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Legends of the Madonna - The Crucifixion

( Originally Published 1895 )



"Verum stabas, optima Mater, juxta crucem Filii tui, non solum corpore, sed mentis constantia."

This great subject belongs more particularly to the Life of Christ. It is, I observe, always omitted in a series of the Life of the Virgin, unless it be the Rosary, in which the " Vigil of the Virgin by the Cross" is the fifth and greatest of the Seven Sorrows.

We cannot fail to remark, that whether the Crucifixion be treated as a mystery or as an event, Mary is always an important figure.

In the former case she stands alone on the right of the cross, and St. John on the left. She looks up with an expression of mingled grief and faith, or bows her head upon her clasped hands in resignation. In such a position she is the idealized Mater Dolorosa, the Daughter of Jerusalem, the personified Church mourning for the great Sacrifice ; and this view of the subject I have already discussed at length.

On the other hand, when the Crucifixion is treated as a great historical event, as a living scene acted before our eyes, then the position and sentiment given to the Virgin are altogether different, but equally fixed by the traditions of Art. That she was present, and near at hand, we must presume from the Gospel of St. John, who was an eye-witness ; and most of the theological writers infer that on this occasion her constancy and sublime faith were even greater than her grief, and that her heroic fortitude elevated her equally above the weeping women and the timorous disciples. This is not, however, the view which the modern painters have taken, and even the most ancient examples exhibit the maternal grief for a while over-coming constancy. She is standing indeed, but in a fainting attitude, as if about to sink to the earth, and is sustained in the arms of the two Maries, assisted sometimes, but not generally, by St. John ; Mary Magdalene is usually embracing the foot of the cross. With very little variation this is the usual treatment down to the beginning of the sixteenth century. I do not know who was the first artist who placed the Mother prostrate on the ground ; but it must be regarded as a fault, and as detracting from the high religious dignity of the scene. In all the greatest examples, from Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro Cavallini, down to Angelico, Masaccio, and Andrea Mantegna, and their contemporaries, Mary is uniformly standing.

In a Crucifixion by Martin Schoen, the Virgin, partly held up in the arms of St. John, embraces with fervor the foot of the cross: a very rare and exceptional treatment, for this is the proper place of Mary Magdalene. In Albert Durer's composition, she is just in the act of sinking to the ground in a very natural attitude, as if her limbs had given way under her. In Tintoretto's celebrated Crucifixion we have an example of the Virgin placed on the ground, which, if not one of the earliest, is one of the most striking of the more modern conceptions. Here the group at the foot of the cross is wonderfully dramatic and expressive, but certainly the reverse of dignified. Mary lies fainting on the earth ; one arm is sustained by St. John, the other is round the neck of a woman who leans against the bosom of the Virgin, with eyes closed, as if lost in grief. Mary Magdalene and another look up to the crucified Saviour, and more in front a woman kneels wrapped up in a cloak, and hides her face. (Venice, San Rocco.)

Zani has noticed the impropriety here, and in other in-stances, of exhibiting the Grandissima Donna as prostrate, and in a state of insensibility ; a style of treatment which, in more ancient times, would have been inadmissible. The idea embodied by the artist should be that which Bishop Taylor has painted in words : " By the cross stood the holy Virgin-mother, upon whom old Simeon's prophecy was now verified ; for now she felt a sword passing through her very soul. She stood without clamor and womanish noises ; sad, silent, and with a modest grief, deep as the waters of the abyss, but smooth as the face of a pool ; full of love, and patience, and sorrow, and hope! " To suppose that this noble creature lost all power over her emotions, lost her consciousness of the " high affliction " she was called to suffer, is quite unworthy of the grand ideal of womanly perfection here placed before us. It is clear, however, that in the later representations the intense expression of maternal anguish in the hymn of the Stabat Mater gave the key to the prevailing sentiment. And as it is some-times easier to faint than to endure, so it was easier for certain artists to express the pallor and prostration of insensibility than the sublime faith and fortitude which in that extremest hour of trial conquered even a mother's unutterable woe.

That most affecting moment, in which the dying Saviour recommends his Mother to the care of the best beloved of his disciples, I have never seen worthily treated. There are, however, some few Crucifixions in which I presume the idea to have been indicated ; as where the Virgin stands leaning on St. John, with his sustaining arm reverently round her, and both looking up to the Saviour, whose dying face is turned towards them. There is an instance by Albert Dürer (the wood-cut in the series " Large Passion "). But the examples are so few as to be exceptional.



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