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Legends of the Madonna - Three Figures

( Originally Published 1895 )



The group of three figures most commonly met with is that of the Mother and Child with St. John. One of the earliest examples of the domestic treatment of this group is a quaint picture by Botticelli, in which Mary, bending down, holds forth the Child to be caressed by St. John—very dry in color, and faulty in drawing, but beautiful for the sentiment. (Florence, Pitti.) Perhaps the most perfect example which could be cited from the whole range of Art is Raphael's "Ma-donna del Cardellino " in the Lrffizi, Florence ; another is his "Belle Jardinière" of the Louvre; another, in which the figures are half length, is his " Madonna del Giglio " [better known as the Aldobrandini, or Garvagh Madonna, in the National Gallery, London]. As I have already observed, where the Infant Christ takes the cross from St. John, or presents it to him, or where St. John points to him as the Redeemer, or is represented, not as a child, but as a youth or a man, the composition assumes a devotional significance.

The subject of the Sleeping Christ is beautifully varied by the introduction of St. John ; as where Mary lifts the veil and shows her Child to the little St. John, kneeling with folded hands : Raphael's well-known " Vierge la Diadème " in the Louvre is an instance replete with grace and expression. Sometimes Mary, putting her finger to her lip, exhorts St. John to silence, as in a famous and oft repeated subject by Annibal Caracci, of which there is a lovely example at Windsor. Such a group is called in Italian, il Silenzio, and in French le Sommeil de Jésus.

Another group of three figures consists of the Mother, the Child, and St. Joseph as foster father. This group, so commonly met with in the later schools of Art, dates from the end of the fifteenth century. Gerson, an ecclesiastic distinguished at the Council of Constance for his learning and eloquence, had written a poem of three thousand lines in praise of St. Joseph, setting him up as the Christian example of every virtue ; and this poem, after the invention of printing, was published and widely disseminated. Sixtus IV. instituted a festival in honor of the " Husband of the Virgin," which, as a novelty and harmonizing with the tone of popular feeling, was everywhere acceptable. As a natural consequence, the churches and chapels were filled with pictures which represented the Mother and her Child, with Joseph standing or seated by, in an attitude of religious contemplation or affectionate sympathy ; sometimes leaning on his stick, or with his tools lying beside him ; and always, in the old pictures, habited in his appropriate colors, the saffron-colored robe over the gray or green tunic.

In the Madonna and Child, as a strictly devotional subject, the introduction of Joseph rather complicates the idea ; but in the domestic Holy Family his presence is natural and necessary. It is seldom that he is associated with the action, where there is one ; but of this also there are some beautiful examples.

1. In a well-known composition by Raphael, the mother withdraws the covering from the Child, who seems to have that moment awaked, and, stretching out his little arms, smiles in her face : Joseph looks on tenderly and thoughtfully.

2. In another group by Raphael, in the Bridgewater Gallery, London, the Infant is seated on the mother's knee, and sustained by part of her veil ; Joseph, kneeling, offers flowers to his divine foster Son, who eagerly stretches out his little hand to take them.

In many pictures Joseph is seen presenting cherries ; as in the celebrated " Vierge aux Cerises" of Annibal Caracci. (Louvre.) The allusion is to a quaint old legend, often introduced in the religious ballads and dramatic mysteries of the time. It is related, that before the birth of our Saviour the Wirgin Mary wished to taste of certain cherries which hung upon a tree high above her head; she requested Joseph to procure them for her, and he reaching to pluck them, the branch bowed down to his hand.

3. There is a lovely pastoral composition by Titian, in which Mary is seated under some trees, with Joseph leaning on his staff, and the Infant Christ standing between them ; the little St. John approaches with his lap full of cherries ; and in the background a woman is seen gathering cherries. This picture is called a Riposo ; but the presence of St. John and the cherry-tree instead of the date-tree point out a different signification. [Belvedere, Vienna.] Angels presenting cherries on a plate is also a frequent circumstance, derived from the same legend.

4. In a charming picture by Garofalo, Joseph is caressing the Child, while Mary — a rather full figure, calm, matronly, and dignified, as is usual with Garofalo — sits by, holding a book in her hand, from which she has just raised her eyes. (Windsor Gallery.)

5. In a family group by Murillo, Joseph, standing, holds the Infant pressed to his bosom; while Mary, seated near a cradle, holds out her arms to take it from him : a carpenter's bench is seen behind. [St. Petersburg.]

6. A celebrated picture by Rembrandt, known as "Le Ménage du Menuisier," exhibits a rustic interior : the Virgin is seated with the volume of the Scriptures open on her knees — she turns, and, lifting the coverlid of the cradle, contemplates the Infant asleep : in the background Joseph is seen at his work ; while angels hover above, keeping watch over the Holy Family. Exquisite for the homely natural sentiment, and the depth of the color and chiaroscuro. (St. Petersburg.)

7. Many who read these pages will remember the pretty little picture, by Annibal Caracci, known as "Le Raboteur," [once] in the collection of the Earl of Suffolk, at Charlton. It represents Joseph planing a board, while Jesus, a lovely boy about six or seven years old, stands by, watching the progress of his work. Mary is seated on one side, plying her needle. The great fault of this picture is the subordinate and utterly commonplace character given to the Virgin-mother : otherwise, it is a very suggestive and dramatic subject, and one which might be usefully engraved in a cheap form for distribution.

[Modern examples : —

8. Holy Family by Franz Defregger in village church, Dolsach.

The Madonna is seated on a pedestal holding the Child standing on her knee. St. Joseph, seated below, reads ponderingly from a large volume. The picture is marked by a strong devotional sentiment. It is described and engraved in Van Dyke's " Christ-Child in Art."

9. Holy Family by Ittenbach.

The Virgin seated on one side, St. Joseph, kneeling on the other. The Child stands on the Virgin's knee between them. His right arm is raised in blessing. The Virgin's face, like that of the Sancta Maria Virgo by the same artist, has a delicate spiritual beauty.]

Sometimes, in a Holy Family of three figures, the third figure is neither St. John nor St. Joseph, but St. Anna. Now, according to some early authorities, both Joachim and Anna died, either before the marriage of Mary and Joseph, or at least before the return from Egypt. Such, however, was the popularity of these family groups, and the desire to give them all possible variety, that the ancient version of the story was over-ruled by the prevailing taste, and St. Anna became an important personage. One of the earliest groups in which the mother of the Virgin is introduced as a third personage is a celebrated, but to my taste not a pleasing, composition by Leonardo da Vinci, in which St. Anna is seated on a sort of chair, and the Virgin on her knees bends down towards the Infant Christ, who is sporting with a lamb. (Louvre.)



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