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Legends of the Madonna - The Repose of the Holy Family

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. Il Riposo. Fr. Le Repos de la Sainte Famille. Ger. Die Ruhe in Egypten.

The subject generally styled a " Riposo " is one of the most graceful and most attractive in the whole range of Christian Art. It is not, however, an ancient subject, for I cannot recall an instance earlier than the sixteenth century ; it had in its accessories that romantic and pastoral character which recommended it to the Venetians and to the landscape painters of the seventeenth century, and among these we must look for the most successful and beautiful examples.

I must begin by observing that it is a subject not only easily mistaken by those who have studied pictures, but perpetually misconceived and misrepresented by the painters themselves. Some pictures, which erroneously bear this title, were never intended to do so. Others intended to represent the scene are disfigured and perplexed by mistakes arising either from the ignorance or the carelessness of the artist.

We must bear in mind that the Riposo, properly so called, is not merely the Holy Family seated in a landscape ; it is an episode of the Flight into Egypt, and is either the rest on the journey, or at the close of the journey; quite different scenes, though all go by the same name. It is not an ideal religious group, but a reality, a possible and actual scene ; and it is clear that the painter, if he thought at all, and did not merely set himself to fabricate a pretty composition, was restricted within the limits of the actual and possible, at least, according to the histories and traditions of the time. Some of the accessories introduced would stamp the intention at once ; as the date-tree, and Joseph gathering dates ; the ass feeding in the distance ; the wallet and pilgrim's staff laid beside Joseph ; the fallen idols ; the Virgin scooping water from a fountain ; for all these are incidents which properly belong to the Riposo.

It is nowhere recorded, either in Scripture or in the legendary stories, that Mary and Joseph in their flight were accompanied by Elizabeth and the little St. John ; therefore, where either of these is introduced, the subject is not properly a Riposo, whatever the intention of the painter may have been: the personages ought to be restricted to the Virgin, her Infant, and St. Joseph, with attendant angels. An old woman is sometimes introduced, the same who is traditionally supposed to have accompanied them in their flight. If this old woman be manifestly St. Anna or St. Elizabeth, then it is not a Riposo, but merely a Holy Family.

It is related that the Holy Family finally rested, after their long journey, in the village of Matarea, beyond the city of Hermopolis (or Heliopolis), and took up their residence in a grove of sycamores, a circumstance which gave the sycamore-tree a sort of religious interest in early Christian times. The crusaders imported it into Europe ; and poor Mary Stuart may have had this idea, or this feeling, when she brought from France, and planted in her garden, the first sycamores which grew in Scotland.

Near to this village of Matarea a fountain miraculously sprang up for the refreshment of the Holy Family. It still exists, as we are informed by travellers, about four miles north-east of Cairo, and is still styled by the Arabs " The Fountain of Mary." This fountain is frequently represented, as in the well-known Riposo by Correggio, where the Virgin is dipping a bowl into the gushing stream, hence called the " Madonna della Scodella" (Parma) ; in another by Baroccio, and an-other by Domenichino, in the Louvre.

In this fountain, says another legend, Mary washed the linen of the Child. There are several pictures which represent the Virgin washing linen in a fountain ; for example, one by Lucio Massari, where, in a charming landscape, the little Christ takes the linen out of the basket, and Joseph hangs it on a line to dry. (Uffizi, Florence.)

The ministry of the angels is here not only allowable, but beautifully appropriate ; and never has it been more felicitously and more gracefully expressed than in a little composition by Lucas Cranach, where the Virgin and her Child repose. under a tree, while the angels dance in a circle round them. The cause of the flight, the Massacre of the Innocents, is figuratively expressed by two winged boys, who, seated on a bough of the tree, are seen robbing a nest, and wringing the necks of the nestlings, while the parent birds scream and flutter over their heads : in point of taste, this significant allegory had been better omitted ; it spoils the harmony of composition.

There is another similar group, quite as graceful, by David Hopfer. Vandyck' seems to have had both in his memory when he designed the very beautiful Riposo so often copied and engraved ; here the Wirgin is seated under a tree, in an open landscape, and holds her divine Child ; Joseph, behind, seems asleep ; in front of the Wirgin, eight lovely angels dance in a round, while others, seated in the sky, make heavenly music. [Pitti, Florence, replica in collection of Lord Ash-' burton.]

In another singular and charming Riposo by Lucas Cranach, the Virgin and Child are seated under a tree ; to the left of the group is a fountain, where a number of little angels appear to be washing linen ; to the right, Joseph approaches leading the ass, and in the act of reverently removing his cap.

There is a Riposo by Albert Dürer which I cannot pass over. [In the series, " Life of the Virgin."] It is touched with all that homely domestic feeling, and at the same time all that fertility of fancy, which are so characteristic of that extraordinary man. We are told that when Joseph took up his residence at Matarea in Egypt, he provided for his wife and Child by exercising his trade as a carpenter. In this composition he appears in the foreground dressed as an artisan with an apron on, and with an axe in his hand is shaping a plank of wood. Mary sits on one side spinning with her distaff, and watching her Infant slumbering in its cradle. Around this domestic group we have a crowd of ministering angels ; some of these little winged spirits are assisting Joseph, sweeping up the chips and gathering them into baskets ; others are merely " sporting at their own sweet will." Several more dignified-looking an-gels, having the air of guardian spirits, stand or kneel round the cradle, bending over it with folded hands.

In a Riposo by Titian, the Infant lies on a pillow on the ground, and the Virgin is kneeling before him, while Joseph leans on his pilgrim's staff, to which is suspended a wallet. In another, two angels, kneeling, offer fruits in a basket ; in the distance, a little angel waters the ass at a stream. All these are engraved.

The angels, according to the. legend, not only ministered to the Holy Family, but pitched a tent nightly in which they were sheltered. Poussin, in an exquisite picture, has represented the Wirgin and Child reposing under a curtain suspended from the branches of a tree and partly sustained by angels, while others, kneeling, offer fruit. (Grosvenor Gallery.)

Poussin is the only painter who has attempted to express the locality. In one of his pictures, the Holy Family reposes on the steps of an Egyptian temple ; a sphinx and a pyramid are visible in the background. In another Riposo by the same master, an Ethiopian boy presents fruits to the Infant Christ. Joseph is frequently asleep [as in Garofalo's Riposo at Ferrara], which is hardly consonant with the spirit of the older legends. It is, however, a beautiful idea to make the Child and Joseph both reposing, while the Virgin-mother, with eyes upraised to heaven, wakes and watches, as in a picture by Nola [National Gallery] ; but a yet more beautiful idea to represent the Virgin and Joseph sunk in sleep, while the divine Infant lying in his mother's arms wakes and watches for both, with his little hands joined in prayer, and his eyes fixed on the hovering angels or the opening skies above.

In a Riposo by Rembrandt, the Holy Family rest by night, and are illuminated only by a lantern suspended on the "bough of a tree, the whole group having much the air of a gypsy encampment. But one of Rembrandt's imitators has in his own way improved on this fancy : the Virgin sleeps on a bank with the Child on her bosom ; Joseph, who looks extremely like an old tinker, is doubling his fist at the ass, which has opened its mouth to bray.



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