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Half-Length Enthroned Madonnas

( Originally Published 1895 )



As these enthroned and votive Virgins multiplied, as it became more and more a fashion to dedicate them as offerings in churches, want of space, and perhaps, also, regard to expense, suggested the idea of representing the figures half length. The Venetians, from early time the best face-painters in the world, appear to have been the first to cut off the lower part of the figure, leaving the arrangement otherwise much the same. The Virgin is still a queenly and majestic creature, sitting there to be adored. A curtain or part of a carved chair represents her throne. The attendant saints are placed to the right and to the left ; or sometimes the throne occupies one side of the picture, and the saints are ranged on the other. From the shape and diminished size of these votive pictures, the personages, seen half length, are necessarily placed very near to each other, and the heads nearly on a level with that of the Virgin, who is generally seen to the knees, while the Child is always full length. In such compositions we miss the grandeur of the entire forms, and the consequent diversity of character and attitude ; but sometimes the beauty and individuality of the heads atone for all other deficiencies.

In the earlier Venetian examples, those of Gian Bellini particularly, there is a solemn quiet elevation which renders them little inferior, in religious sentiment, to the most majestic of the enthroned and enskied Madonnas.

There is a sacred group by Bellini, [once] in the possession of Sir Charles Eastlake, which has always appeared to me a very perfect specimen of this class of pictures. It is also the earliest I know of. The Virgin, pensive, sedate, and sweet, like all Bellini's Virgins, is seated in the centre, and seen in front. The Child, on her knee, blesses with his right hand, and the Virgin places hers on the head of a votary, who just appears above the edge of the picture, with hands joined in prayer ; he is a fine young man with an elevated and elegant profile. On the right are St. John the Baptist pointing to the Saviour, and St. Catherine ; on the left, St. George with his banner, and St. Peter holding his book. [The picture was sold out of the Eastlake collection in 1894, and is now in the possession of the Hon. C. Seale-Hayne, Eaton Square, London.] A similar picture, with Mary Magdalene and St. Jerome on the right, St. Peter and St. Martha on the left, is in the Leuchtenberg Gallery at Munich. Another of exquisite beauty is in the Venice Academy, in which the lovely St. Catherine wears a crown of myrtle.

Once introduced, these half-length enthroned Madonnas be-came very common, spreading from the Venetian states through the north of Italy ; and we find innumerable examples from the best schools of Art in Italy and Germany, from the middle of the fifteenth to the middle of the sixteenth century. I shall particularize a few of these, which will be sufficient to guide the attention of the observer ; and we must carefully discriminate between the sentiment proper to these half-length enthroned Madonnas, and the pastoral or domestic sacred groups and Holy Families, of which I shall have to treat hereafter.

Raphael's well-known Madonna della Seggiola (Pitti, Florence) and Madonna della Candelabra [Munro - Butler - John-stone collection, London] 1 are both enthroned Virgins in the grand style, though seen half length. In fact, the hair of the head ought, in the higher schools of Art, at once to distinguish a Madonna in trono, even where only the head is visible.

The Child, standing or seated on a table or balustrade in front, enabled the painter to vary the attitude, to take the infant Christ out of the arms of the Mother, and to render his figure more prominent. It was a favorite arrangement with the Venetians ; and there is an instance in a pretty picture in our National Gallery, attributed to Perugino.

Sometimes, even where the throne and the attendant saints and angels show the group to be wholly devotional and exalted, we find the sentiment varied by a touch of the dramatic —by the introduction of an action; but it must be one of a wholly religious significance suggestive of a religious feeling, or the subject ceases to be properly devotional in character.

The illustration is from a picture by Botticelli, before which, in walking up the corridor of the Florence Gallery, I used, day after day, to make an involuntary pause of admiration. The Virgin, seated in a chair of state, but seen only to the knees, sustains her divine Son with one arm ; four angels are in attendance, one of whom presents an inkhorn, another holds before her an open book, and she is in the act of writing the Magnificat, " My soul doth magnify the Lord ! " The head of the figure behind the Virgin is the portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici when a boy. In the original picture by Botticelli there is absolutely no beauty of feature, either in the Madonna or the Child or the angels, yet every face is full of dignity and character.

In a beautiful picture by Titian, in the Belvedere at Vienna, the Virgin is enthroned on the left, and on the right appear St. George and St. Laurence i as listening, while St. Jerome reads from his great book.

A family group is sometimes treated in this grand style, but the symmetry of the arrangement and the sentiment show the picture to be devotional.

The old German and Flemish painters, in treating the en-throned Madonna, sometimes introduced accessories which no painter of the early Italian school would have descended to ; and which tinge with a holy sentiment their most exalted conceptions. Thus, I have seen, in the Belvedere Gallery at Vienna, a German Madonna, seated on a superb throne, and most elaborately and gorgeously arrayed, pressing her Child to her bosom with a truly maternal air ; while beside her, on a table, are a honeycomb, some butter, a dish of fruit, and a glass of water. It is possible that in this case, as in the Virgin suck-ling her Child, there may be a religious allusion, — " Butter and honey shall he eat," etc.



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