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Legends of the Madonna - La Madre Pia Enthroned

( Originally Published 1895 )



Then the Mother adores Madre Pia, afterwards so her child. This is properly the beautifully varied. He lies extended on her knee, and she looks down upon him with hands folded in prayer ; or she places her hand under his foot, an attitude which originally implied her acknowledgment of his sovereignty and superiority, but was continued as a natural motif when the figurative and religious meaning was no longer considered. Sometimes the Child looks up in his mother's face, with his finger on his lip, expressing the Verbum sum, " I am the Word." Sometimes the Child, bending forwards from his mother's knee, looks down benignly on the worshippers who are supposed to be kneeling at the foot of the altar. Sometimes, but very rarely, he sleeps ; never in the earliest examples ; for to exhibit the he is an object of worship, was young Redeemer asleep, where then a species of solecism.

When the enthroned Virgin is represented holding a book, or reading, while the infant Christ, perhaps, lays his hand upon it, — a variation in the first simple treatment not earlier than the end of the fourteenth century, and very significant, — she is then the Virgo Sapientissima, the most Wise Virgin; or the Mother of Wisdom, Mater Sapientice; and the book she holds is the Book of Wisdom.' This is the proper interpretation where the Virgin is seated on her throne.

In a most beautiful picture by Granacci (Berlin Gallery) she is thus enthroned and reading intently ; while John the Baptist and St. Michael stand on each side.

With regard to costume, the colors in which the enthroned Virgin-mother was arrayed scarcely ever varied from the established rule : her tunic was to be red, her mantle blue ; red, the color of love and religious aspiration ; blue, the color of constancy and heavenly purity. In the pictures of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and down to the early part of the fifteenth, these colors are of a soft and delicate tint — rose and pale azure ; but afterwards, when powerful effects of color became a study, we have the intense crimson, and the dark blue verging on purple. Sometimes the blue mantle is brought over her head, sometimes she wears a white veil, in other instances the queenly crown. Sometimes (but very rarely when she is throned as the Regina Coeli) she has no covering or ornament on her head ; and her fair hair, parted on her brow, flows down on either side in long luxuriant tresses.

In the Venetian and German pictures she is often most gorgeously arrayed; her crown studded with jewels, her robe covered with embroidery, or broidered with gold and pearls. The ornamental parts of her dress and throne were sometimes, to increase the magnificence of the effect, raised in relief and gilt. To the early German painters we might too often apply the sarcasm of Apelles, who said of his rival, that, "not being able to make Venus beautiful, he had made her fine ; " but some of the Venetian Madonnas are lovely as well as splendid. Gold was often used, and in great profusion, in some of the Lombard pictures even of a late date ; for instance, by Carlo Crivelli : be-fore the middle of the sixteenth century this was considered barbaric. The best Italian painters give the Virgin ample, well-disposed drapery, but dispensed with ornament. The star embroidered on her shoulder, so often retained when all other ornament was banished, expresses her title " Stella Maris." I have seen some old pictures in which she wears a ring on the third finger. This expresses her dignity as the Sposa as well as the Mother.

With regard to the divine Infant, he is, in the early pictures, invariably draped, and it is not till the beginning of the fifteenth century that we find him first partially and then wholly undraped. In the old representations he wears a long tunic with full sleeves, fastened with a girdle. It is some-times of gold stuff embroidered, sometimes white, crimson, or blue. This almost regal robe was afterwards exchanged for a little semi-transparent shirt without sleeves. In pictures of the throned Madonna painted expressly for nunneries, the Child is, I believe, always clothed, or the Mother partly en-folds him in her own drapery. In the Umbrian pictures of the fifteenth century, the Infant often wears a coral necklace, then and now worn by children in that district as a charm against the evil eye. In the Venetian pictures he has some-times a coronal of pearls. In the carved and painted images set up in churches he wears, like his mother, a rich crown over a curled wig and is hung round with jewels; but such images must be considered as out of the pale of legitimate Art.

Of the various objects placed in the hand of the Child as emblems I have already spoken, and of their sacred significance as such — the globe, the book, the bird, the flower, etc.

In the works of the ignorant secular artists of later times, these symbols of power, or divinity, or wisdom, became mere playthings ; and when they had become familiar, and required by custom, and the old sacred associations utterly forgotten, we find them most profanely applied and misused. To give one example : the bird was originally placed in the hand of Christ as the emblem of the soul, or of the spiritual as op-posed to the earthly nature ; in a picture by Baroccio, he holds it up before a cat, to be frightened and tormented. But to proceed.

The throne on which the Virgin is seated is, in very early pictures, merely an embroidered cushion on a sort of stool, or a carved Gothic chair, such as we see in the thrones and stalls of cathedrals. It is afterwards converted into a rich architectural throne, most elaborately adorned, according to the taste and skill of the artist. Sometimes, as in the early Venetian pictures, it is hung with garlands of fruits and flowers, most fancifully disposed. Sometimes the arabesque ornaments are raised in relief and gilt. Sometimes the throne is curiously painted to imitate various marbles, and adorned with medal-lions and bas-reliefs from those subjects of the Old Testament which have a reference to the character of the Virgin and the mission of her divine Child ; the commonest of all being the Fall, which rendered a Redeemer necessary. Moses striking the rock (the waters of life), the elevation of the brazen ser pent, the gathering of the manna, or Moses holding the broken tablets of the old law — all types of redemption—are often thus introduced as ornaments. In the sixteenth century, when the purely religious sentiment had declined, and a classical and profane taste had infected every department of art and literature, we find the throne of the Virgin adorned with classical ornaments and bas-reliefs from the antique remains ; as, for instance, the hunt of Theseus and Hippolyta. We must then suppose her throned on the ruins of paganism, an idea suggested by the old legends, which represent the temples and statues of the heathen gods as falling into ruin on the approach of the Virgin and her Child ; and a more picturesque application of this idea afterwards became common in other subjects. In [a composition by] Garofalo the throne is adorned with sphinxes — à l'antique. Andrea del Sarto has placed harpies at the corner of the pedestal of the throne in his famous Madonna di San Francesco (Uffizi, Florence), — a gross fault in that-otherwise grand and faultless picture ; one of those desecrations of a religious theme which Andrea, as devoid of religious feeling as he was weak and dishonest, was in the habit of committing.

But whatever the material or style of the throne, whether simple or gorgeous, it is supposed to be a heavenly throne. It is not of the earth, nor on the earth ; and at first it was alone and unapproachable. The Virgin-mother, thus seated in her majesty, apart from all human beings, and in communion only with the Infant Godhead on her knee, or the living worshippers who come to lay down their cares and sorrows at the foot of her throne and breathe a devout Salve Regina ! is, through its very simplicity and concentrated interest, a sub-lime conception. The effect of these figures, in their divine quietude and loveliness, can never be appreciated when hung in a gallery or room with other pictures, for admiration, or criticism, or Madonna of the Harpies (Andrea del Sarto) comparison. I remember well suddenly discovering such a Madonna, in a retired chapel in S. Francesco della Vigna at Venice a picture I had never heard of, by a painter then quite unknown to me, Fra Antonio da Negroponte, a Franciscan friar who lived in the fifteenth century. The calm dignity of the attitude, the sweetness, the adoring love in the face of the queenly mother, as with folded hands she looked down on the divine Infant reclining on her knee, so struck upon my heart that I remained for minutes quite motionless. In this picture, nothing can exceed the gorgeous splendor of the Virgin's throne and apparel : she wears a jewelled crown ; the Child a coronal of pearls ; while the background is composed entirely of the mystical roses twined in a sort of treillage.

I remember, too, a picture by Carlo Crivelli [National Gallery], in which the Virgin is seated on a throne, adorned, in the artist's usual style, with rich festoons of fruit and flowers. She is most sumptuously crowned and apparelled; and the beautiful Child on her knee, grasping her hand as if to support himself, with the most naïve and graceful action bends forward and looks down benignly on the worshippers supposed to be kneeling below.

When human personages were admitted within the same compartment, the throne was generally raised by several steps, or placed on a lofty pedestal, and till the middle of the fifteenth century it was always in the centre of the composition fronting the spectator. It was a Venetian innovation to place the throne at one side of the picture, and show the Virgin in profile, or in the act of turning round. This more scenic disposition became afterwards, in the passion for variety and effect, too palpably artificial, and at length forced and theatrical.

The Italians distinguished between the Madonna in Trono .and the Madonna in Gloria. When human beings, however sainted and exalted, were admitted within the margin of the picture, the divine dignity of the Virgin as Madre di Dio was often expressed by elevating her wholly above the earth, and placing her " in regions mild of calm and serene air," with the crescent or the rainbow under her feet. This is styled a " Ma-donna in Gloria." It is, in fact, a return to the antique conception of the enthroned Redeemer, seated on a rainbow, sustained by the " curled clouds," and encircled by a glory of cherubim. The aureole of light, within which the glorified Madonna and her Child when in a standing position are often placed, is of an oblong form, called from its shape the mandorla, " the almond ; " but in general she is seated above in a sort of ethereal exaltation, while the attendant saints stand on the earth below. This beautiful arrangement, though often very sublimely treated, has not the simple austere dignity of the throne of state ; and when the Virgin and Child, as in the works of the late Spanish and Flemish painters, are formed out of earth's most coarse and commonplace materials, the aerial throne of floating fantastic clouds suggests a disagreeable discord, a fear lest the occupants of heaven should fall on the heads of their worshippers below. Not so the Virgins of the old Italians ; for they look so divinely ethereal that they seem uplifted by their own spirituality : not even the air-borne clouds are needed to sustain them. They have no touch of earth or earth's material beyond the human form ; their proper place is the seventh heaven ; and there they repose, a presence and a power — a personification of infinite mercy sublimated by innocence and purity ; and thence they look down on their worshippers and attendants, while these gaze upwards " with looks commercing with the skies."



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