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The Madonna - Devotional and Historical Representations

( Originally Published 1895 )



In this volume, as in the former ones, I have adhered to the distinction between the devotional and the historical representations.

I class as devotional all those which express a dogma merely ; all the enthroned Madonnas, alone or surrounded by significant accessories or attendant saints ; all the Mystical Coronations and Immaculate Conceptions ; all the Holy Families with saints, and those completely ideal and votive groups in which the appeal is made to the faith and piety of the observer. I shall give the characteristic details, in particular instances, farther on.

The altar-pieces in a Roman Catholic church are always either strictly devotional subjects, or, it may be, historical subjects (such as the Nativity) treated in a devotional sense. They are sometimes in several pieces or compartments. A diptych is an altar-piece composed of two divisions or leaves, which are united by hinges, and close like a book. Portable altar-pieces of a small size are generally in this form ; and among the most valuable and curious remains of early religious Art are the Greek and Byzantine diptychs, sometimes painted, sometimes carved in ivory. A triptych is an altar-piece in three parts ; the two outer divisions or wings often closing as shutters over the central compartment, — as in form below. On the outside of the shutters or doors the Annunciation was generally painted, as the mystery which opened the gates of salvation ; occasionally, also, the portraits of the votaries or donors.

Complete examples of devotional representation occur in the complex and elaborate altar-pieces and windows of stained glass, which often comprehend a very significant scheme of theology. I give here plans of two of these old altar-pieces, which will assist the reader in elucidating the meaning of others.

The first is the altar-piece in the Rinuccini chapel in the church of the Santa Croce of Florence. It is necessary to premise that the chapel was founded in honor of the Virgin and Mary Magdalene, while the church is dedicated to the Holy Cross, and belongs to the Franciscans.

The compartments are separated by wood-work most richly carved and gilt in the Gothic style, with twisted columns, pinnacles, and scrolls. The subjects are thus distributed.

A. The Virgin and Child enthroned. She has the sun on her breast, the moon under her feet, the twelve stars over her head, and is attended by angels bearing the attributes of the cardinal virtues. B. St. John the Baptist. C. St. Francis. D. St. John Evangelist. E. Mary Magdalene. 1. The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and St. John. 2, 3, 4, 5. The four Evangelists with their books : half length. 6, 7. St. Peter and St. Paul: half length. 8, 9, 10, 11. St. Thomas, St. Philip, St. James, and St. Andrew : half length. P P. The Predella. 12. The Nativity and Adoration of Magi. 13. St. Francis receives the Stigmata. 14. Baptism of Christ. 15. The Vision of St. John in Patmos. 16. Mary Magdalene borne up by angels. Between the altar-piece and the predella runs the inscription in Gothic letters, AVE Dulcissima VIRGO MARIA, SUCCURRE NOBIS MATER PIA, MCCCLXXVIII.

The second example is sketched from an altar-piece painted for the suppressed convent of Santa Chiara, at Venice. It is six feet high, and eight feet wide, and the ornamental carving in which the subjects are inclosed is particularly splendid and elaborate.

A. The Coronation of the Virgin, treated as a religious mystery, with choral angels. B. The Nativity of our Lord. C. The Baptism. D. The Last Supper. E. The Betrayal of Christ. F. The Procession to Calvary, in which the Virgin is rudely pushed aside by the soldiers. G. The Crucifixion, as an event ; John sustains the Virgin at the foot of the cross. H. The Resurrection and the Noli me tangere. I. Ascension. 1. Half-figure of Christ, with the hand extended in benediction ; in the other hand the Gospel. 2. David. 3. Isaiah. 4, 5, 6, 7. The four Evangelists standing. 8, 9, 11, 12. Scenes from. the Life of St. Francis and St. Clara. 10. The Descent of the Holy Ghost. 13. The Last Judgment.

It is to he regretted that so many of these altar-pieces have been broken up, and the detached parts sold as separate pictures ; so that we may find one compartment of an altar in a church at Rome, and another hanging in a drawing-room in London; the upper part at Ghent, the lower half at Paris; one wing at Berlin, another at Florence. But where they exist as a whole, how solemn, significant, and instructive the arrangement ! It may be read as we read a poem. Compare these with the groups round the enthroned Virgin in the later altar-pieces, where the saints elbow each other in attitudes, where mortal men sit with unseemly familiarity close to personages recognized as divine. As I have remarked farther on, it is one of the most interesting speculations connected with the study of Art, to trace this decline from reverence to irreverence, from the most rigid formula to the most fantastic caprice. The gradual disappearance of the personages of the Old Testament, the increasing importance given to the family of the Blessed Virgin, the multiplication of legendary subjects, and all the variety of adventitious, unmeaning, or merely ornamental accessories, strike us just in proportion as a learned theology replaced the unreflecting, undoubting piety of an earlier age.

The historical subjects comprise the events from the Life of the Virgin, when treated in a dramatic form ; and all those groups which exhibit her in her merely domestic relations, occupied by cares for her Divine Child, and surrounded by her parents and kindred, subjects which assume a pastoral and poetical rather than an historical form.

All these may be divided into Scriptural and Legendary representations. The Scriptural scenes in which the Virgin Mary is a chief or important personage are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Purification, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, the Marriage at Cana, the Procession to Calvary, the Crucifixion (as related by St. John), and the Descent of the Holy Ghost. The Traditional and Legendary scenes are those taken from the apocryphal Scriptures, some of which have existed from the third century. The Legend of Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin, with the account of her early life, and her Marriage with Joseph, down to the Massacre of the Innocents, are taken from the Gospel of Mary and the Protevangelion. The scenes of the Flight into Egypt, the Repose on the Journey, and the Sojourn of the Holy Family at Hieropolis or Matarea, are taken from the Gospel of Infancy. The various scenes attending the Death and Assumption of the Virgin are derived from a Greek legendary poem, once attributed to St. John the Evangelist, but the work, as it is supposed, of a certain Greek, named Meliton, who lived in the ninth century, and who has merely dressed up in a more fanciful form ancient traditions of the Church. Many of these historical scenes have been treated in a devotional style, expressing not the action, but the event, taken in the light of a religious mystery ; a distinction which I have fully explained in the following pages, where I have given in detail the legends on which these scenes are founded, and the religious significance conveyed by the treatment.

A complete series of the History of the Virgin begins with the rejection of her father Joachim from the temple, and ends with the Assumption and Coronation, including most of the events in the History of our Lord (as, for example, the series painted by Giotto, in the chapel of the Arena, at Padua) ; but there are many instances in which certain important events relating to the Virgin only, as the principal person, are treated as a devotional series ; and such are generally found in the chapels and oratories especially dedicated to her. A beautiful instance is that of the Death of the Virgin, treated in a succession of scenes, as an event apart, and painted by Taddeo Bartolo, in the chapel of the Palazzo Pubblico, at Siena. This small chapel was dedicated to the Virgin soon after the terrible plague of 1348 had ceased, as it was believed, by her inter-cession ; so that this municipal chapel was at once an expression of thanksgiving and a memorial of death, of suffering, of bereavement, and of hope in the resurrection. The frescoes cover one wall of the chapel, and are thus arranged in four scenes.

1. Mary is reclining in her last sickness, and around her the Apostles, who, according to the beautiful legend, were miraculously assembled to witness her departure. To express this, one of them is floating in as if borne on the air. St. John kneels at her feet, and she takes, with an expression exquisitely tender and maternal, his two hands in hers. This action is peculiar to the Siena school.

2. She lies extended on her couch, surrounded by the weeping Apostles, and Christ behind receives the parting soul—the usual representation, but treated with the utmost senti-ment.

3. She is borne to the grave by the Apostles ; in the back-ground, the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Here the Greek legend of St. Michael protecting her remains from the sacrilegious Jew is omitted, and a peculiar sentiment of solemnity pervades the whole scene.

4. The resurrection of the Virgin, when she rises from the tomb sustained by hovering angels, and is received by Christ.

When I first saw these beautiful frescoes, in 1847, they were in a very ruined state ; they have since been restored in a very good style, and with a reverent attention to the details and expression.

In general, however, the cycle commences either with the legend of Joachim and Anna, or with the Nativity of the Virgin, and ends with the Assumption and Coronation. A most interesting early example is the series painted in fresco by Taddeo Gaddi, in the Baroncelli chapel at Florence. The subjects are thus arranged on two walls. The first on the right hand, and the second opposite to us as we enter.

1. Joachim is rejected from the Temple.

2. He is consoled by the Angel.

3. The meeting of Joachim and Anna.

4. The Birth of the Virgin.

5. The Presentation of the Virgin. She is here a child of about five years old ; and having ascended five steps (of the fifteen), she turns as if to bid farewell to her parents and companions, who stand below; while on the summit the High Priest, Anna the prophetess, and the maidens of the Temple come forward to receive her.

6. The Marriage to Joseph, and the rage and disappointment of the other suitors. The second wall is divided by a large window of the richest stained glass, on each side of which the subjects are arranged.

7. The Annunciation. This is peculiar. Mary, not throned or standing, but seated on the ground, with her hands clasped, and an expression beautiful for devotion and humility, looks upward to the descending angel.

8. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth.

9. The Annunciation to the Shepherds.

10. The Nativity.

11. The Wise Men behold the Star in the form of a Child.

12. They approach to worship. Under the window is the altar (t) no longer used as such; and behind it a small but beautiful triptych of the Coronation of the Virgin, by Giotto, containing at least a hundred heads of saints, angels, etc. ; and on the wall opposite to No. 1 is the large fresco of the Assumption, by Mainardi, in which St. Thomas receives the girdle, the other apostles being omitted. This is of much later date, being painted about 1495.

The series of five subjects in the Rinuccini chapel (in the sacristy of the same church) has been generally attributed to Taddeo Gaddi, but I agree with those who give it to a different painter of the same period.'

The subjects are thus arranged : 1. The Rejection of Joachim, which fills the whole arch at the top, and is rather peculiarly treated. On the right of the altar (a) advances a company of grave-looking elders, each with his offering. On the left (b), a procession of the matrons and widows, " who had been fruitful in Israel," each with her lamb. In the centre, Joachim, with his lamb in his arms and an affrighted look, is hurrying down the steps. 2. The Lamentation of Joachim on the Mountain, and the Meeting of Joachim and Anna. 3. The Birth of the Virgin. 4. The Presentation in the Temple. 5. The Sposalizio of the Virgin, with which the series concludes ; every event referring to her Divine Son, even the Annunciation, being omitted. On comparing these frescoes with those in the neighboring chapel of the Baroncelli, the difference in feeling will be immediately felt ; but they are very naïve and elegant.

About a hundred years later than these two examples we have the celebrated series painted by Ghirlandajo, in the choir of S. Maria Novella at Florence. There are three walls. On the principal wall, facing us as we enter, is the window ; and around it the Annunciation (as a mystery), then the principal saints of the Order to whom the church belongs, — St. Dominick and St. Peter Martyr, and the protecting saints of Florence.

On the left hand (i. e. the right as we face the high altar) is the History of the Virgin ; on the opposite side, the History of St. John the Baptist. The various cycles relating to St. John as patron of Florence will be fully treated in the last volume of " Legendary Art ; " at present I shall confine myself to the beautiful set of subjects which relate the history of the Virgin, and which the engravings of Lasini have rendered well known to the lovers of Art. They cover the whole wall, and are thus arranged, beginning from the lowest on the left hand.

1. Joachim is driven from the temple.

2. The Birth of the Virgin. I have reproduced this beautiful composition, with a description, at p. 194.

3. The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple.

4. The Marriage of Joseph and Mary.

5. The Adoration of the Magi. (This is very much ruined.)

6. The Massacre of the Innocents. (This also is much ruined.) Vasari says it was the finest of all. It is very unusual to make this terrible and pathetic scene part of the life of the Virgin.

7. In the highest and largest compartment, the Death and Assumption of the Virgin.

Nearly contemporary with this fine series is that by Pinturicchio in the church of S. Maria del Popolo, at Rome (in the third chapel on the right). It is comprised in five lunettes round the ceiling, beginning with the Birth of the Virgin, and is remarkable for its elegance.

About forty years after this series was completed the people of Siena, who had always been remarkable for their devotion to the Virgin, dedicated to her honor the beautiful little chapel called the Oratory of San Bernardino, near the church of San Francesco, and belonging to the same Order, the Franciscans.

This chapel is an exact parallelogram, and the frescoes which cover the four walls are thus arranged above the wainscot, which rises about eight feet from the ground.

1. Opposite the door as we enter, the Birth of the Virgin. The usual visitor to St. Anna is here a grand female figure, in voluminous drapery. The delight and exultation of those who minister to the new-born Infant are expressed with the most graceful naiveté. This beautiful composition should be compared with those of Ghirlandajo and Andrea del Sarto in the Annunziata at Florence ; it yields to neither as a conception, and is wholly different. It is the work of a Sienese painter little known — Girolamo del Pacchia.

2. The Presentation in the Temple, by G. A. Razzi.

3. The Sposalizio, by Beccafumi. The ceremony takes place after the manner of the Jews, outside the Temple. In a mannered, artificial style.

4, 5. On one side of the altar, the Angel Gabriel floating in — very majestic and angelic ; on the other side the Virgin Annunziata, with that attitude and expression so characteristic of the Siena school, as if shrinking from the apparition. These also are by Girolamo del Pacchia, and extremely fine.

6. The enthroned Virgin and Child, by Beccafumi. The Virgin is very fine and majestic; around her throne stand and kneel the guardian saints of Siena and the Franciscan Order : St. Francis, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bernardino, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ansano, St. John B., St. Louis. (St. Catherine, as patroness of Siena, takes here the place usually given to St. Clara in the Franciscan pictures.)

7. The Visitation. Very fine and rather peculiar ; for here Elizabeth bends over Mary as welcoming her, while the other inclines her head as accepting hospitality. By Razzi.

8. The Death of the Virgin. Fourteen figures, among which are four females lamenting, and St. John bearing the palm. The attitude and expression of Mary composed in death, are very fine ; and Christ, instead of standing, as usual, by the couch, with her parting soul in his arms, comes rushing down from above with arms outspread to receive it.

9. The Assumption. Mary, attired all in white, rises majestically. The tomb is seen beneath, out of which grow two tall lilies amid white roses ; the Apostles surround it, and St. Thomas receives the girdle. This is one of the finest works of Razzi, and one of the purest in point of sentiment.

10. The Coronation, covering the whole wall which faces the altar, is by Razzi ; it is very peculiar and characteristic. The Virgin all in white, and extremely fine, bending grace-fully, receives her crown ; the other figures have that vulgarity of expression which belonged to the artist, and is often so oddly mingled with the sentiment and grandeur of his school and time. On the right of the principal group stands St. John B.; on the left, Adam and Eve ; and behind the Virgin, her mother, St. Anna, which is quite peculiar, and the only in-stance I can remember.

It appears, therefore, that the Life of the Virgin may, whether treated as a devotional or historical series, form a kind of pictured drama in successive scenes ; sometimes comprising only six or eight of the principal events of her individual life, as her birth, dedication, marriage, death, and assumption : some-times extending to forty or fifty subjects, and combining her history with that of her Divine Son. I may now direct the attention of the reader to a few other instances remarkable for their beauty and celebrity.

Giotto, 1320. In the chapel at Padua styled la Capella dell Arena. One of the finest and most complete examples extant, combining the Life of the Virgin with that of her Son. This series is of the highest value, a number of scenes and situations suggested by the Scriptures being here either ex-pressed for the first time, or in a form unknown in the Greek school.

Angiolo Gaddi, 1380. The series in the cathedral at Prato. These comprise the history of the Holy Girdle.

Andrea Orcagna, 1373. The beautiful series of bas-reliefs on the shrine in Or San Michele, at Florence.

Niccolô da Modena, 1450. Perhaps the earliest engraved ex-ample : very remarkable for the elegance of the motifs and the imperfect execution, engraving on copper being then a new art.

Albert Dürer. The beautiful and well-known set of twenty-five woodcuts, published in 1510. A perfect example of the German treatment.

Bernardino Luini, 1515. A series of frescoes of the highest beauty, painted for the monastery Della Pace. Unhappily we have only the fragments, which are preserved in the Brera.

The series of bas-reliefs on the outer shrine of the Casa di Loretto, by Sansovino, and others of the greatest sculptors of the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The series of bas-reliefs round the choir at Milan : seventeen subjects.

We often find the Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin treated as a series.

The Seven Joys are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, Christ found by his Mother, the Assumption, and Coronation.

The Seven Sorrows are the Prophecy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt, Christ lost by his Mother, the Betrayal of Christ, the Crucifixion (with St. John and the Virgin only present), the Deposition from the Cross, the Ascension when the Virgin is left on earth.

The Seven Joys and Sorrows are frequently found in altar-pieces and religious prints, arranged in separate compartments, round the Madonna in the centre. Or they are combined in various groups into one large composition, as in a famous picture by Hans Memling, wonderful for the poetry, expression, and finished execution.)

Another cycle of subjects consists of the fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary.

The five Joyful Mysteries are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Purification, and Christ found in the Temple.

The five Dolorous or Sorrowful Mysteries are our Lord in the Garden of Olives, the Flagellation, Christ crowned with Thorns, the Procession to Calvary, the Crucifixion.

The five Glorious Mysteries are the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Ghost, the Assumption, the Coronation.

A series of subjects thus arranged cannot be called strictly historical, but partakes of the mystical and devotional character. The purpose being to excite devout meditation, requires a particular sentiment, frequently distinguished from the merely dramatic and historical treatment in being accompanied by saints, votaries, and circumstances purely ideal ; as where the Wise Men bring their offerings, where St. Luke sits in a corner painting the portrait of the Virgin, and St. Dominick kneels in adoration of the Mystery (Mabuse, Munich Gallery) ; and in a hundred other examples.



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