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Legends of the Madonna - The Nativity as a Mystery

( Originally Published 1895 )



In the first sense, the artist has intended simply to express the advent of the Divinity on earth in the form of an infant, and the motif is clearly taken from a text in the Office of the Virgin, " Virgo quem genuit adoravit." In the beautiful words of Jeremy Taylor, " She blessed him, she worshipped him, and she thanked him that he would be born of her ; " as, indeed, many a young mother has done before and since, when she has hung in adoration over the cradle of her first-born childóbut here the child was to be a descended God ; and nothing, as it seems to me, can be more graceful and more profoundly suggestive than the manner in which some of the early Italian artists have expressed this idea. When, in such pictures, the locality is marked by the poor stable, or the rough rocky cave, it becomes " a temple full of religion, full of glory, where angels are the ministers, the holy Virgin the worshipper, and Christ the Deity." Very few accessories are admitted, merely such as serve to denote that the subject is "a Nativity," properly so called, and not the " Madre Pia," as already described.

The divine Infant lies in the centre of the picture, sometimes on a white napkin, sometimes with no other bed than the flowery turf ; sometimes his head rests on a wheat-sheaf, always here interpreted as " the bread of life." He places his finger on his lip, which expresses the Verbum sum (" Vere Verbum hoc est abbreviatum "), " I am the word," or " I am the bread of life" (" Ego sum panis ill vitee." John vi. 48) ; and fixes his eyes on the heavens above, where the angels are singing the Gloria in excelsis. In one instance, I remember [by Albertinelli], an angel holds up the cross before him ; in another, he grasps it in his hand; or it is a nail, or the crown of thorns, anticipative of his earthly destiny. The Virgin kneels on one side ; St. Joseph, when introduced, kneels on the other ; and frequently angels unite with them in the act of adoration, or sustain the new-born Child. In this poetical version of the subject, Lorenzo di Credi, Perugino, Francia, and Bellini excelled all others. Lorenzo, in particular, became quite renowned for the manner in which he treated it, and a number of beautiful compositions from his hand exist in the Florentine and other galleries. There are also most charming examples in sculpture by Luca della Robbia, Donatello, and other masters of the Florentine school.

There are instances in which attendant saints and votaries are introduced as beholding and adoring this great mystery. 1. For instance, in a picture by Cima da Conegliano [in the church of the Carmine, Venice], Tobit and the angel are introduced on one side, and St. Helena and St. Catherine on the other. 2. In a picture by Francia, in the Bologna Gallery, the Infant, reclining upon a white napkin, is adored by the kneeling Virgin, by St. Augustine, and by two angels also kneeling,

The votary, Antonio Galeazzo Bentivoglio, for whom the picture was painted, kneels in the habit of a pilgrim. He had lately returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, thus poetically expressed in the scene of the Nativity, and the picture was dedicated as an act of thanksgiving as well as of faith. St. Joseph and St. Francis stand on one side ; on the other is a shepherd crowned with laurel. Francia, according to tradition, painted his own portrait as St. Francis ; and his friend the poet Girolamo Casio de' Medici as the shepherd. 3. In a large and famous Nativity by Giulio Romano (Louvre), which once belonged to our Charles I., St. John the Evangelist and St. Longinus (who pierced our Saviour's side with his lance) are standing on each side as two witnesses to the divinity of Christ here strangely enough placed on a par ; but we are reminded that Longinus had lately been inaugurated as patron of Mantua. (Vide Sacred and Legendary Art.)

In a triptych by Hans Memling (Berlin) we have in the centre the Child, adored, as usual, by the Virgin-mother and attending angels, the votary also kneeling in the compartment on the right we find the manifestation of the Redeemer to the West exhibited in the prophecy of the sibyl to Augustus ; on the left, the manifestation of the Redeemer to the East is expressed by the journey of the Magi, and the miraculous staró " we have seen his star in the east."

But of all these ideal Nativities, the most striking is one by Sandro Botticelli, which is indeed a comprehensive poem, a kind of hymn on the Nativity, and might be set to music. In the centre is a shed, beneath which the Virgin, kneeling, adores the Child, who has his finger on his lip. Joseph is seen a little behind, as if in meditation. On the right hand, the angel presents three figures (probably the shepherds), crowned with olive ; on the left is a similar group. On the roof of the shed, three angels, with olive-branches in their hands, sing the Gloria in excelsis. Above these are twelve angels dancing or floating round in a circle, holding olive-branches between , them. In the foreground, in the margin of the picture, three figures rising out of the flames of purgatory are received and embraced by angels. With all its faint fantastic grace and dryness of execution, the whole conception is full of meaning, religious as well as poetical. The introduction of the olive and the redeemed souls may express " peace on earth, good-will towards men ; " or the olive may likewise refer to that period of universal peace in which the Prince of Peace was born into the world. This singular picture, formerly in the Ottley collection, was, when I saw it, in the possession of Mr. Fuller Maitland of Stansted Park. [It was purchased by the National Gallery in 1878.]

I must mention one more instance for its extreme beauty. In a picture in the Pitti at Florence [painter unknown] , the infant Christ lies on the ground on a part of the veil of the Virgin, and holds in his hand a bird. In the background, the miraculous star sheds on the earth a perpendicular blaze of light, and farther off are the shepherds. On the other side, St. Jerome, introduced, perhaps, because he made his abode at Bethlehem, is seated beside his lion.



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