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Legends of the Madonna - The Nativity

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. Il Presepio. Il Nascimento del Nostro Signore. Fr. La Nativité. Ger. Die Geburt Christi. (Dec. 25.)

The birth of our Saviour is related with characteristic simplicity and brevity in the Gospels ; but in the early Christian traditions this great event is preceded and accompanied by several circumstances which have assumed a certain importance and interest in the artistic representations.

According to an ancient legend, the Emperor Augustus Caesar repaired to the sibyl Tiburtina, to inquire whether he should consent to allow himself to be worshipped with divine honors, which the Senate had decreed to him. The sibyl, after some days of meditation, took the emperor apart, and showed him an altar ; and above the altar, in the opening heavens, and in a glory of light, he beheld a beautiful Virgin holding an infant in her arms, and at the same time a voice was heard saying, " This is the altar of the Son of the living God ; " whereupon Augustus caused an altar to be erected on the Capitoline Hill, with this inscription, "Ara primogeniti Dei ; " and on the same spot, in later times, was built the Church called the Ara-Coeli, well known, with its flight of one hundred and twenty-four marble steps, to all who have visited Rome.

Of the sibyls generally, in their relation to Sacred Art, I have already spoken. (Introduction.) This particular prophecy of the Tiburtina sibyl to Augustus rests on some very antique traditions, pagan as well as Christian. It is supposed to have suggested the " Pollio " of Virgil, which suggested the " Messiah" of Pope. It is mentioned by writers of the third and fourth centuries, and our own divines have not wholly rejected it, for Bishop Taylor mentions the sibyl's prophecy among "the great and glorious accidents happening about the birth of Jesus." (Life of Jesus Christ, sec. 4.)

A very rude but curious bas-relief, preserved in the church of the Ara-Coeli, is perhaps the oldest representation extant. The church legend assigns to it a fabulous antiquity ; but it must be older than the twelfth century, as it is alluded to by writers of that period. Here the Emperor Augustus kneels before the Madonna and Child, and at his side is the sibyl Tibur tina, pointing upwards.

Since the revival of Art the incident has been frequently treated. It was painted on the vault of the choir of the Ara-Coeli. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became a favorite subject. It admitted of those classical forms, and that mingling of the heathen and the Christian in style and costume, which were calculated to please the churchmen and artists of the time, and the examples are innumerable.

The most celebrated, I believe, is the fresco by Baldassare Peruzzi (Siena, Fonte Giusta), in which the figure of the sibyl is certainly very majestic, but the rest of the group utterly vulgar and commonplace. Less famous, but on the whole preferable in point of taste, is the group by Garofalo, in the palace of the Quirinal ; 1 and there is another by Titian, in which the scene is laid in a fine landscape after his manner. Vasari mentions a cartoon of this subject, painted by Rosso for Francis I., "among the best things Rosso ever produced," and introducing the king and queen of France, their guards, and a concourse of people, as spectators of the scene. In some instances the locality is a temple, with an altar before which kneels the emperor, having laid upon it his sceptre and laurel crown : the sibyl points to the vision seen through a window above. I think it is so represented in a large picture at Hampton Court by Pietro da Cortona.

The sibylline prophecy is supposed to have occurred a short time before the Nativity, about the same period when the decree went forth "that all the world should be taxed." Joseph, therefore, arose and saddled his ass, and set his wife upon it, and went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The way was long, and steep, and weary; "and when Joseph looked back, he saw the face of Mary that it was sorrowful, as of one in pain ; but when he looked back again she smiled. And when they were come to Bethlehem, there was no room for them in the inn, because of the great concourse of people. And Mary said to Joseph, ' Take me down, for I suffer.' " (Protevangelion.)

The journey to Bethlehem, and the grief and perplexity of Joseph, have been often represented. 1. There exists a very ancient Greek carving in ivory, wherein Mary is seated on the ass, with an expression of suffering, and Joseph tenderly sustains her; she has one arm round his neck, leaning on him : an angel leads the ass, lighting the way with a torch. It is supposed that this curious relic formed part of the ornaments of the ivory throne of the exarch of Ravenna, and that it is at least as old as the sixth century.' 2. There is an instance more dramatic in an engraving after a master of the seventeenth century. Mary, seated on the ass, and holding the bridle, raises her eyes to heaven with an expression of resignation ; Joseph, cap in hand, humbly expostulates with the master of the inn, who points towards the stable ; the innkeeper's wife looks up at the Virgin with a strong expression of pity and sympathy. 3. I remember another print of the same subject, where, in the background, angels are seen preparing the cradle in a cave.

I may as well add that the Virgin, in this character of mysterious, and religious, and most pure maternity, is venerated under the title of "La Madonna del Parto." Every one who has visited Naples will remember the church on the Mergellina, dedicated to the Madonna del Parto, where lies beneath his pagan tomb the poet Sannazzaro. Mr. Hallam, in a beautiful passage of his " History of the Literature of Europe," has pointed out the influence of the genius of Tasso on the whole school of Bolognese painters of that time. Not less striking was the influence of Sannazzaro and his famous poem on the Nativity ("De Partu Virginis ") on the contemporary productions of Italian Art, and more particularly as regards the subject under consideration ; I can trace it through all the schools of Art, from Milan to Naples, during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Of Sannazzaro's poem, Mr. Hallam says, that " it would be difficult to find its equal for purity, elegance, and harmony of versification." It is not the less true, that even its greatest merits as a Latin poem exercised the most perverse influence on the Religious Art of that period. It was, indeed, only one of the many influences which may be said to have demoralized the artists of the sixteenth century, but it was one of the greatest.

The Nativity of our Saviour, like the Annunciation, has been treated in two ways — as a mystery and as an event, and we must be careful to discriminate between them.



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