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The Madonnas of Florence

( Originally Published 1895 )



We can trace, in a large class of these pictures, a general religious significance, common to all periods, all localities, all circumstances ; while in another class the interest is not only particular and local, but sometimes even personal.

To the first class belongs the antique and beautiful group of the Virgin and Child, enthroned between the two great archangels, St. Michael and St. Gabriel. It is probably the most ancient of these combinations : we find it in the earliest Greek Art, in the carved ivory diptychs of the eighth and and ninth centuries, in the old Greco-Italian pictures, in the ecclesiastical sculpture and stained glass of from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. In the most ancient examples, the two angels are seen standing on each side of the Madonna, not worshipping, but with their sceptres and attributes, as princes of the heavenly host, attending on her who is queen of angels; St. Gabriel as the angel of birth and life, St. Michael as the angel of death, that is, in the Christian sense, of deliverance and immortality. There was an instance of this antique treatment in a small Greek picture in the Wallerstein collection, Kensington Palace [now dispersed].

In later pictures, St. Gabriel seldom appears except as the Angelo Annunziatore; but St. Michael very frequently. Sometimes, as conqueror over sin and representative of the Church militant, he stands with his foot on the dragon with a triumphant air ; or, kneeling, he presents to the infant Christ the scales of eternal justice, as in a famous picture [in the Louvre, attributed to the school] of Leonardo da Vinci. It is not only because of his popularity as a patron saint, and of the number of churches dedicated to him, that he is so frequently introduced into the Madonna pictures ; according to the legend, he was by divine appointment the guardian of the Virgin and her Son while they sojourned on earth. The angel Raphael leading Tobias always expresses protection, and especially protection to the young. Tobias with his fish was an early type of baptism. There are many beautiful examples. In Raphael's " Madonna dell' Pesce " (Madrid Gallery) he is introduced as the patron saint of the painter, but not without a reference to a more sacred meaning, that of the guardian spirit of all humanity. The warlike figure of St. Michael, and the benign St. Raphael, are thus represented as celestial guardians in the beautiful picture by Perugino now in our National Gallery.

There are instances of the three archangels all standing together below the glorified Virgin ; St. Michael in the centre with his foot on the prostrate fiend ; St. Gabriel on the right presents his lily ; and, on the left, the protecting angel presents his human charge, and points up to the source of salvation, as in an engraving after Giulio Romano.

The Virgin between St. Peter and St. Paul is also an extremely ancient and significant group. It appears in the old mosaics. As chiefs of the apostles and joint founders of the Church, St. Peter and St. Paul are prominent figures in many groups and combinations, particularly in the altar-pieces of the Roman churches, and those painted for the Benedictine communities.

The Virgin, when supported on each side by St. Peter and St. Paul, must be understood to represent the personified Church between her two great founders and defenders ; and this relation is expressed in a very poetical manner, when St. Peter, kneeling, receives the allegorical keys from the hand of the infant Saviour. There are some curious and beautiful instances of this combination of a significant action with the utmost solemnity of treatment : for example, in that very extraordinary Franciscan altar-piece by Carlo Crivelli, purchased by Lord Ward [and now at Dudley House, London], where St. Peter, having deposited his papal tiara at the foot of the throne, kneeling receives the great symbolical keys. And again, in a fine picture by Andrea Meldula, where the Virgin and Child are enthroned, and the infant Christ delivers the keys to Peter, who stands, but with a most reverential air; on the other side of the throne is St. Paul with his book and the sword held upright. There are also two attendant angels. On the border of the mantle of the Virgin is inscribed " Ave Maria, gratia plena." (In the collection of Mr. Bromley of Wootten.) This picture is otherwise remarkable as the only authenticated work of a very rare painter. It bears his signature, and the style indicates the end of the fifteenth century as the probable date.

I do not recollect any instance in which the four evangelists as such, or the twelve apostles in their collective character, wait round the throne of the Virgin and Child, though one or more of the evangelists and one or more of the apostles perpetually occur.

The Virgin between St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist is also a very significant and beautiful combination, and one very frequently met with. Though both these saints were, as children, contemporary with the Child Christ, and so represented in the Holy Families, in these solemn ideal groups they are always men. The first St. John expresses regeneration by the rite of baptism : the second St. John, distinguished as Theologus, " the Divine," stands with his sacramental cup, expressing regeneration by faith. The former was the precursor of the Saviour, the first who proclaimed him to the world as such; the latter beheld the vision in Patmos, of the Woman in travail pursued by the dragon, which is interpreted in reference to the Virgin and her Child. The group thus brought into relation is full of meaning, and, from the variety and contrast of character, full of poetical and artistic capabilities. St. John the Baptist is usually a man about thirty, with wild shaggy hair and meagre form, so draped that his vest of camel's hair is always visible ; he holds his reed cross. St. John the Evangelist is generally the young and graceful disciple; but in some instances he is the venerable seer of Patmos,

Whose beard descending sweeps his aged breast.

There is an example in one of the finest pictures by Perugino. (Bologna Academy.) The Virgin is throned above, and surrounded by a glory of seraphim, with many-colored wings. The Child stands on her knee. In the landscape below are St. Michael, St. Catherine, St. Apollonia, and St. John the Evangelist as the aged prophet with white flowing beard.

The Fathers of the Church, as interpreters and defenders of the mystery of the Incarnation, are very significantly placed near the throne of the Virgin and Child. In Western Art, the Latin doctors, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory, have of course the preeminence. (See Sacred and Legendary Art.) _

The effect produced by these aged, venerable, bearded dignitaries, with their gorgeous robes and mitres and flowing beards, in contrast with the soft simplicity of the divine Mother and her Infant, is, in the hands of really great artists, wonderfully fine. There is a splendid example, by Vivarini 1 (in the Academy, Venice) ; the old doctors stand two on each side of the throne, where, under a canopy upborne by angels, sits the Virgin, sumptuously crowned and attired, and looking most serene and goddess-like ; while the divine Child, standing on her knee, extends his little hand in the act of benediction. Of this picture I have already given a very detailed description. (See Sacred and Legendary Art, p. 277.) Another example, a grand picture by Moretto, now in the Museum at Frankfort, I have also described. There is here a touch of the dramatic sentiment : the Virgin is tenderly caressing her Child, while two of the old doctors, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, stand reverently on each side of her lofty throne ; St. Gregory sits on the step below reading, and St. Jerome bends over and points to a page in his book. The Virgin is not sufficiently dignified ; she has too much the air of a portrait ; and the action of the Child is also, though tender, rather unsuited to the significance of the rest of the group ; but the picture is, on the whole, magnificent. There is another fine example of the four doctors attending on the Virgin, in the Milan Gallery, a votive picture of the Milanese school, dedicated by Ludovico Sforza it Moro.

Sometimes not four, but only two of these Fathers, appear in combination with other figures, and the choice would depend on the locality and other circumstances. But, on the whole, we rarely find a group of personages assembled round the throne of the Virgin which does not include one or more of these venerable pillars of the Church. St. Ambrose appears most frequently in the Milanese pictures : St. Augustine and St. Jerome, as patriarchs of monastic orders, are very popular : St. Gregory, I think, is more seldom met with than the others.

The Virgin, with St. Jerome and St. Catherine, the patron saints of theological learning, is a frequent group in all monasteries, but particularly in the churches and houses of the Jeronymites. A beautiful example is the Madonna [school of] Francia [in the Borghese, Rome]. St. Jerome, with Mary Magdalene, also a frequent combination, expresses theological learning in union with religious penitence and humility. Correggio's famous picture (at Parma) is an example, where St. Jerome on one side presents his works in defence of the Church, and his translation of the Scriptures ; while, on the other, Mary Magdalene, bending down devoutly, kisses the feet of the infant Christ.

Of all the attendants on the Virgin and Child, the most popular is, perhaps, St. Catherine ; and the " Marriage of St. Catherine," as a religious mystery, is made to combine with the most solemn and formal arrangement of the other attend-ant figures. The enthroned Virgin presides over the mystical rite. This was, for intelligible reasons, a favorite subject in nunneries.'

In a picture by Garofalo, the Child, bending from his mother's knee, places a golden crown on the head of St. Catherine as Sposa ; on each side stand St. Agnes and St. Jerome.

In a picture by Carlo Maratti, the nuptials take place in heaven, the Virgin and Child being throned in clouds.

If the kneeling Sposa be St. Catherine of Siena, the nun, and not St. Catherine of Alexandria, or if the two are introduced, then we may be sure that the picture was painted for a nunnery of the Dominican Order. (See Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 390.) A fine example of this group, " the Spozalizio of St. Catherine of Siena," has lately been added to our National Gallery (Lorenzo di San Severino).

The great Madonna in Trono by the Dominican Fra Bartolommeo, wherein the queenly St. Catherine of Alexandria witnesses the mystical marriage of her sister saint, the nun of Siena, will occur to every one who has been at Florence [in the Pitti] ; and there is a smaller picture by the same painter in the Louvre : a different version of the same subject.

I must content myself with merely referring to these well-known pictures, which have been often engraved, and dwell more in detail on another, not so well known, and, to my feeling, as preeminently beautiful and poetical, but in the early Flemish, not the Italian style —a poem in a language less smooth and sonorous, but still a poem.

This is the altar-piece painted by Memling for the charitable sisterhood of St. John's Hospital at Bruges. The Virgin is seated under a porch, and her throne decorated with rich tapestry; two graceful angels hold a crown over her head. On the right St. Catherine, superbly arrayed as a princess, kneels at her side, and the beautiful infant Christ bends for-ward and places the bridal ring on her finger. Behind her a charming angel, playing on the organ, celebrates the espousals with hymns of joy ; beyond him stands St. John the Baptist with his lamb. On the left of the Virgin kneels St. Barbara reading intently ; behind her an angel with a book ; beyond him stands St. John the Evangelist, youthful, mild, and pensive. Through the arcades of the porch is seen a landscape background, with incidents picturesquely treated from the lives of the Baptist and the Evangelist. Such is the central composition. The two wings represent, on one side, the beheading of St. John the Baptist ; on the other, St. John the Evangelist at Patmos, and the vision of the Apocalypse. In this great work there is a unity and harmony of design which blends the whole into an impressive poem. The object was to do honor to the patrons of the hospital, the two St. Johns, and, at the same time, to express the piety of the charitable Sisters, who, like St. Catherine (the type of contemplative studious piety), were consecrated and espoused to Christ, and, like St. Barbara (the type of active piety), were dedicated to good works. It is a tradition that Memling painted this altar-piece as a votive offering in gratitude to the good Sisters, who had taken him in and nursed him when dangerously wounded : and surely, if this tradition be true, never was charity more magnificently recompensed.

In a very beautiful picture by Ambrogio Borgognone the Virgin is seated on a splendid throne ; on the right kneels St. Catherine of Alexandria, on the left St. Catherine of Siena : the Virgin holds a hand of each, which she presents to the divine Child seated on her knee, and to each she presents a ring. [National Gallery.]

The Virgin and Child between St. Catherine and St. Barbara is one of the most popular, as well as one of the most beautiful and expressive, of these combinations ; signifying active and contemplative life, or the two powers between which the social state was divided in the middle ages, namely, the ecclesiastical and the military, learning and arms ; St. Catherine being the patron of the first, and St. Barbara of the last. (Sacred and Legendary Art, pp. 458, 483.) When the original significance had ceased to be understood or appreciated, the group continued to be a favorite one, particularly in Germany ; and examples are infinite.

The Virgin between St. Mary Magdalene and St. Barbara, the former as the type of penance, humility, and meditative piety, the latter as the type of fortitude and courage, is also very common. When between St. Mary Magdalene and St. Catherine, the idea suggested is learning, with penitence and humility ; this is a most popular group. So is St. Lucia with one of these or both : St. Lucia with her lamp or her eyes is always expressive of light, the light of divine wisdom.

The Virgin between St. Nicholas and St. George is a very expressive group ; the former as the patron saint of merchants, tradesmen, and seamen, the popular saint of the bourgeoisie ; the latter as the patron of soldiers, the chosen saint of the aristocracy. Those two saints with St. Catherine are preëminent in the Venetian pictures ; for all three, in addition to their poetical significance, were venerated as especial protectors of Venice.

St. George and St. Christopher both stand by the throne of the Virgin of Succor as protectors and deliverers in danger. The attribute of St. Christopher is the little Christ on his shoulder; and there are instances in which Christ appears on the lap of his Mother, and also on the shoulder of the attend-ant St. Christopher. This blunder, if it may be so called, has been avoided, very cleverly I should think in his own opinion, by a painter who makes St. Christopher kneel, while the Virgin places the little Christ on his shoulders, a concetto quite inadmissible in a really religious group.

In pictures dedicated by charitable communities we often find St. Nicholas and St. Leonard as the patron saints of prisoners and captives. Wherever St. Leonard appears he ex-presses deliverance from "captivity. St. Omobuono, St. Mar-tin, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Roch, or other beneficent saints, waiting round the Virgin with kneeling beggars, or the blind, the lame, the sick at their feet, always expressed the Virgin as the Mother of Mercy, the Consolatrix a ictorum. Such pictures were commonly found in hospitals, and the chapels and churches of the Order of Mercy, and other charitable institutions. The examples are numerous. I remember one, a striking picture, by Bartolommeo Montagna, where the Virgin and Child are enthroned in the centre as usual. On her right, the good St. Omobuono, dressed as a burgher, in a red gown and fur cap, gives alms to a poor beggar ; on the left, St. Francis presents a celebrated friar of his Order, Bernardino da Feltri, the first founder of a mont de piete, who kneels, holding the emblem of his institution, a little green mountain with a cross at the top.

Besides these saints, who have a general religious character and significance, we have the national and local saints, whose presence very often marks the country or school of Art which produced the picture.

A genuine Florentine Madonna is distinguished by a certain elegance and stateliness, and well becomes her throne. As patroness of Florence, in her own right, the Virgin bears the title of Santa Maria del Fiore, and in this character she holds a flower, generally a rose, or is in the act of presenting it to the Child. She is often attended by St. John the Baptist, as patron of Florence ; but he is everywhere a saint of such power and importance as an attendant on the divine person-ages, that his appearance in a picture does not stamp it as Florentine. St. Cosmo and St. Damian are Florentine, as the protectors of the Medici family ; but as patrons of the healing art they have a significance which renders them common in the Venetian and other pictures. It may, however, be determined, that if St. John the Baptist, St. Cosmo, and St. Damian, with St. Laurence (the patron of Lorenzo the Magnificent), appear together in attendance on the Virgin, that picture is of the Florentine school. The presence of St. Zenobio, or of St. Antonino, the patron archbishops of Florence, will set the matter at rest, for these are exclusively Florentine. In a picture by Giotto, angels attend on the Virgin bearing vases of lilies in their hands. (Lilies are at once the emblem of the Virgin and the device of Florence.) On each side kneel St. John the Baptist and St. Zenobio. We now possess in our National Gallery a very interesting example of a Florentine enthroned Madonna, attended by St. John the Baptist and St. Zenobio as patrons of Florence (Benozzo Gozzoli).

A Siena Madonna would naturally be attended by St. Bernardino and St. Catherine of Siena ; if they seldom appear together, it is because they belong to different religious orders.

In the Venetian pictures we find a crowd of guardian saints ; first among them, St. Mark, then St. Catherine, St. George, St. Nicholas, and St. Justina : wherever these appear together, that picture is surely from the Venetian school.

All through Lombardy and Piedmont, St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Maurice of Savoy are favorite attendants on the Virgin.

In Spanish and Flemish Art, the usual attendants on the. queenly Madonna are monks and nuns, which brings us to the consideration of a large and interesting class of pictures, those dedicated by the various religious Orders. When we remember that the institution of some of the most influential of these communities was coeval with the revival of Art ; that, for three or four centuries, Art in all its forms had no more powerful or more munificent patrons .; that they counted among their various brotherhoods some of the greatest artists the world has seen ; we can easily imagine how the beatified members of these Orders have become so conspicuous as attendants on the celestial personages. To those who are accustomed to read the significance of works of Art, a single glance is often sufficient to decide for what Order it has been executed.

St. Paul is a favorite saint of the Benedictine communities ; and there are few great pictures painted for them in which he does not appear. When in companionship with St. Benedict, either in the original black habit or the white habit of the re-formed Orders, with St. Scholastica bearing her dove, with St. Bernard, St. Romualdo, or other worthies of this venerable community, the interpretation is easy.

There is an example by Domenico Puligo. The Virgin, not seated, but standing on a lofty pedestal, looks down on her worshippers ; the Child in her arms extends the right hand in benediction ; with his left he points to himself, " I am the Resurrection and the Life." Around are six saints, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John the Baptist as protector of Florence, St. Matthew, St. Catherine ; and St. Bernard, in his ample white habit, with his keen intellectual face, is about to write in a great book, and looks up to the Virgin for inspiration. The picture was originally painted for the Cistercians. It is now in the S. Maria Maddalena de' Pazzi at Florence. Engraved in the " Etruria Pittrice," xxxv.

The Virgin and Child enthroned between St. Augustine and his mother St. Monica, as in a fine picture by Florigerio 1 (Academy, Venice), would show the picture to be painted for one of the numerous branches of the Augustine Order. St. Anthony the abbot is a favorite saint in pictures painted for the Augustine hermits.

In the " Madonna del Baldacchino " of Raphael [Pitti, Florence], the beardless saint who stands in a white habit on one side of the throne is usually styled St. Bruno ; an evident mistake. It is not a Carthusian, but a Cistercian monk, and I think St. Bernard, the general patron of monastic learning. The other attendant saints are St. Peter, St. James, and St. Augustine. The picture was originally painted for the church of San Spirito at Florence, belonging to the Augustines.

But St. Augustine is also the patriarch of the Franciscans and Dominicans, and frequently takes an influential place in their pictures, as the companion either of St. Francis or of St. Dominick, as in a picture by Fra Angelico. (Pitti, Florence.)

Among the votive Madonnas of the mendicant Orders I will mention a few conspicuous for beauty and interest, which will serve as a key to others.

1. The Virgin and Child enthroned between St. Anthony of Padua and St. Clara of Assisi, as in a small elegant picture by Pellegrino, must have been dedicated in a church of the Franciscans. (Sutherland Gallery.)

2. The Virgin blesses St. Francis, who looks up adoring : behind him St. Anthony of Padua ; on the other side, St. John the Baptist as a man, and St. Catherine. A celebrated but not an agreeable picture, painted by Correggio for the Franciscan church at Parma [and now in the] Dresden Gallery.

3. The Virgin is seated in glory ; on one side St. Francis, on the other St. Anthony of Padua, both placed in heaven, and almost on an equality with the celestial personages. Around are seven female figures, representing the seven cardinal virtues, bearing their respective attributes. Below are seen the worthies of the Franciscan Order ; to the right of the Virgin, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, St. Louis of France, St. Bonaventura ; to the left, St. Ives of Bretagne, St. Eleazar, and St. Louis of Toulouse. (Vide Legends of the Monastic Orders.) Painted for the Franciscans by [Francesco] Morone and Paolo Cavazzola [or Morando] of Verona,' [and now in the Gallery of Verona]. This is a picture of wonderful beauty, and quite poetical in the sentiment and arrangement, and the mingling of the celestial, the allegorical, and the real personages, with a certain solemnity and gracefulness quite indescribable. The virtues, for instance, are not so much allegorical persons as spiritual appearances, and the whole of the upper part of the picture is like a vision.

4. The Virgin, standing on the tree of life, holds the Infant ; rays of glory proceed from them on every side. St. Francis, kneeling at the foot of the tree, looks up in an ecstasy of devotion, while a snake with a wounded and bleeding head is crawling away. This strange picture, painted for the Franciscans by Carducho, about 1625, is a representation of an abstract dogma (redemption from original 'sin), in the most real, most animated form, — all over life, earthly breathing life, — and made me start back ; in the mingling of mysticism and materialism it is quite Spanish.

5. The Virgin and Child enthroned. [Benozzo Gozzoli.] On the right of the Virgin, St. John the Baptist and St. Zenobio, the two protectors of Florence. The latter wears his episcopal cope richly embroidered with figures. On the left stand St. Peter and St. Dominick, protectors of the company for whom the picture was painted. In front kneel St. Jerome and St. Francis. This picture was originally placed in San Marco, a church belonging to the Dominicans. I saw and ad-mired this fine and valuable picture in the Rinuccini palace at Florence in 1847 ; it was purchased for our National Gallery in [1856].

6. When the Virgin or the Child holds the rosary, it is then a Madonna del Rosario, and painted for the Dominicans. The Madonna by Murillo, in the Dulwich Gallery, is an ex-ample. There is an instance in which the Madonna and Child enthroned are distributing rosaries to the worshippers, and at-tended by St. Dominick and St. Peter Martyr, the two great saints of the Order. (Caravaggio, Belvedere Gallery, Vienna.)

7. Very important in pictures is the Madonna as more particularly the patroness of the Carmelites, under her well-known title of " Our Lady of Mount Carmel," or La Madonna del Carmine. The members of this Order received from Pope Honorius III. the privilege of styling themselves the " Family of the Blessed Virgin," and their churches are all dedicated to her under the title of " S. Maria del Carmine." She is generally represented holding the infant Christ, with her robe outspread, and beneath its folds the Carmelite brethren and their chief saints. (Vide Legends of the Monastic Orders, " The Carmelites," p. 417.) There is an example in a picture by Pordenone which once belonged to Canova, and is now in the Academy at Venice. The Madonna del Carmine is also portrayed as distributing to her votaries small tablets on which is a picture of herself.

8. The Virgin, as patroness of the Order of Mercy, also distributes tablets, but they bear the badge of the Order ; and this distinguishes "Our Lady of Mercy," so popular in Spanish Art, from " Our Lady of Mount Carmel." (Vide Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 240.)



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