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Legends of the Madonna - Various Examples of Arrangement

( Originally Published 1895 )



And now of these angelic and sainted accessories, however placed, we must speak at length ; for much of the sentiment and majesty of the Madonna effigies depend on the proper treatment of the attendant figures, and on the meaning they convey to the observer.

The Virgin is entitled, by authority of the Church, queen of angels, of prophets, of apostles, of martyrs, of virgins, and of confessors ; and from among these her attendants are selected.

ANGELS were first admitted, waiting immediately round her chair of state. A signal instance is the group of the enthroned Madonna, attended by the four archangels, as we find it in the very ancient mosaic in Sant Apollinare Nuovo, at Ravenna. As the belief in the superior power and sanctity of the Blessed Virgin grew and spread, the angels no longer attended her as princes of the heavenly host, guardians, or councillors ; they became, in the early pictures, adoring angels, sustaining her throne on each side, or holding up the embroidered curtain which forms the background. In the Madonna by Cimabue, which, if it be not the earliest after the revival of Art, was one of the first in which the Byzantine manner was softened and Italianized, we have six grand, solemn-looking angels, three on each side of the throne, arranged perpendicularly one above another. The Virgin herself is of colossal proportions, far exceeding them in size, and looking out of her frame, " large as a goddess of the antique world." In the other Madonna in the gallery of the Academy we have the same arrangement of the angels. Giotto diversified this arrangement. He placed the angels kneeling at the foot of the throne, making music, and waiting on their divine Mistress as her celestial choristers, a service the more fitting, because she was not only queen of angels, but patroness of music and minstrelsy, in which character she has St. Cecilia as her deputy and delegate. This accompaniment of the choral angels was one of the earliest of the accessories, and continued down to the latest times. They are most particularly lovely in the pictures of the fifteenth century. They kneel and strike their golden lutes, or stand and sound their silver clarions, or sit like beautiful winged children on the steps of the throne, and pipe and sing as if their spirits were overflowing with harmony as well as love and adoration. In a curious picture of the enthroned Madonna and Child, by Gentile Fabriano (Berlin Gallery), a tree rises on each side of the throne, on which little red seraphim are perched like birds, singing and playing on musical instruments. In later times they play and sing for the solace of the divine Infant, not merely adoring, but ministering : but these angels ministrant belong to another class of pictures. Adoration, not service, was required by the divine Child and his Mother, when they were represented simply in their divine character and placed far beyond earthly wants and earthly associations.

There are examples where the angels in attendance bear, not harps or lutes, but the attributes of the Cardinal Virtues, as in an altar-piece by Taddeo Gaddi (Rinuccini chapel, Santa Croce), at Florence.

[An interesting picture of the Enthroned Madonna, by Miss Mary L. Macomber (1893), shows two angels kneeling beside the throne, as symbols of the Passion and Sorrow of Christ. The picture is characterized by remarkable spirituality of conception and delicacy in treatment. The Mother clasps her Babe tenderly to her as if to shield him from the suffering which the two angels represent.]

The patriarchs, prophets, and sibyls, all the personages, in fact, who lived under the Old Law, when forming, in a picture or altar-piece, part of the cortege of the throned Virgin, as types, or prophets, or harbingers of the Incarnation, are on the outside of that sacred compartment wherein she is seated with her Child. This was the case with all the human personages down to the end of the thirteenth century ; and after that time I find the characters of the Old Testament still excluded from the groups immediately round her throne. Their place was elsewhere allotted, at a more respectful distance. The only exceptions I can remember are King David and the patriarch Job; and these only in late pictures, where David does not appear as prophet, but as the ancestor of the Redeemer ; and Job only at Venice, where he is a patron saint.

The four evangelists and the twelve apostles are, in their collective character in relation to the Virgin, treated like the prophets, and placed around the altar-piece. Where we find one or more of the evangelists introduced into the group of attendant " Sanctities" on each side of her throne, it is not in their character of evangelists, but rather as patron saints. Thus St. Mark appears constantly in the Venetian pictures ; but it is as the patron and protector of Venice. St. John the Evangelist, a favorite attendant on the Virgin, is near her in virtue of his peculiar relation to her and to Christ ; and he is also a popular patron saint. St. Luke and St. Matthew, unless they be patrons of the particular locality, or of the votary who presents the picture, never appear. It is the same with the apostles in their collective character as such ; we find them constantly, as statues, ranged on each side of the Virgin, or as separate figures. Thus they stand over the screen of St. Mark's, at Venice, and also on the carved frames of the altar-pieces; but either from their number, or some other cause, they are seldom grouped round the enthroned Virgin.

It is ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST who, next to the angels, seems to have been the first admitted to a propinquity with the divine persons. In Greek Art he is himself an angel, a messenger, and often represented with wings. He was especially venerated in the Greek Church in his character of precursor of the Redeemer, and, as such, almost indispensable in every sacred group ; and it is, perhaps, to the early influence of Greek art on the selection and arrangement of the accessory personages that we owe the preeminence of John the Baptist. One of the most graceful, and appropriate, and familiar of all the accessory figures grouped with the Virgin and Child is that of the young St. John (called in Italian San Giovannino, and in Spanish San Juanita). When first introduced, we find him taking the place of the singing or piping angels in front of the throne. He generally stands, " clad in his raiment of camel's hair, having a girdle round his loins," and in his hand a reed cross, round which is bound a scroll with the words Ecce Ag-nus Dei (Behold the Lamb of God), while with his finger he points up to the enthroned group above him, expressing the text from St. Luke (c. ii.), " And thou, CHILD, shalt be called the Prophet of the Highest," as in Francia's picture in our National Gallery. Sometimes he bears a lamb in his arms, the Ecce Agnus Dei in form instead of words.

The introduction of the young St. John becomes more and more usual from the beginning of the sixteenth century. In later pictures, a touch of the dramatic is thrown into the arrangement: instead of being at the foot of the throne, he is placed beside it; as where the Virgin is throned on a lofty pedestal, and she lays one hand on the head of the little St. John, while with the other she strains her Child to her bosom ; or where the infant Christ and St. John, standing at her knee, embrace each other a graceful incident in a Holy Family, but in the enthroned Madonna it impairs the religious conception ; it places St. John too much on a level with the Saviour, who is here in that divine character to which St. John bore witness, but which he did not share. It is very unusual to see John the Baptist in his childish character glorified in heaven among the celestial beings : I remember but one in-stance, in a beautiful picture by Bonifazio, in the Academy, Venice.' The Virgin is seated in glory, with her Infant on her knee, and encircled by cherubim ; on one side an angel approaches with a basket of flowers on his head, and she is in act to take these flowers and scatter them on the saints below, a new and graceful motif : on the other side sits John the Baptist as a boy about twelve years of age. The attendant saints below are St. Peter, St. Andrew, St. Thomas holding the girdle. St. Francis and St. Clara, all looking up with ecstatic devotion, except St. Clara, who looks down with a charming modesty.

In early pictures; ST. ANNA, the mother of the Virgin, is very seldom introduced, because in such sublime and mystical representations of the Vergine Dea, whatever connected her with realities, or with her earthly genealogy, is suppressed. But from the middle of the fifteenth century St. Anna became, from the current legends of the history of the Virgin, an important saint, and when introduced into the devotional groups, which, however, is seldom, it seems to have embarrassed the painters how to dispose of her. She could not well be placed below her daughter; she could not be placed above her. It is a curious proof of the predominance of the feminine element throughout these representations, that while ST. JOACHIM the father, and ST. JOSEPH the husband of the Virgin, are either omitted altogether, or are admitted only in a subordinate and inferior position, St. Anna, when she does appear, is on an equality with her daughter. There is a beautiful example, and apt for illustration, in the picture by Francia, in our National Gallery, where St. Anna and the Virgin are seated together on the same throne, and the former presents the apple to her divine Grandson. I remember, too, a most graceful instance where St. Anna stands behind and a little above the throne, with her hands placed affectionately on the shoulders of the Virgin, and raises her eyes to heaven as if in thanksgiving to God, who through her had brought salvation into the world. Where the Virgin is seated on the knees of St. Anna, it is a still later innovation. There is such a group in a picture in the Louvre, after a famous cartoon by Leonardo da Vinci, which, in spite of its celebrity, has always appeared to me very fantastic and irreverent in treatment. There is also a fine print by Caraglio, in which the Virgin and Child are sustained on the knees of St. Anna : under her feet lies the dragon. St. Roch and St. Sebastian on each side, the dead dragon, show that this is a votive subject, an expression of thanksgiving after the cessation of a plague. The Germans, who were fond of this group, imparted even to the most religious treatment a domestic sentiment.

The earliest instance I can point to of the enthroned Virgin attended by both her parents is by [Alvise] Vivarini (Academy, Venice) : St. Anna is on the right of the throne; St. Joachim, in the act of reverently removing his cap, stands on the left ; more in front is a group of Franciscan saints.

The introduction of St. Anna into a Holy Family, as part of the domestic group, is very appropriate and graceful; but this of course admits, and indeed requires, a wholly different sentiment. The same remark applies to St. Joseph, who, in the earlier representations of the enthroned Virgin, is carefully excluded ; he appears, I think, first in the Venetian pictures.

There is an example in a splendid composition by Paul Veronese. (Academy, Venice.) The Virgin, on a lofty throne, holds the Child; both look down on the worshippers ; St. Joseph is partly seen behind, leaning on his crutch. Round the throne stand St. John the Baptist, St. Justina, as patroness of Venice, and St. George ; St. Jerome is on the other side in deep meditation. " A magnificent picture, quite sumptuous in color and arrangement, and yet so solemn and so calm ! " There is another example by Paul Veronese, similar in character and treatment, in which St. John and St. Joseph are on the throne with the Virgin and Child, and St. Catherine and St. Anthony below.

The composition by Michael Angelo styled a "Holy Family " is, though singular in treatment, certainly devotional in character, and an enthroned Virgin. She is seated in the centre, on a raised architectural seat, holding a book ; the infant Christ slumbers books can teach him nothing, and to make him reading is unorthodox. In the background, on one side, St. Joseph leans over a balustrade, as if in devout contemplation ; a young St. John the Baptist leans on the other side. The grand-mannered, symmetrical treatment is very remarkable and characteristic. There are many engravings of this celebrated composition. In one of them, the book held by the Virgin bears on one side the text in Latin, " Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." On the opposite page, " Blessed be God, who has regarded the low state of his handmaiden. For, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed." [A painting after this composition by Marcello Venusti is in the National Gallery.]

While the young St. John is admitted into such close companionship with the enthroned Madonna, his mother Elizabeth, so commonly and beautifully introduced into the Holy Families, is almost uniformly excluded.

Next in order, as accessory figures, appear some one or two or more of the martyrs, confessors, and virgin patronesses, with their respective attributes, either placed in separate niches and compartments on each side, or, when admitted within the sacred precincts where sit the queenly Virgin-mother and her divine Son, standing in the manner of councillors and officers of state on solemn occasions round an earthly sovereign, all reverently calm and still ; till gradually this solemn formality, this isolation of the principal characters, gave way to some sentiment which placed them in nearer relation to each other, and to the divine personages. Occasional variations of attitude and action were introduced at first, a rare innovation ; ere long, a custom, a fashion. For instance, the doctors turn over the leaves of their great books as if seeking for the written testimonies to the truth of the mysterious Incarnation made visible in the persons of the Mother and Child ; the confessors contemplate the radiant group with rapture, and seem ready to burst forth in hymns of praise ; the martyrs kneel in adoration ; the virgins gracefully offer their victorious palms : and thus the painters of the best periods of Art contrived to animate their sacred groups without rendering them too dramatic and too secular.

Such, then, was the general arrangement of that religious subject which is technically styled " The Madonna enthroned and attended by Saints." The selection and the relative position of these angelic and saintly accessories were not, as I have already observed, matters of mere taste or caprice ; and an attentive observation of the choice and disposition of the attendant figures will often throw light on the original significance of such pictures, and the circumstances under which they were painted.

Shall I attempt a rapid classification and interpretation of these infinitely varied groups ? It is a theme which might well occupy volumes rather than pages, and which requires far more antiquarian learning and historical research than I can pretend to ; still, by giving the result of my own observations in some few instances, it may be possible so to excite the attention and fancy of the reader as to lead him farther on the same path than I have myself been able to venture.



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