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Legends of the Madonna - The Mater Amabilis

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Madonna col Bambino. La Madonna col celeste suo Figlio. Fr. La Vierge et l'Enfant Jésus. Ger. Maria mit dem Kind.

There is yet another treatment of the Madonna and Child, in which the Virgin no longer retains the lofty goddess-like exaltation given to her in the old time. She is brought nearer to our sympathies. She is not seated in a chair of state with the accompaniments of earthly power ; she is not enthroned on clouds, nor glorified and star-crowned in heaven; she is no longer so exclusively the VERGINE DEA, nor the VIRGO DEI GENITRIX ; but she is still the ALMA MATER REDEMPTORIS, the young, and lovely, and most pure mother of a divine Christ. She is not sustained in mid-air by angels ; she dwells lowly on earth ; but the angels leave their celestial home to wait upon her. Such effigies, when conceived in a strictly ideal and devotional sense, I shall designate as the MATER AMABILIS.

The first and simplest form of this beautiful and familiar subject we find in those innumerable half-length figures of the Madonna holding her Child in her arms, painted chiefly for oratories, private or wayside chapels, and for the studies, libraries, and retired chambers of the devout, as an excitement to religious feeling, and a memorial of the mystery of the Incarnation, where large or grander subjects, or more expensive pictures, would be misplaced. Though unimportant in comparison with the comprehensive and magnificent church altar-pieces already described, there is no class of pictures so popular and so attractive, none on which the character of the time and the painter is stamped more clearly and intelligibly, than on these simple representations.

The Virgin is not here the dispenser of mercy ; she is simply the mother of the Redeemer. She is occupied only by her di-vine Son. She caresses him, or she gazes on him fondly. She presents him to the worshipper. She holds him forth with a pensive joy as the predestined offering. If the profound religious sentiment of the early masters was afterwards obliterated by the unbelief and conventionalism of later Art, still this favorite subject could not be so wholly profaned by de-grading sentiments and associations as the mere portrait heads of the Virgin alone. No matter what the model for the Madonna might have been, a wife, a mistress, a contadina of Frascati, a Venetian Zitella, a Mädchen of Nuremberg, a buxom Flemish Frow, — for the Child was there ; the baby innocence in her arms consecrated her into that " holiest thing alive," a mother. The theme, however inadequately treated as regarded its religious significance, was sanctified in itself beyond the reach of a profane thought. Miserable beyond the reach of hope, dark below despair, that moral atmosphere which the presence of sinless unconscious infancy cannot for a moment purify or hallow !

Among the most ancient and most venerable of the effigies of the Madonna, we find the old Greek pictures of the Mater Amabilis, if that epithet can be properly applied to the dark-colored, sad-visaged Madonnas generally attributed to St. Luke, or transcripts of those said to be painted by him, which exist in so many churches, and are, or were, supposed by the people to possess a peculiar sanctity. These are almost all of oriental origin, or painted to imitate the pictures brought from the East in the tenth or twelfth century. There are a few striking and genuine examples of these ancient Greek Ma-donnas in the Florentine Gallery, and, nearer at hand, in the Wallerstein collection at Kensington Palace. They much resemble each other in the general treatment.

[There are many] renowned Greek pictures, all of which have the credit of performing stupendous miracles, and claim a fabulous antiquity. Yet of the many miracle-working Ma-donnas in Italy popularly attributed to St. Luke, few are either of Greek workmanship or very ancient. Thus the Virgin of the Ara-Coeli is undoubtedly as Greek, and old, and black, and ugly, as sanctity could desire ; while the rival Madonna in Santa Maria-in-Cosmedino, dark as it is in color, is yet most lovely [see below] ; both Mother and Child are full of grace and refined expression ; but though an undoubted " original St. Luke," like many original Raphaels and Titians, it is not even a softened copy of a Greek model; the sentiment is altogether Italian, as may be seen in this sketch. The sketch on p. 167 is from an ancient fresco at Perugia.

The infinite variety which painters have- given to this most simple motif, the Mother and the Child only, without accessories or accompaniments of any kind, exceeds all possibility of classification, either as to attitude or sentiment. Here Raphael shone supreme : the simplicity, the tenderness, the halo of purity and virginal dignity, which he threw round the Mater Amabilis, have never been surpassed — in his best pictures never equalled. The "Madonna del Gran-Duca" [Pitti, Florence], where the Virgin holds the Child seated on her arm ; the " Madonna Tempi " [Munich], where she so fondly presses her cheek to his — are perhaps the most remarkable for simplicity. The Madonna of the Bridgewater Gallery, where the infant lies on her knees, and the Mother and Son look into each other's eyes ; the little "Madonna Conestabile" [St. Petersburg], where she holds the book, and the infant Christ, with a serious yet perfectly childish grace, bends to turn over the leaf - are the most remarkable for sentiment.

Other Madonnas by Raphael, containing three or more figures, do not belong to this class of pictures. They are not strictly devotional, but are properly Holy Families, groups and scenes from the domestic life of the Virgin.

With regard to other painters before or since his time, the examples of the Mater Amabilis so abound in public and private galleries, and have been so multiplied in prints, that comparison is within reach of every observer. I will content myself with noticing a few of the most remarkable for beauty or characteristic treatment. Two painters, who eminently excelled in simplicity and purity of sentiment, are Gian Bellini of Venice, and Bernardino Luini of Milan. Squarcione, though often fantastic, has painted one or two of these Madonnas, remarkable for simplicity and dignity, as also his pupil Mantegna : though in both the style of execution is somewhat hard and cold. In this, by Fra Bartolommeo, there is such a depth of maternal tenderness in the expression and attitude, we wonder where the good monk found his model.

In his own heart ? in his dreams ? A Mater Amabilis by one of the Caracci or by Vandyck is generally more elegant and dignified than tender. Murillo excelled in this subject ; although most of his Virgins have a portrait air of common life, they are redeemed by the expression. In one of these, the Child, looking out of the picture with extended arms and eyes full of divinity, seems about to spring forth to fulfil his mission. [Pitti, Florence.] In another he folds his little hands, and looks voting himself to his appointed up to heaven, as if de pointed suffering, while the Mother looks down upon him with a tender resignation. In a noble Madonna by Vandyck (Bridgewater Gallery, London), it is she herself who devotes him to do his Father's will ; and I still remember a picture of this class, by Carlo Cignani (Belvedere Gallery, Vienna), which made me start, with the intense expression : the Mother presses to her the Child, who holds a cross in his baby hand ; she looks up to heaven with an appealing look of love and anguish — almost of reproach. Guido did not excel so much in children as in the Virgin alone. Poussin, Carlo Dolci, Sassoferrato, and, in general, all the painters of the seventeenth century, give us pretty women and pretty children. We may pass them over. [The Mater Amabilis is perhaps the most common form of the Madonna seen in modern Art. Examples of wide popularity are by Gabriel Max and by Fröschl. These, too, may be " passed over " as having little or nothing in common with the work of the old masters.]

A second version of the Mater Amabilis, representing the Virgin and Child full length, but without accessories, has been also very beautifully treated. She is usually seated in a landscape, and frequently within the mystical inclosure (Hortus clausus), which is sometimes in the German pictures a mere palisade of stakes or boughs, as in the example after Albert Dürer.

Andrea Mantegna, though a fantastic painter, had generally some meaning in his fancies. There is a fine picture of his in which the Virgin and Child are seated in a landscape, and in the background is a stone quarry, where a number of figures are seen busily at work, perhaps hewing the stone to build the new temple of which our Saviour was the corner-stone. (Uffizi, Florence.) In a group by Cristofano Allori the Child places a wreath of flowers on the brow of his Mother, holding in his other hand his own crown of thorns : one of the fancies of the later schools of Art.

[Two modern examples of the Mater Amabilis in a landscape :

1. Carl Miller : The Madonna of the Grotto. Tender and simple, characterized by the strong devotional sentiment of the artist.

2. Dagnan-Bouveret. The Virgin stands under the over-arching trees of a wooded path, clasping her child in her arms. The Babe's face is turned from the spectator. Although it is a very striking picture, there is nothing about the Mother or Child to suggest the divine meaning except the aureoles surrounding the heads.]

The introduction of the little St. John into the group of the Virgin and Child lends it a charming significance and variety, and is very popular; we must, however, discriminate between the familiarity of the domestic subject and the purely religious treatment. When the Giovannino adores with folded hands, as acknowledging in Christ a superior power, or kisses his feet humbly, or points to him exulting, then it is evident that we have the two Children in their spiritual character, the Child, Priest and King, and the Child, Prophet.

In a picture by Leonardo da Vinci, the Madonna, serious and beautiful, without either crown or veil, and adorned only by her long fair hair, is seated on a rock. On one side, the little Christ, supported in the arms of an angel, raises his hand in benediction ; on the other side, the young St. John, presented by the Virgin, kneels in adoration. [Called the Virgin of the Rocks. In the National Gallery.

Where the Children are merely embracing each other, or sporting at the feet of the Virgin, or playing with the cross, or with a bird, or with the lamb, or with flowers, we might call the treatment domestic or poetical ; but where St. John is taking the cross from the hand of Christ, it is clear, from the perpetual repetition of the theme, that it is intended to express a religious allegory. It is the mission of St. John as Baptist and Prophet. He receives the symbol of faith are he goes forth to preach and to convert ; or, as it has been interpreted, he, in the sense used by our Lord, "takes up the cross of our Lord." The first is, I think, the meaning when the cross is enwreathed with the Ecce Agnus Dei; the latter, when it is a simple cross.

In Raphael's " Madonna della Famiglia Alva," now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and in his Madonna of the Vienna Gallery, Christ gives the cross to St. John. In a picture of the Leonardo school in the Louvre we have the same action; and again in a graceful group by Guido, which, in the engraving, bears this inscription, " Qui non accipit crucem suam nonest me dignus " (Matt. x. 38). This, of course, fixes the signification.

Another, and, as I think, a wholly fanciful interpretation, has been given to this favorite group by Tieck and by Monckton Mimes. The Children contend for the cross. The little St. John begs to have it.

Give me the cross, I pray you, dearest Jesus! Oh if you knew how much I wished to have it, You would not hold it in your hand so tightly. Something has told me, something in my breast here, which I am sure is true, that if you keep it, If you will let no other take it from you, Terrible things I cannot bear to think of Must fall upon you. Show me that you love me: Am I not here to be your little servant, Follow your steps, and wait upon your wishes ?

But Christ refuses to yield the terrible plaything, and claims his privilege to be the elder " in the heritage of pain."

In a picture by Carlo Maratti I think this action is evident. Christ takes the cross, and St. John yields it with reluctance.



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