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Family Votive Madonnas

( Originally Published 1895 )



Not less interesting are those votive Madonnas dedicated by the piety of families and individuals. In the family altar-pieces, the votary is often presented on one side by his patron saint, and his wife by her patron on the other. Not seldom a troop of hopeful sons attend the father, and a train of gentle, demure-looking daughters kneel behind the mother. Such memorials of domestic affection and grateful piety are often very charming ; they are pieces of family biography: 1 we have celebrated examples both in German and Italian Art.

1. The " Madonna della Famiglia Bentivoglio " was painted [in 1488] by Lorenzo Costa for Giovanni II., lord or tyrant of Bologna from 1462 to 1506. The history of this Giovanni is mixed up in an interesting manner with the revival of art and letters ; he was a great patron of both, and among the painters in his service were Francesco Francia and Lorenzo Costa. The latter painted for him his family chapel in the church of San Giacomo at Bologna ; and, while the Bentivogli have long since been chased from their native territory, their family altar still remains untouched, unviolated. The Virgin, as usual, is seated on a lofty throne bearing her divine Child ; she is veiled, no hair seen, and simply draped, she bends forward with mild benignity. To the right of the throne kneels Giovanni with his four sons; on the left his wife, attended by six daughters : all are portraits, admirable studies for character and costume. Behind the daughters, the head of an old woman is just visible — according to tradition, the old nurse of the family.

2. Another most interesting family Madonna is that of Ludovico Sforza it Moro, painted for the church of Sant' Ambrogio at Milan by an unknown painter of the school of Leonardo,' and now in the gallery of the Brera. The Virgin sits enthroned, richly dressed, with long fair hair hanging down, and no veil or ornament; two angels hold a crown over her head. The Child lies extended on her knee. Round her throne are the four fathers, St. Ambrose, St. Gregory, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine. In front of the throne kneels Ludovico it Moro, duke of Milan, in a rich dress and unarmed ; Ambrose, as protector of Milan, lays his hand upon his shoulder. At his side kneels a boy about five years old. Opposite to him is the duchess, Beatrice d'Este, also kneeling ; and near her a little baby in swaddling clothes, holding up its tiny hands in supplication, kneels on a cushion. The age of the children shows the picture to have been painted about 1496. The fate of Ludovico it More is well known: perhaps the blessed Virgin deemed a traitor and an assassin unworthy of her protection. He died in the frightful prison of Loches after twelve years of captivity ; and both his sons, Maximilian and Francesco, were unfortunate. With them the family of Sforza and the independence of Milan were extinguished together in 1535.

3. Another celebrated and most precious picture of this class is the Virgin of the Meyer family, painted by Holbein 2 for the burgomaster Jacob Meyer of Basle. (Dresden Gallery.) According to a family tradition, the youngest son of the burgomaster was sick even to death, and, through the merciful intercession of the Virgin, was restored to his parents, who, in gratitude, dedicated this offering. She stands on a pedestal in a richly ornamented niche; over her long fair hair, which falls down her shoulders to her waist, she wears a superb crown ; and her robe of a dark greenish blue is confined by a crimson girdle. In purity, dignity, humility, and intellectual grace, this exquisite Madonna has never been surpassed, not even by Raphael; the face, once seen, haunts the memory. The child in her arms is generally supposed to be the infant Christ. I have fancied, as I look on the picture, that it may be the poor sick child recommended to her mercy, for the face is very pathetic, the limbs not merely delicate but attenuated, while, on comparing it with the robust. child who stands below, the resemblance and the contrast are both striking. To the right of the Virgin kneels the burgomaster Meyer with two of his sons, one of whom holds the little brother who is restored to health, and seems to present him to the people. On the left kneel four females — the mother, the grandmother, and two daughters. All these are portraits, touched with that homely, vigorous truth, and finished with that consummate delicacy, which characterized Holbein in his happiest efforts; and, with their earnest but rather ugly and earthly faces, contrasting with the divinely compassionate and refined being who looks down on them with an air so human, so maternal, and yet so unearthly.

Sometimes it is a single votary who kneels before the Madonna. In the old times he expressed his humility by placing himself in a corner and making himself so diminutive as to be scarce visible ; afterwards, the head of the votary or donor is seen life size, with hands joined in prayer, just above the margin at the foot of the throne, care being taken to remove him from all juxtaposition with the attendant saints. But as the religious feeling in Art declined, the living votaries are mingled with the spiritual patrons—the " human mortals" with the "human immortals " — with a disregard to time and place which, if it be not so lowly in spirit, can be rendered by a great artist strikingly poetical and significant.

1. The renowned " Madonna di Foligno," one of Raphael's masterpieces, is a votive picture of this class. It was dedicated by Sigismund Conti of Foligno, private secretary to Pope Julius II., and a distinguished man in other respects, a writer and a patron of learning. It appears that Sigismund, having been in great danger from a meteor or thunderbolt, vowed an offering to the blessed Virgin, to whom he attributed his safety, and in fulfilment of his vow consecrated this precious picture. In the upper part of the composition sits the Virgin in heavenly glory ; by her side the infant Christ, partly sustained by his mother's veil, which is drawn round his body ; both look down benignly on the votary Sigismund Conti, who, kneeling below, gazes up with an expression of the most intense gratitude and devotion. It is a portrait from the life, and certainly one of the finest and most lifelike that exist in painting. Behind him stands St. Jerome, who, placing his hand upon the head of the votary, seems to present him to his celestial protectress. On the opposite side John the Baptist, the meagre wild-looking prophet of the desert, points upward to the Redeemer. More in front kneels St. Francis, who, while he looks up to heaven with trusting and imploring love, extends his right hand towards the worshippers supposed to be assembled in the church, recommending them also to the protecting grace of the Virgin. In the centre of the picture, dividing these two groups, stands a lovely angel-boy holding in his hand a tablet, one of the most charming figures of this kind Raphael ever painted ; the head, looking up, has that sublime yet perfectly childish grace which strikes us in those awful angel-boys in the " Madonna di San Sisto." The background is a landscape, in which appears the city of Foligno at a distance ; it is overshadowed by a storm-cloud, and a meteor is seen falling ; but above these bends a rainbow, pledge of peace and safety. The whole picture glows throughout with life and beauty, hallowed by that profound religious sentiment which suggested the offering, and which the sympathetic artist seems to have caught from the grateful donor. It was dedicated in the church of the Ara-Coeli at Rome, which belongs to the San Franciscans ; hence St. Francis is one of the principal figures. When I was asked, at Rome, why St. Jerome had been introduced into the picture, I thought it might be thus accounted for : The patron saint of the donor, St. Sigismund, was a king and a warrior, and Conti might possibly think that it did not accord with his profession, as an humble ecclesiastic, to introduce him here. The most celebrated con-vent of the Jeronymites in Italy is that of St. Sigismund near Cremona, placed under the special protection of St. Jerome, who is also in a general sense the patron of all ecclesiastics ; hence, perhaps, he figures here as the protector of Sigismund Conti. The picture was painted, and placed over the high altar of the Ara-Coeli in 1511, when Raphael was in his twenty-eighth year. Conti died in 1512, and in 1565 his grand-niece, Suora Anna Conti, obtained permission to remove it to her convent at Foligno, whence it was carried off by the French in 1792. Since the restoration of the works of Art in Italy, in 1815, it has been placed among the treasures of the Vatican.

2. Another perfect specimen of a votive picture of this kind, in a very different style, I saw in the Museum at Rouen, attributed there to Van Eyck. It is, probably, a fine work by a later master of the school, perhaps Memling. In the centre, the Virgin is enthroned ; the Child, seated on her knee, holds a bunch of grapes, symbol of the eucharist. On the right of the Virgin is St. Apollonia; then two lovely angels in white raiment, with lutes in their hands ; and then a female head, seen looking from behind, evidently a family portrait. More in front, St. Agnes, splendidly dressed in green and sable, her lamb at her feet, turns with a questioning air to St. Catherine, who, in queenly garb of crimson and ermine, seems to consult her book. Behind her another member of the family, a man with a very fine face ; and more in front St. Dorothea, with a charming expression of modesty, looks down on her basket of roses. On the left of the Virgin is St. Agatha; then two angels in white with viols ; then St. Cecilia, and near her a female head, another family portrait; next, St. Barbara wearing a beautiful headdress, in front of which is worked her tower, framed like an ornamental jewel in gold and pearls ; she has a missal in her lap. St. Lucia next appears ; then another female portrait. All the heads are about one fourth of the size of life. I stood in admiration before this picture — such miraculous finish in all the details, such life, such spirit, such delicacy in the heads and hands, such brilliant color in the draperies ! Of its history I could learn nothing, nor what family had thus introduced themselves into celestial companionship. The portraits seemed to me to represent a father, a mother, and two daughters.

I must mention some other instances of votive Madonnas, interesting either from their beauty or their singularity.

3. René, duke of Anjou, and king of Sicily and Jerusalem, the father of our Amazonian queen, Margaret of Anjou, dedicated, in the church of the Carmelites, at Aix, the capital of his dominions, a votive picture, which is still to be seen there. It is not only a monument of his piety, but of his skill ; for, according to the tradition of the country, he painted it himself. The good King Rend was no contemptible artist, but though he may have suggested the subject, the hand of a practiced and accomplished painter is too apparent for us to suppose it his own work.

This altar-piece is a triptychon, and when the doors are closed it measures twelve feet in height, and seven feet in width. On the outside of the doors is the Annunciation : to the left, the angel standing on a pedestal, under a Gothic canopy ; to the right, the Virgin standing with her book, under a similar canopy : both graceful figures. On opening the doors, the central compartment exhibits the Virgin and her Child enthroned in a burning bush ; the bush which burned with fire, and was not consumed, being a favorite type of the immaculate purity of the Virgin. Lower down, in front, Moses appears surrounded by his flocks, and at the command of an angel is about to take off his sandals. The angel is most richly dressed, and on the clasp of his mantle is painted in miniature Adam and Eve tempted by the serpent. Underneath this compartment is the inscription, "Rubum quern viderat Moyses, incombustum, conservatam agnovimusc tuam laudabilem Virginitatem, Sancta Dei Genitrix." 1 On the door to the right of the Virgin kneels King René himself before an altar, on which lie an open book and his kingly crown. He is dressed in a robe trimmed with ermine, and wears a black velvet cap. Behind him, Mary Magdalene (the patroness of Provence), St. Anthony, and St. Maurice. On the other door, Jeanne de Laval, the second wife of Rend, kneels before an open book ; she is young and beautiful, and richly attired ; and behind her stand St. John (her patron saint), St. Catherine (very noble and elegant), and St. Nicholas. I saw this curious and interesting picture in 1846. It is very well pre-served, and painted with great finish and delicacy in the manner of the early Flemish school.

4. In a beautiful little picture by Van Eyck, in the Louvre, the Virgin is seated on a throne, holding in her arms the infant Christ, who has a globe in his left hand, and extends the right in the act of benediction. The Virgin is attired as a queen, in a magnificent robe falling in ample folds around her, and trimmed with jewels ; an angel, hovering with outspread wings, holds a crown over her head. On the left of the picture, a votary, in the dress of a Flemish burgomaster, kneels before a priedieu, on which is an open book, and with clasped hands adores the Mother and the Child. The locality represents a gallery or portico paved with marble, and sustained by pillars in a fantastic Moorish style. The whole picture is quite exquisite for the delicacy of color and execution. In the [old] catalogue of the Louvre this picture [was] entitled " St. Joseph adoring the Infant Christ ; " [but in the edition of 1889 (by F. Villot) it is correctly entered as La Vierge au Donateur].

5. All who have visited the church of the Frari at Venice will remember — for once seen, they newer can forget — the ex-voto altar-piece which adorns the chapel of the Pesaro family. The beautiful Virgin is seated on a lofty throne to the right of the picture, and presses to her bosom the Dio Bambinetto, who turns from her to bless the votary presented by St. Peter. The saint stands on the steps of the throne, one hand on a book ; and behind him kneels one of the Pesaro family, who was at once bishop of Paphos and commander of the Pope's galleys : he approaches to consecrate to the Ma-donna the standards taken from the Turks, which are borne by St. George, as patron of Venice. On the other side appear St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua, as patrons of the church in which the picture is dedicated. Lower down, kneeling on one side of the throne, is a group of various members of the Pesaro family, three of whom are habited in crimson robes, as Cavalieri di San Marco ; the other, a youth about fifteen, looks out of the picture, astonishingly alive, and yet sufficiently idealized to harmonize with the rest. This picture is very remarkable for several reasons. It is a piece of family history, curiously illustrative of the manners of the time. The Pesaro here commemorated was an ecclesiastic, but appointed by Alexander VI. to command the galleys with which he joined the Venetian forces against the Turks in 1503. It is for this reason that St. Peter — as representative here of the Roman pontiff—introduces him to the Madonna, while St. George, as patron of Venice, attends him. The picture is a monument of the victory gained by Pesaro, and the gratitude and pride of his family. It is also one of the finest works of Titian ; one of the earliest instances in which a really grand religious composition assumes almost a dramatic and scenic form, yet retains a certain dignity and symmetry worthy of its solemn destination.

6. I will give one more instance. There is in our National Gallery a Venetian picture which is striking from its peculiar and characteristic treatment. On one side, the Virgin with her Infant is seated on a throne ; a cavalier, wearing armor and a turban, who looks as if he had just returned from the Eastern wars, prostrates himself before her : in the background, a page (said to be the portrait of the painter) holds the horse of the votary. The figures are life size, or nearly so, as well as I can remember, and the sentimental dramatic treatment is quite Venetian. It is supposed to represent a certain Duccio Constanzo of Treviso, and was once attributed to Giorgione : it is certainly of the school of Bellini. [The National Gallery official catalogue of 1894 classifies the picture under the " school of Giovanni Bellini," adding the note that some attribute it to Vincenzo Catena.]



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