned Madonnas, which represent the Virgin as queen of heaven and of angels, either alone, or with attendant saints and martyrs, and venerable confessors waiting round her state.

The general disposition of the two figures varies but little in the earliest examples which exist for us in painting, and which are, in fact, very much alike. The Madonna seated on a throne, wearing a red tunic and a blue mantle, part of which is drawn as a veil over her head, holds the infant Christ, clothed in a red or blue tunic. She looks straight out of the picture with her head a little declined to one side. Christ has the right hand raised in benediction, and the other extended. Such were the simple, majestic, and decorous effigies, the legitimate successors of the old architectural mosaics, and usually placed over the high altar of a church or chapel. The earliest examples which have been preserved are for that reason celebrated in the history of Art.

The first is the enthroned Virgin of Guido da Siena [church of S. Domenico, Siena], who preceded Cimabue by twenty or thirty years. In this picture the Byzantine conception and style of execution are adhered to, yet with a softened sentiment, a touch of more natural, lifelike feeling, particularly in the head of the Child. The expression in the face of the Virgin struck me as very gentle and attractive ; but it has been, I am afraid, retouched, so that we cannot be quite sure that we have the original features. Fortunately Guido has placed a date on his work, Mccxxi., and also inscribed on it a distich which shows that he felt, with some consciousness and self-complacency, his superiority to his Byzantine models : —

Me Guido de Senis diebus depinxit amoenis, Quem Christus lenis nullis velit angere pocnis.

Next, we may refer to the two colossal Madonnas by Cima-bue preserved at Florence. The first, which was painted for the Vallombrosian monks of the S. Trinità, is now in the gallery of the Academy. It has all the stiffness and coldness of the Byzantine manner. There are three adoring angels on each side, disposed one above another, and four prophets are placed below in separate niches, half figures, holding in their hands their prophetic scrolls, as in the old mosaic at Capua, already described. The second is preserved in the Ruccellai chapel, in the S. Maria Novella, in its original place. In spite of its colossal size, and formal attitude, and severe style, the face of this Madonna is very striking, and has been well described as "sweet and unearthly, reminding you of a sibyl." The infant Christ is also very fine. There are three angels on each side, who seem to sustain the carved chair or throne on which the Madonna is seated ; and the prophets, instead of being below, are painted in small circular medallions down each side of the frame. The throne and the background are covered with gold. Vasari gives a very graphic and animated account of the estimation in which this picture was held when first executed. Its colossal dimensions, though familiar in the great mosaics, were hitherto unknown in painting ; and not less astonishing appeared the deviation, though slight, from ugliness and lifelessness into grace and nature. "And thus," he says, "it happened that this work was an object of so much admiration to the people of that day, they having then never seen anything better, that it was carried in solemn procession, with the sound of trumpets and other festal demonstrations, from the house of Cimabue to the church, he himself being highly rewarded and honored for it. It is further reported, and may be read in certain records of old painters, that, whilst Cimabue was painting this picture, in a garden near the gate of San Pietro, King Charles the Elder, of Anjou, passed through Florence, and the authorities of the city, among other marks of respect, conducted him to see the picture of Cimabue. When this work was thus shown to the king, it had not before been seen by any one ; wherefore all the men and women of Florence hastened in crowds to admire it, making all possible demonstrations of delight. The inhabitants of the neighborhood, rejoicing in this occurrence, ever afterwards called that place 'Borgo Allegri; and this name it has ever since retained, although in process of time it became inclosed within the walls of the city."

In the strictly devotional representation of the Virgin and Child, she is invariably seated, till the end of the thirteenth century ; and for the next hundred years the innovation of a standing figure was confined to sculpture. An early example is the beautiful statue by Niccolô Pisano, in the Capella della Spina.. at Pisa ; and others will be found in Cicognara's work (Storia della Scultura; Moderna). The Gothic cathedrals of the thirteenth century also exhibit some most graceful examples of the Madonna in sculpture, standing on a pedestal, crowned or veiled, sustaining on her left arm the divine Child, while in her right she holds a sceptre or perhaps a flower. Such crowned or sceptred effigies of the Virgin were placed on the central pillar which usually divided the great door of a church into two equal parts ; in reference to the text, " I am the DOOR: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved." In Roman Catholic countries we find such effigies set up at the corners of streets, over the doors of houses, and the gates of gardens, sometimes rude and coarse, sometimes exceedingly graceful, according to the period of art and skill of the local artist. Here the Virgin appears in her character of Protectress — our Lady of Grace, or our Lady of Succor.

In pictures, we rarely find the Virgin standing before the end of the fourteenth century. An almost singular example is to be found in an old Greek Madonna, venerated as miraculous, in the cathedral of Orvieto, under the title of "La Madonna di San Brizio," and to which is attributed a fabulous antiquity. I may be mistaken, but my impression on seeing it was that it could not be older than the end of the thirteenth century. The crowns worn by the Virgin and Christ are even more modern, and out of character with the rest of the painting, of which I give a sketch. In Italy the - pupils of Giotto first began to represent the Virgin standing on a raised dais. There is an example by Puccio Capanna, engraved in D'Agincourt's work (Pl. 117) ; but such figures are very uncommon. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries they occur more frequently in the northern than in the Italian schools. This little sketch, after Martin Schoen, is an example.

In the simple enthroned. Madonna, variations of attitude and sentiment were introduced. The Virgin, instead of supporting her Son with both hands, embraces him with one hand, and with the other points to him ; or raises her right hand to bless the worshipper. Then the Child caresses his mother—a charming and natural idea, but a deviation from the solemnity of the purely religious significance ; better imagined, how-ever, to convey the relation between the mother and child, than the Virgin suckling her infant, to which I have already alluded in its early religious, or rather controversial, meaning. It is not often that the enthroned Virgin is thus occupied. Mr. Rogers had in his collection an exquisite example, where the Virgin, seated in state on a magnificent throne under a Gothic canopy and crowned as queen of heaven, offers her breast to the divine Infant. This sketch, from a beautiful little "Virgin " in the Vienna Gallery, attributed to the same master, John van Eyck, exhibits the same action. The Virgin is here standing, as if she had just risen from her throne, under a Gothic canopy, on which is sculptured the Fall ; Adam on one side, and Eve on the other.



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