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Legends of the Madonna - The Apparition of Christ

( Originally Published 1895 )



THE enthusiastic and increasing veneration for the Madonna, the large place she filled in the religious teaching of the ecclesiastics and the religious sentiments of the people, are nowhere more apparent, nor more strikingly exhibited, than in the manner in which she was associated with the scenes which followed the Passion the manner in which some incidents were suggested, and treated with a peculiar reference to her, and to her maternal feelings. It is nowhere said that the Virgin-mother was one of the Maries who visited the tomb on the morning of the resurrection, and nowhere is she so represented. But out of the human sympathy with that bereaved and longing heart arose the beautiful legend of the interview between Christ and his Mother after he had risen from the dead.

There existed a very ancient tradition (it is mentioned by St. Ambrose in the fourth century, as being then generally accepted by Christians), that Christ, after his return from Hades, visited his Mother, even before he appeared to Mary Magdalene in the garden. It is not indeed so written in the Gospel ; but what of that ? The reasoning which led to the conclusion was very simple. He whose last earthly thought was for his Mother would not leave her without that consolation it was in his power to give ; and what, as a son, it was his duty to do (for the humanity of Christ is never forgotten by those who most intensely believed in his divinity), that, of course, he did do.

The story is thus related : Mary, when all was " finished," retired to her chamber, and remained alone with her grief not wailing, not repining, not hopeless, but waiting for the fulfilment of the promise. Open before her lay the volume of the prophecies; and she prayed earnestly, and she said, "Thou didst promise, O my most dear Son ! that thou wouldst rise again on the third day. Before yesterday was the day of darkness and bitterness, and, behold, this is the third day. Return then to me thy Mother ; O my Son, tarry not, but come ! " And while thus she prayed, to ! a bright company of angels, who entered waving their palms and radiant with joy; and they surrounded her, kneeling and singing the triumphant Easter hymn, Regina Cali laetare, -Alleluia ! 1 And then came Christ, partly clothed in a white garment, having in his left hand the standard with the cross, as one just returned from the nether world, and victorious over the powers of sin and death. And with him came the patriarchs and prophets, whose loner imprisoned spirits he had released from Hades. All these knelt before the Virgin, and saluted her, and blessed her, and thanked her, because through her had come their deliverance. But, for all this, the Mother was not comforted till she had heard the voice of her Son. Then he, raising his hand in benediction, spoke, and said, " I salute thee, O my Mother ! " and she, weeping tears of joy, responded, " Is it thou indeed, my most dear Son ? " and she fell upon his neck, and he em-braced her tenderly, and showed her the wounds he had received for sinful men. Then he bid her be comforted and weep no more, for the pain of death had passed away, and the gates of hell had not prevailed against him. And she thanked him meekly on her knees, for that he had been pleased to bring redemption to man, and to make her the humble instrument of his great mercy. And they sat and talked together, until he took leave of her to return to the garden, and to show himself to Mary Magdalene, who, next to his glorious Mother, had most need of consolation.

The pathetic sentiment, and all the supernatural and mystical accompaniments of this beautiful myth of the early ages, have been very inadequately rendered by the artists. It is always treated as a plain matter-of-fact scene. The Virgin kneels ; the Saviour, bearing his standard, stands before her ; and where the delivered patriarchs are introduced, they are generally either Adam and Eve, the authors of the fall, or Abraham and David, the progenitors of Christ and the Virgin. The patriarchs are omitted in the earliest instance I can refer to, one of the carved panels of the stalls in the cathedral of Amiens, also in the composition by Albert Durer, not included in his Life of the Virgin, but forming one of the series of the Passion. Guido has represented the scene in a very fine picture, wherein an angel bears the standard of victory, and behind our Saviour are Adam and Eve. (Dresden Gallery.)

Another example, by Guercino (cathedral, Cento), is cited by Goethe as an instance of that excellence in the expression of the natural and domestic affections which characterized the painter. Mary kneels before her Son, looking up in his face with unutterable affection ; he regards her with a calm, sad look, "as if within his noble soul there still remained the recollection of his suffering and hers, outliving the pangs of death, the descent into the grave, and which the resurrection had not yet dispelled." This, however, is not the sentiment, at once affectionate and joyously triumphant, of the old legend. I was pleased with a little picture in the Lichtenstein Gallery at Vienna, where the risen Saviour, standing before his Mother, points to the page of the book before her, as if he said, " See you not that thus it is written ? " (Luke xxiv. 46.) Behind Jesus is St. John the Evangelist bearing the cup and the cross, as the cup of sorrow and the cross of pain, not the mere emblems. There is another example, by one of the Caracci, in the Fitzwilliam collection at Cambridge.

A picture by Albano of this subject, in which Christ comes flying or floating on the air, like an incorporeal being, surrounded by little fluttering eherubim, very much like Cupids, is an example of all that is most false and objectionable in feeling and treatment. (Pitti, Florence.)

The popularity of this scene in the Bologna school of art arose, I think, from its being adopted as one of the subjects from the Rosary, the first of " the five Glorious Mysteries ; " therefore especially affected by the Dominicans, the great patrons of the Caracci at that time.



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