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Pastoral Madonnas of the Venetian School

( Originally Published 1895 )



The famous Correggio in the Uffizi, Florence, is also a Madre Pia. It is very tender, sweet, and maternal. The Child lying on part of his mother's blue mantle, so arranged that while she kneels and bends over him she cannot change her attitude without disturbing him, is a concetto admired by critics in sentiment and Art; but it appears to me very inferior and commonplace in comparison to the Francia at Munich.

In this group [by Filippo Lippi, in the Uffizi, Florence], angels sustain the Infant, while the Mother, seated, with folded hands, adores him ; and in a favorite composition by Guido he sleeps.

And, lastly, we have the Mater Amabilis in a more complex and picturesque, though still devotional, form. The Virgin, seen at full length, reclines on a verdant bank, or is seated under a tree. She is not alone with her Child. Holy personages, admitted to a communion with her, attend around her, rather sympathizing than adoring. The love of varied nature, the love of life under all its aspects, become mingled with the religious conception. Instead of carefully avoiding whatever may remind us of her earthly relationship, the members of her family always form a part of her cortege. This pastoral and dramatic treatment began with the Venetian and Paduan schools, and extended to the early German schools, which were allied to them in feeling, though contrasted with them in form and execution.

The perpetual introduction of St. Joseph, St. Elizabeth, and other relatives of the Virgin (always avoided in a Madonna in trono), would compose what is called a Holy Family, but that the presence of sainted personages whose existence and history belong to a wholly different era—St. Catherine, St. George, St. Francis, or St. Dominick — takes the composition out of the merely domestic and historical, and lifts it at once into the ideal and devotional line of Art. Such a group can-not well be styled a Sacra Familia ; it is a Sacra Conversazione treated in the pastoral and lyrical rather than the lofty epic style.

In this subject the Venetians, who first introduced it, excel all other painters. There is no example by Raphael. The German and Flemish painters who adopted this treatment were often coarse and familiar; the later Italians became flippant and fantastic. The Venetians alone knew how to combine the truest feeling for nature with a sort of Elysian grace.

I shall give a few examples.

1. In a picture by Titian, the Virgin is seated on a green bank enamelled with flowers. She is simply dressed like a contadina, in a crimson tunic, and a white veil half shading her fair hair. She holds in her arms her lovely Infant, who raises his little hand in benediction. St. Catherine kneels before him on one side ; on the other, St. Barbara. St. John the Baptist, not as a child, and the contemporary of our Saviour, but in likeness of an Arcadian shepherd, kneels with his cross and his lamb — the Ecce Agnus Dei, expressed, not in words, but in form. St. George stands by as a guardian warrior. And St. Joseph, leaning on his stick behind, contemplates the group with an air of dignified complacency. (Dresden Gallery.)

2. There is another instance, also from Titian. In a most luxuriant landscape thick with embowering trees, and the mountains of Cadore in the background, the Virgin is seated on a verdant bank ; St. Catherine has thrown herself on her knees, and stretches out her arms to the divine Child in an ecstasy of adoration, in which there is nothing unseemly or familiar. At a distance St. John the Baptist approaches with his lamb.

3. In another very similar group [in the National Gallery ; replica, perhaps by C. Vecelli, in the Pitti, Florence] the action of St. Catherine is rather too familar — it is that of an elder sister or a nurse : the young St. John kneels in worship.

4. Wonderfully fine is a picture of this class by Palma, now in the Dresden Gallery. The noble, serious, sumptuous loveliness of the Virgin ; the exquisite Child, so thoughtful, yet so infantine ; the manly beauty of the St. John ; the charming humility of the St. Catherine as she presents her palm, form one of the most perfect groups in the world. Childhood, motherhood, maidenhood, manhood, were never, I think, combined in so sweet a spirit of humanity.

5. In another picture by Palma, in the same gallery, we have the same picturesque arrangement of the Virgin and Child, while the little St. John adores with folded hands, and St. Catherine sits by in tender contemplation.

This Arcadian sentiment is carried as far as could well be allowed in a picture by Titian in the Louvre, known as the Vierge au Lapin. The Virgin holds a white rabbit, towards which the infant Christ, in the arms of St. Catherine, eagerly stretches his hand. In a picture by Paris Bordone it is carried, I think, too far. The Virgin reclines under a tree with a book in her hand ; opposite to her sits St. Joseph holding an apple ; between them, St. John the Baptist, as a bearded man, holds in his arms the infant Christ, who caressingly puts one arm round his neck, and with the other clings to the rough hairy raiment of his friend.

It will be observed that in these Venetian examples St. Catherine, the beloved protectress of Venice, is seldom omitted. She is not here the learned princess who confounded tyrants and converted philosophers, but a bright-haired, full-formed Venetian maiden, glowing with love and life, yet touched with a serious grace, inexpressibly charming.

St. Dorothea is also a favorite saint in these sacred pastorals. There is an instance [by Titian] in which she is seated by the Virgin with her basket of fruits and flowers ; and St. Jerome, no longer beating his breast in penance, but in likeness of a fond old grandfather, stretches out his arms to the Child. Much finer is a picture [by Bonifazio, once] in the possession of Sir Charles Eastlake. The lovely Virgin is seated under a tree : on one side appears the angel Raphael, presenting Tobit; on the other, St. Dorothea, kneeling, holds up her basket of celestial fruit, gathered for her in Paradise. (See Sacred and Legendary Art, p. 557, for the beautiful legend of St. Dorothea.)

When St. Ursula, with her standard, appears in these Venetian pastorals, we may suppose the picture to have been painted for the famous brotherhood (Scuola di Sant' Orsola) which bears her name. Thus, in a charming picture by Palma (Vienna, Belvedere Gallery), she appears before the Virgin, accompanied by St. Mark as protector of Venice.

Ex-vote pictures in this style are very interesting, and the votary, without any striking impropriety, makes one of the Arcadian group. Very appropriate, too, is the marriage of St. Catherine, often treated in this poetical style. In a picture by Titian, the family of the Virgin attend the mystical rite, and St. Anna places the hand of St. Catherine in that of the Child.

In a group by Signorelli, Christ appears as if teaching St. Catherine ; he dictates, and she, the patroness of " divine philosophy," writes down his words.

When the later painters in their great altar-pieces imitated this idyllic treatment, the graceful Venetian conception became in their hands heavy, mannered, tasteless—and sometimes worse. The monastic saints or mitred dignitaries, introduced into familiar and irreverent communion with the sacred and ideal personages, in spite of the grand scenery, strike us as at once prosaic and fantastic: "we marvel how they got there." Parmigiano, when he fled from the sack of Rome in 1527, painted at Bologna, for the nuns of Santa Margherita, an altar-piece which has been greatly celebrated. The Madonna, holding her Child, is seated in a landscape, under a tree, and turns her head to the Bishop St. Petronius, protector of Bologna. St. Margaret, kneeling and attended by her great dragon, places one hand, with a free and easy air, on the knee of the Virgin, and with the other seems to be about to chuck the infant Christ under the chin. In a large picture by Giacomo Francia, the Virgin, walking in a flowery meadow with the infant Christ and St. John, and attended by St. Agnes and Mary Magdalene, meets St. Francis and St. Dominick also, apparently, taking a walk. (Berlin Gallery.) And again — the Madonna and St. Elizabeth meet with their children in a landscape, while St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Benedict stand behind in attitudes of attention and admiration. Now, such pictures may be excellently well painted, greatly praised by connoisseurs, and held in " somma venerazione," but they are offensive as regards the religious feeling, and are, in point of taste, mannered, fantastic, and secular.

Here we must end our discourse concerning the Virgin and Child as a devotional subject. Very easily and delightfully to the writer, perhaps not painfully to the reader, might we have gone on to the end of the volume ; but my object was not to exhaust the subject, to point out every interesting variety of treatment, but to lead the lover of Art, wandering through a church or gallery, to new sources of pleasure ; to show what infinite shades of feeling and character may still be traced in a subject which, with all its beauty and attractiveness, might seem to have lost its significant interest, and become trite from endless repetition ; to lead the mind to some perception of the intention of the artist in his work —under what aspect he had himself contemplated and placed before the worshipper the image of the Mother of Christ — whether crowned and enthroned as the sovereign lady of Christendom, or exalted as the glorious empress of heaven and all the spiritual world ; or, bending benignly over us, the impersonation of sympathizing womanhood, the emblem of relenting love, the solace of suffering, humanity, the maid and mother, dear and undefiled —

Created beings all in lowliness Surpassing, as in height above them all.

It is time to change the scene — to contemplate the Virgin, as she has been exhibited to us in the relations of earthly life, as the mere woman, acting and suffering, loving, living, dying, fulfilling the highest destinies in the humblest state, in the meekest spirit. So we begin her history as the ancient artists have placed it before us, with that mingled naiveté and reverence, that vivid dramatic power, which only faith, and love, and genius united, could impart.



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