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Legends of the Madonna - The Entombment

( Originally Published 1895 )



The ENTOMBMENT follows, and when treated as a strictly historical scene, the Virgin Mother is always introduced, though here as a less conspicuous figure, and one less important to the action. Either she swoons, which is the ancient Greek conception : or she follows, with streaming eyes and clasped hands, the pious disciples who bear the dead form of her Son, as in Raphael's wonderful picture in the Borghese Palace, and Titian's, hardly less beautiful, in the Louvre, where the compassionate Magdalene sustains her veiled and weeping figure ; or she stands by, looking on disconsolate, while the beloved Son is laid in the tomb.

All these fine and important themes belong properly to a series of the History of Christ. In a series of the Life of the Virgin, the incidents of the Passion of our Lord are generally omitted; whereas, in the cycle of subjects styled the ROSARY, the Bearing of the Cross, the Crucifixion, and the Deposition are included in the fourth and fifth of the " Sorrowful Mysteries." Their frequency as separate subjects, and the pre-eminence given to the figure of the Virgin as the Mother of Pity, are very suggestive and affecting when we come to consider their intention as well as their significance. For, in the first place, they were in most instances the votive offerings of those who had lost the being most dear to them, and thus appealed to the divine compassion of her who had felt that sword "pierce through her own heart also." In this sense they were often suspended as memorials in the chapels dedicated to the dead, of which I will cite one very beautiful and touching example. There is a votive Deposition by Giottino, in which the general conception is that which be-longed to the school, and very like Giotto's Deposition in the Arena at Padua. The dead Christ is extended on a white shroud, and embraced by the Virgin ; at his feet kneels the Magdalene, with clasped hands and flowing hair; Mary Salome kisses one of his hands, and Martha (as I suppose) the other ; the third Mary, with long hair, and head drooping with grief, is seated in front to the right. In the background, in the centre, stands St. John, bending over the group in profound sorrow ; on his left hand Joseph of Arimathea stands with the vase of " spices and ointments," and the nails; near him Nicodemus. On the right of St. John kneels a beautiful young girl, in the rich Florentine costume, who, with a sorrowful earnestness and with her hands crossed over her bosom, contemplates the dead Saviour. St. Romeo (or San Remigio) patron of the church in which the picture was dedicated, lays his hand paternally on her head ; beside her kneels a Benedictine nun, who in the same manner is presented by St. Benedict. These two females, sisters, perhaps, are the bereaved mourners who dedicated the picture, certainly one of the finest of the Giottesque school. (Uffizi, Florence.)

Secondly, we find that the associations left in the minds of the people by the expeditions of the crusaders and the pilgrimages to the Holy Sepulchre rendered the Deposition and the Entombment particularly popular and impressive as subjects of Art, even down to a late period. " Ce que la vaillante épée des ayeux avait glorieusement défendu, le ciseau des enfans aimait it le reproduire, leur piété à l'honorer." I think we may trace these associations in many examples, particularly in a Deposition by Raphael, of which there is a fine old engraving. Here, in the centre, stands a circular building, such as the church at Jerusalem was always described; in front of which are seen the fainting Virgin and the mournful women ; a grand and solemn group, but poetically rather than historically treated.

In conclusion, I must notice one more form of the Mater Dolorosa, one of the dramatic conceptions of the later schools of Art : as far as I know, there exist no early examples.

In a picture by Guercino, the Virgin and St. Peter lament the death of the Saviour. The Mother, with her clasped hands resting on her knees, appears lost in resigned sorrow ; she mourns her Son. Peter, weeping as with a troubled grief, seems to mourn at once his Lord and Master and his own weak denial. This picture has the energetic feeling and utter want of poetic elevation which generally characterized Guercino. (Louvre))

There is a similar group by Ludovico Caracci in the Duomo at Bologna.

In a picture by Tiarini, the Madre Addolorata is seated, holding in her hand the crown of thorns ; Mary Magdalene kneels before her, and St. John stands by — both expressing the utmost veneration and sympathy. These and similar groups are especially to be found in the later Bologna school. In all the instances known to me, they have been painted for the Dominicans, and evidently intended to illustrate the sorrows of the Rosary. [Bologna.]

In one of the services of the Passion Week, and in particular reference to the maternal anguish of the Virgin, it was usual to read, as the Epistle, a selection from the first chapter of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, eloquent in the language of desolation and grief. The painters seemed to have filled their imagination with the images there presented ; and frequently in the ideal Pieta the daughter of Jerusalem " sits solitary, with none to comfort her." It is the contrary in the dramatic version ; the devotion of the women, the solicitude of the affectionate Magdalene, and the filial reverence of St. John, whom the scriptural history associates with the Virgin in a manner so affecting, are never forgotten.

In obedience to the last command of his dying Master, John the Evangelist

He, into whose keeping, from the cross, The mighty charge was given —

conducted to his own dwelling the Mother to whom he was henceforth to be as a son. This beautiful subject, "John conducting the Virgin to his home," was quite unknown, as far as I am aware, in the earlier schools of Art, and appears first in the seventeenth century. An eminent instance is a fine solemn group by Zurbaran. (Munich.) Christ was laid in the sepulchre by night, and here, in the gray dawn, John and the veiled Virgin are seen as returning from the entombment, and walking mournfully side by side.

We find the peculiar relation between the Mother of Christ and St. John, as her adopted son, expressed in a very tender and ideal manner, on one of the wings of an altar-piece, attributed to Taddeo Gaddi. (Berlin Gallery.) Mary and St. John stand in front; he holds one of her hands clasped in both his own, with a most reverent and affectionate expression. Christ, standing between them, lays one hand on the shoulder of each : the sentiment of this group is altogether very unusual, and very remarkable.



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