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Legends of the Madonna - Two Figures

( Originally Published 1895 )



The simplest form of the family group is confined to two figures, and expresses merely the relation between the Mother and the Child. The motif is precisely the same as in the formal, goddess-like, enthroned Madonnas of the antique time ; but here quite otherwise worked out, and appealing to other sympathies. In the first instance, the intention was to assert the contested pretensions of the human mother to divine honors ; here it was rather to assert the humanity of her divine Son ; and we have before us, in the simplest form, the first and holiest of all the social relations.

The primal instinct, as the first duty of the mother, is the nourishment of the life she has given. A very common subject, therefore, is Mary in the act of feeding her Child from her bosom. I have already observed that, when first-adopted, this was a theological theme; an answer, in form, to the challenge of the Nestorians, " Shall we call him God who bath sucked his mother's breast ? " Then, and for at least five hundred ears afterwards, the simple maternal action involved a religious dogma, and was the visible exponent of a controverted article of faith. All such controversy had long ceased, and certainly there was no thought of insisting on a point of theology in the minds of those secular painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who have set forth the representation with such an affectionate and delicate grace; nor yet in the minds of those who converted the lovely group into a moral lesson. For example, we find in the works of Jeremy Taylor (one of the lights of our Protestant Church) a long homily " Of nursing children, in imitation of the blessed Virgin-mother ; " and prints and pictures of the Virgin thus occupied often bear significant titles and inscriptions of the same import ; such as " Le premier devoir d'une mère," etc.

I do not find this motif in any known picture by Raphael ; but in one of his designs, engraved by Marc Antonio, it is represented with characteristic grace and delicacy.

Goethe describes with delight a picture by Correggio, in which the attention of the Child seems divided between the bosom of his Mother and some fruit offered by an angel. He calls this subject " The Weaning of the Infant Christ." Correggio, if not the very first, is certainly among the first of the Italians who treated this motif in the simple domestic style. Others of the Lombard school followed him ; and I know not a more exquisite example than the maternal group by Solario, now in the Louvre, styled "La Vierge it l'Oreiller Verd," from the color of the pillow on which the Child is lying. The subject is frequent in the contemporary German and Flemish schools of the sixteenth century. In the next century there are charming examples by the Bologna painters, and the Naturalisti, Spanish, Italian, and Flemish. I would particularly point to one by Agostino Caracci (Parma), and to another by Vandyck (that engraved by Bartolozzi), as examples of elegance; while in the numerous specimens by Rubens we have merely his own wife and son, painted with all that coarse vigorous life, and homely affectionate expression, which his own strong domestic feelings could lend them.

We have in other pictures the relation between the Mother and Child expressed and varied in a thousand ways ; as where she contemplates him fondly — kisses him, pressing his cheeks to hers; or they sport with a rose, or an apple, or a bird; or he presents it to his mother; these originally mystical emblems being converted into playthings. In [the Madonna della Campanello by Bartolommeo Schidone, in the Pitti, Florence] she is amusing him by tinkling a bell: the bell, which has a religious significance, is here a plaything. One or more attendant angels may vary the group, without taking it out of the sphere of reality. In a quaint but charming picture in the Wallerstein collection [now dispersed], an angel is sporting with the Child at his mother's feet — is literally his playfellow ; and in a picture by Cambiaso, Mary, assisted by an angel, is teaching her Child to walk.

To represent, in the great enthroned Madonnas, the Infant Saviour of the world asleep, has always appeared to me a solecism : whereas in the domestic subject, the Infant slumbering on his mother's knee, or cradled in her arms, or on her bosom, or rocked by angels, is a most charming subject. Sometimes angels are seen preparing his bed, or looking on while he sleeps, with folded hands and overshadowing wings. Sometimes Mary hangs over his pillow, " pondering in her heart " the wondrous destinies of her Child. A poetess of our own time [Elizabeth Barrett Browning] has given us an interpretation worthy of the most beautiful of these representations, in the address of the Wirgin Mary to the Child Jesus— " Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One ! "

And art thou come for saving, baby-browed And speechless Being ? art thou come for saving? The palm that grows beside our door is bowed By treadings of the low wind from the south, A restless shadow through the chamber waving. Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun. But thou, with that close slumber on thy mouth, Dost seem of wind and sun already weary. Art come for saving, O my weary One ?

Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary Earth-sounds and motions, opens on thy soul High dreams on fire with God; High songs that make the pathways where they roll More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new Of thine eternal nature's old abode. Suffer this mother's kiss, Best thing that earthly is, To glide the music and the glory through, Nor narrow in thy dream the broad upliftings Of any seraph wing. Thus, noiseless, thus! — Sleep, sleep, my dreaming One.

Such high imaginings might be suggested by the group of Michael Angelo — his famous " Silenzio : " but very different certainly are the thoughts and associations conveyed by some of the very lovely, but at the same time familiar and common-place, groups of peasant mothers and sleeping babies— the countless productions of the later schools — even while the simplicity and truth of the natural sentiment go straight to the heart.

I remember reading a little Italian hymn composed for a choir of nuns, and addressed to the sleeping Christ, in which he is prayed to awake ; or, if he will not, they threaten to pull him by his golden curls until they rouse him to listen !

I have seen a graceful print which represents Jesus as a child standing at his mother's knee, while she feeds him from a plate. or cup held by an angel ; underneath is the text, "Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good ; " and in a print of the same period the mother suspends her needle-work to contemplate the Child, who, standing at her side, looks down compassionately on two little birds, which flutter their wings and open their beaks expectingly; underneath is the text, "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing ? "

Mary employed in needlework, while her cradled Infant slumbers at her side, is a beautiful subject. Rosini, in his "Storia della Pittura," publishes a group representing the Virgin mending or making a little coat, while Jesus, seated at her feet without his coat, is playing with a bird ; two angels are hovering above. It appears to me that there is here some uncertainty as regards both the subject and the master. In the time of Giottino, to whom Rosini attributes the picture, the domestic treatment of the Madonna and Child was unknown. If it be really by him, I should suppose it to represent Hannah and her son Samuel.

All these, and other varieties of action and sentiment connecting the Mother and her Child, are frequently accompanied by accessory figures, forming, in their combination, what is properly a Holy Family. The personages introduced, singly or together, are the young St. John, Joseph, Anna, Joachim, Elizabeth, and Zacharias.



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