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Legends of the Madonna - Lo Spasimo

( Originally Published 1895 )



LO SPASIMO.

"O what avails me now that honor high,
To have conceived of God, and. that salute,
Hail, highly favored among women blest !
While I to sorrows am no less advanced,
And fears as eminent, above the lot
Of other women by the birth I bore."

"This is my favored lot,
My exaltation to afflictions high." MILTON.

In the Passion of our Lord, taken in connection with the life of the Virgin-mother, there are three scenes in which she is associated with the action as an important, if not a principal, personage.

We are told in the Gospel of St. John (chap. xvii.), that Christ took a solemn farewell of his disciples: it is therefore supposed that he did not go up to his death without taking leave of his Mother — without preparing her for that grievous agony by all the comfort that his tender and celestial pity and superior nature could bestow. This parting of Christ and his Mother before the Crucifixion is a modern subject. I am not acquainted with any example previous to the beginning of the sixteenth century. The earliest I have met with is by Albert Durer, in the series of the Life of the Virgin, but there are probably examples more ancient, or at least contemporary. In Albert Durer's composition, Mary is sinking to the earth, as if overcome with affliction, and is sustained in the arms of two women; she looks up with folded hands and streaming eyes to her Son, who stands before her ; he, with one hand extended, looks down upon her compassionately, and seems to give her his last benediction. I remember another instance, by Paul Veronese, full of that natural affectionate sentiment which belonged to the Venetian school. (Pitti, Florence.) In a very beautiful picture by Carotto of Verona, Jesus kneels before his Mother, and receives her benediction before he departs : this must be regarded as an impropriety, a mistake in point of sentiment, considering the peculiar relation between the two personages ; but it is a striking instance of the popular notions of the time respecting the high dignity of the Virgin-mother. I have not seen it repeated. (Verona, San Bernadino.)

It appears from the Gospel histories, that the women who had attended upon Christ during his ministry failed not in their truth and their love to the last. In the various circumstances of the Passion of our Lord, where the Virgin-mother figures as an important personage, certain of these women are represented as always near her, and sustaining her with a ten-der and respectful sympathy. Three are mentioned by name — Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary the mother of James and John. Martha, the sister of Mary Magdalene, is also included, as I infer from her name, which in several instances is inscribed in the nimbus encircling her head. I have in another place given the story of Martha, and the legends which in the fourteenth century converted her into a very important character in sacred Art. (Sacred and Legendary Art.) These women, therefore, form, with the Virgin, the group of five female figures which are generally included in the scriptural scenes from the Life of Christ.

Of course, these incidents, and more especially the " Procession to Calvary " and the " Crucifixion," belong to another series of suhjects (the History of our Lord) ; but they are also included in a series of the Rosary as two of the mystical Sorrows ; and tinder this point of view I must draw attention to the peculiar treatment of the Virgin in some remarkable examples, which will serve as a guide to others.

The Procession to Calvary (Il Portamento del Croce) followed a path leading from the gate of Jerusalem to Mount Calvary, which has been kept in remembrance and sanctified as the Via Dolorosa ; and there is a certain spot near the summit of the hill, where, according to a very ancient tradition, the Virgin-mother, and the women her companions, placed themselves to witness the sorrowful procession ; where the Mother, beholding her divine Son dragged along, all bleeding from the scourge, and sinking under his cross, in her extreme agony sank, fainting, to the earth. This incident gave rise to one of the mournful festivals of the Passion Week, under the title, in French, of Notre Dame du Spasme or du Pâmoison; in Italian La Madonna dello Spasimo, or Il Pianto di Maria ; and this is the title given to some of those representations in which the affliction of Mary is a prominent part of the tragic interest of the scene. She is sometimes sinking to the earth, sustained by the women or by St. John ; sometimes she stands with clasped hands, mute and motionless with excess of anguish ; sometimes she stretches out her arms to her Son, as Jesus, sinking under the weight of his cross, turns his benign eyes upon her and the others who follow him : " Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me ! "

This is the moment chosen by Raphael in that sublime composition celebrated under the title " Lo Spasimo di Sicilia " (Madrid Gallery) ; so called because it was originally painted for the high altar of the church of the Sicilian Olivetans at Palermo, dedicated to the Madonna dello Spasimo. It was thence removed, by order of Philip IV. of Spain, early in the seventeenth century, and is now placed in the gallery at Madrid. Here the group of the five women forms an important part of the picture, occupying the foreground on the right. The expression in the face of the Mother, stretching forth her arms to her Son with a look of appealing agony, has always been cited as one of the great examples of Raphael's tragic power. It is well known that in this composition the attitude of Christ was suggested by the contemporary engraving of Martin Schoen ; but the prominence given to the group of women, the dramatic propriety and pathetic grace in the action of each, and the consummate skill shown in the arrangement of the whole, belong only to Raphael.? In Martin Schoen's vivid composition, the Virgin, and the women her companions, are seen far off in the background, crouching in the " hollow way" between two cliffs, from which spot, according to the old tradition, they beheld the sad procession. We have quite a contrary arrangement in an early composition by Lucas van Leyden. The procession to Calvary is seen moving along in the far distance, while the foreground is occupied by two figures only, Mary in a trance of anguish sustained by the weeping St. John.

In a very fine " Portamento della Croce," by Gaudenzio Ferrari, one of the soldiers or executioners, in repulsing the sorrowful Mother, lifts up a stick as if to strike her — a gratuitous act of ferocity, which shocks at once the taste and the feelings, and, without adding anything to the pathos of the situation, detracts from the religious dignity of the theme. It is like the soldier kicking our Saviour, which I remember to have seen in a version of the subject by a much later painter, Daniele Crespi.

Murillo represents Christ as fainting under the weight of the cross, while the Virgin sits on the ground by the wayside, gazing on him with fixed eyes and folded hands, and a look of unutterable anguish. This picture, remarkable for the intense expression, was in the collection of Lord Orford, and sold in June, 1856. [Vide Redford's Sales, vol. i. p. 153, vol. ii. p. 268.]

The Ecce Homo, by Correggio, in our National Gallery, is treated in a very peculiar manner with reference to the Virgin, and is, in fact, another version of Lo Spasimo, the fourth of her ineffable sorrows. Here Christ, as exhibited to the people by Pilate, is placed in the distance, and is in all respects the least important part of the picture, of which we have the real subject in the far more prominent figure of the Virgin in the foreground. At sight of the agony and degradation of her Son, she closes her eyes, and is on the point of swooning. The pathos of expression in the half-unconscious face and helpless, almost lifeless hands, which seem to seek support, is particularly fine.



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