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Legends of the Madonna - L'Incoronata

( Originally Published 1895 )



The Coronation of the Virgin. Lat. Coronatio Beatae Marin Virginis. Ital. Maria coronata dal divin suo Figlio. Fr. Le Couronnement de la Sainte Vierge. Ger. Die Kronung Mari.

The usual type of the Church triumphant is the CORONATION OF THE VIRGIN properly so called, Christ in the act of crowning his Mother; one of the most popular, significant, and beautiful subjects in the whole range of mediaeval Art.

When in a series of subjects from the life of the Virgin, so often met with in religious prints and in the Roman Catholic churches, we find her death and her assumption followed by her coronation ; when the bier or sarcophagus and the twelve apostles appear below, while heaven opens upon us above ; then the representation assumes a kind of dramatic character : it is the last and most glorious event of her history. The Mother, dying on earth, is received into glory by her Son who had gone before her, and who thus celebrates the consummation of his victory and hers.

But when the scene is treated apart as a single subject; when, instead of the apostles gazing up to heaven, or looking with amazement into the tomb from which she had risen, we find the lower part of the composition occupied by votaries, patron saints, or choral angels, then the subject must be regarded as absolutely devotional and typical. It is not a scene or an action ; it is a great mystery. It is consecrated to the honor of the Virgin as type of the spiritual Church. The Espoused is received into glory and crowned with the crown of everlasting life, exalted above angels, spirits, and men. In this sense we must understand the subject when we find it in ecclesiastical sculpture, over the doors of places of worship, in the decorative carving of church utensils, in stained glass. In many of the Italian churches there is a chapel especially dedicated to the Virgin in this character, called la Capella dell' Incoronata; and both in Germany and Italy it is a frequent subject as an altar-piece.

In all the most ancient examples, it is Christ only who places the crown on the head of his Mother, seated on the same throne and placed at his right hand. Sometimes we have the two figures only ; sometimes the Padre Eterno looks down, and the Holy Spirit in the form of the dove hovers above or between them. In some later examples the Virgin is seated between the Father and the Son, both in human form : they place the crown on her head, each holding it with one hand, the Holy Spirit hovering above. In other representations the Virgin kneels at the feet of Christ, and he places the crown on her head, while two or more rejoicing and adoring angels make heavenly music, or all Paradise opens to the view; and there are examples where not only the share of attendant angels, but a vast assembly of patriarchs, saints, martyrs, fathers of the Church — the whole company of the blessed spirits — assist at this great ceremony.

I will now give some celebrated examples of the various styles of treatment, which will be better than pages of general description.

There is a group in mosaic, which I believe to be singular in its kind, where the Virgin is enthroned with Christ. She is seated at his right hand, at the same elevation, and altogether as his equal. His right arm embraces her, and his hand rests on her shoulder. She wears a gorgeous crown, which her son has placed on her brow. Christ has only the cruciform nimbus ; in his left hand is an open book, on which is inscribed, " Veni, Electa mea," etc. " Come, my chosen one, and I will place thee upon my throne." The Virgin holds a tablet, on which are the words, " His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me " (Cant. viii. 3). The omnipotent hand is stretched forth in benediction above. Here the Virgin is the type of the Church triumphant and glorified, having overcome the world ; and the solemn significance of the whole representation is to be found in the Book of Revelation : " To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne " (Rev. iii. 21).

This mosaic, in which, be it observed, the Virgin is en-throned with Christ, and embraced, not crowned, by him, is, I believe, unique either as a picture or a church decoration. It is not older than the twelfth century, is very ill executed, but is curious from the peculiarity of the treatment. (Rome, S. Maria-in-Trastevere.)

In the mosaic in the tribune of S. Maria Maggiore at Rome, perhaps the earliest example extant of the Coronation, properly so called, the subject is treated with a grand and solemn simplicity. Christ and the Virgin, colossal figures, are seated on the same regal throne within a circular glory. The back-ground is blue studded with golden stars. He places the crown on her head with his right hand ; in the left he holds an open book, with the usual text, " Veni, Electa mea, et ponam te in thronum meum," etc. She bends slightly for-ward, and her hands are lifted in adoration. Above and around the circular glory the emblematical vine twines in arabesque form : among the branches and leaves sit peacocks and other birds ; the peacock being the old emblem of immortality, as birds in general are emblems of spirituality. On each side of the glory are nine adoring angels, representing the nine choirs of the heavenly hierarchy ; beyond these on the right stand St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis ; on the left, St. John the Baptist, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Anthony of Padua ; all these figures being very small in proportion to those of Christ and the Virgin. Smaller still, and quite diminutive in comparison, are the kneeling figures of Pope Nicholas IV. and Cardinal Giacomo Colonna, under whose auspices the mosaic was executed by-Jacopo della Turrita, a Franciscan friar, about 1288. In front flows the river Jordan, symbol of baptism and regeneration ; on its shore stands the hart, the emblem of religious aspiration. Underneath the central group is the inscription, —

MARIA VIRGO ASSUMPTA AD ETHERIUM THALAMUM IN QUO REX REGUM STELLATO SEDET SOLIO.

The whole of this vast and poetical composition is admirably executed, and it is the more curious as being, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of the glorification of St. Francis and St. Anthony of Padua (Legends of the Monastic Orders, pp. 256, 292), who were canonized about thirty or forty years before.

The mosaic, by Gaddo Gaddi (1330), over the great door in the cathedral at Florence, is somewhat different. Christ, while placing the crown on the head of his Mother with his left hand, blesses her with his right hand, and he appears to have laid aside his own crown, which lies near him. The attitude of the Virgin is also peculiar.

In a small altar-piece by Giotto (S. Croce, Florence), Christ and the Virgin are seated together on a throne. He places the jewelled crown on her head with both hands, while she bends forward with her hands crossed in her lap, and the softest expression in her beautiful face, as if she as meekly resigned herself to this honor, as heretofore to the angelic salutation which pronounced her " Blessed : " angels kneel before the throne with censers and offerings. In another, by Giotto, Christ, wearing a coronet of gems, is seated on a throne : the Virgin kneels before him with hands joined : twenty angels with musical instruments attend around. (D'Agincourt, Peinture, pl. cxiv.) In the Coronation by Piero Laurati [church of Misericordia, Monte Pulciano], the figures of Christ and the Virgin, seated together, resemble in sentiment and expression those of Giotto. The angels are arranged in a glory around, and the treatment is wholly typical.

One of the most beautiful and celebrated of the pictures of Angelico da Fiesole is the Coronation now in the Louvre ; formerly it stood over the high altar of the church of St. Dominick at Fiesole, where Angelico had been nurtured, and made his profession as monk. The composition is conceived as a grand regal ceremony, but the beings who figure in it are touched with a truly celestial grace. The Redeemer, crowned himself, and wearing the ermine mantle of an earthly monarch, is seated on a magnificent throne, under a Gothic canopy, to which there is an ascent of nine steps. He holds the crown, which he is in the act of placing, with both hands, on the head of the Virgin, who kneels before him, with features of the softest and most delicate beauty, and an expression of divine humility. Her face, seen in profile, is partly shaded by a long transparent veil, flowing over her ample robe of a delicate crimson, beneath which is a blue tunic. On each side, a choir of lovely angels, clothed from head to foot in spangled tunics of azure and rose-color, with shining wings, make celestial music, while they gaze with looks of joy and adoration towards the principal group. Lower down on the right of the throne are eighteen, and on the left twenty-two, of the principal patriarchs, apostles, saints, and martyrs ; among whom the worthies of Angelico's own community, St. Dominick and St. Peter Martyr, are of course conspicuous. At the foot of the throne kneel on one side St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Charlemagne, the royal saint, St. Nicholas, and St. Thomas Aquinas holding a pen (the great literary saint of the Dominican order, and author of the Office of the Virgin) ; on the left we have a group of virgins, St. Agnes, St. Catherine with her wheel, St. Catherine of Siena, her habit spangled with stars, St. Cecilia crowned with her roses, and Mary Magdalene, with her long golden hair. Beneath this great composition runs a border or predella, in seven compartments, containing in the centre a Pietเ, and on each side three small subjects from the history of St. Dominick, to whom the church, whence it was taken, is dedicated. The spiritual beauty of the heads, the delicate tints of the coloring, an ineffable charm of mingled brightness and repose shed over the whole, give to this lovely picture an effect like that of a church hymn sung at some high festival by voices tuned in harmony — "blest voices uttering joy. "

In strong contrast with this graceful Italian conception is the German " Coronation " of the Wallerstein collection. It is supposed to have been painted for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, either by Hans Memling, or a painter not inferior to him. Here the Virgin is crowned by the Trinity. She kneels, with an air of majestic humility, and hands meekly folded on her bosom, attired in simple blue drapery, before a semicircular throne, on which are seated the Father and the Son, between them, with outspread wings touching their mouths, the Holy Dove. The Father, a venerable figure, wears the triple tiara, and holds the sceptre : Christ, with an expression of suffering, holds in his left hand a crystal cross ; and they sustain between them a crown which they are about to place on the head of the Virgin. Their golden throne is adorned with gems, and over it is a glory of seraphim, with hair, faces, and plumage, all of a glowing red. The lower part of this picture and the compartments on each side are filled with a vast assemblage of saints, and martyrs, and holy confessors ; conspicuous among them we find the saints most popular in Flanders and Burgundy — St. Adrian, St. George, St. Sebastian, St. Maurice, clad in coats of mail and crowned with laurel, with other kingly and warlike personages ; St. Philip, the patron of Philip the Good ; St. Andrew, in whose honor he instituted the order of the Golden Fleece ; and a figure in a blue mantle with a ducal crown, one of the three kings of Cologne, is supposed to represent Duke Philip himself. It is impossible by any description to do justice to this wonderful picture, as remarkable for its elaborate workmanship, the mysticism of the conception, the quaint elegance of the details, and portrait-like reality of the faces, as that of Angelico for its spiritual, tender, imaginative grace.

There is a Coronation by Vivarini (Academy, Venice), which may be said to comprise in itself a whole system of theology. It is one vast composition, not divided by compartments. In the centre is a magnificent carved throne sustained by six pillars, which stand on a lofty richly ornamented pedestal. On the throne are seated Christ and the Virgin ; he is crowned, and places with both hands a crown on her head. Between them hovers the celestial Dove, and above them is seen the Heavenly Father in likeness of the " Ancient of Days," who paternally lays a hand on the shoulder of each. Around his head, and over the throne, are the nine choirs of angels, in separate groups. First and nearest, hover the glowing seraphim and cherubim, winged, but otherwise formless. Above these, the Thrones, holding the globe of sovereignty ; to the right, the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers ; to the left, the Princedoms, Archangels, and Angels. Below these, on each side of the throne, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, holding each a scroll. Below these, the apostles on twelve thrones, six on each side, each holding the Gospel. Below these, on each side, the saints and martyrs. Below these, again, the virgins and holy women. Under the throne, in the space formed by the pillars, is seen a group of beautiful children (not angels), representing, I think, the martyred Innocents. They bear the instruments of Christ's passion — the cross, nails, spear, crown of thorns, etc. On the step below the pedestal, and immediately in front, are seated the Evangelists and doctors of the Church ; on the right St. Matthew and St. Luke, and behind them St. Ambrose and St. Augustine ; on the left St. Mark and St. John, and behind them St. Jerome and St. Gregory. Every part of this curious picture is painted with the utmost care and delicacy : the children are exquisite, and the heads, of which there are at least seventy without counting the angels, are finished like miniatures.

In a bas-relief over a door of the cathedral at Tr่ves, the subject is very simply treated ; both Christ and the Virgin are standing, which is unusual, and behind each is an angel, also standing and holding a crown.

Where not more than five or six saints are introduced as attendants and accessories, they are usually the patron saints of the locality or community, which may be readily distinguished. Thus,

1. In a Coronation by Sandro Botticelli, we find below, St. John the Evangelist, St. Augustine, St. John Gualberto, St. Bernardo Cardinale. It was painted for the Vallombrosian monks. (Academy, Florence.)

2. In a very fine example by [Ridolfo] Ghirlandajo, St. Dominick and St. Peter Martyr are conspicuous : painted, of course, for the Dominicans. (Louvre, Paris.)

3. In another, by Pinturicchio, St. Francis is a principal figure, with St. Bonaventura and St. Louis of Toulouse : painted for the Franciscans, or at least for a Franciscan pope, Sixtus IV. (Vatican, Rome.)

4. In another, by Guido, the treatment differs from the early style. The Coronation above is small and seen as a vision; the saints below, St. Bernard and St. Catherine, are life size. It was painted for a community of Bernardines, the monks of Monte Oliveto. (Bologna Gallery.)

5. In a beautiful little altar-piece by Lorenzo di Credi, the Virgin is kneeling above, while Christ, seated, places the crown on her head. A glory of red seraphim surround the two figures. Below are the famous patron saints of Central Italy, St. Nicholas of Bari and St. Julian of Rimini, St. Barbara and St. Christina. The St. Francis and St. Anthony, in the predella, show it to have been painted for a Franciscan church or chapel, probably for the sanie church at Cestello for which Lorenzo painted the St. Julian and St. Nicholas now in the Louvre. [Collection of Lord Wantage. Vide Redford's Sales, vol. i. p. 152.]

The " Coronation of the Virgin " by Annibal Caracci is in a spirit altogether different, magnificently studied. On high, upon a lofty throne which extends across the whole picture from side to side, the Virgin, a noble majestic creature, in the true Caracci style, is seated in the midst as the principal figure, her hands folded on her bosom. On the right hand sits the Father, on the left the Son ; they hold a heavenly crown surmounted by stars above her head. The locality is the empyrean. The audience consists of angels only, who, circle within circle, filling the whole space, and melting into an abyss of light, chant hymns of rejoicing, and touch celestial instruments of music. This picture shows how deeply Annibal Caracci had studied Correggio, in the magical chiaroscuro, and the lofty but somewhat mannered grace of the figures.

One of the latest examples I can point to is also one of the most simple and grand in conception. It is that by Velasquez (Madrid Gallery), the finest perhaps of the very few devotional subjects painted by him. We have here the three figures only, as large as life, filling the region of glory, without angels, witnesses, or accessories of any kind, except the small cherubim beneath ; and the symmetrical treatment gives to the whole a sort of sublime effect. But the heads have the air of portraits : Christ has a dark, earnest, altogether Spanish physiognomy ; the Virgin has dark hair ; and the Padre Eterno, with a long beard, has a bald head —a gross fault in taste and propriety ; because, though the loose beard and flowing white hair may serve to typify the "Ancient of Days," baldness expresses not merely age, but the infirmity of age.

Rubens, also, painted a Coronation, with all his own lavish magnificence of style, for the Jesuits at Brussels. After the time of Velasquez and Rubens, the Immaculate Conception superseded the Coronation.

To enter further into the endless variations of this charming and complex subject would lead us through all the schools of Art from Giotto to Guido. I have said enough to render it intelligible and interesting, and must content myself with one or two closing memoranda.

1. The dress of the Virgin in a Coronation is generally splendid, too like the coronation robes of an earthly queen — it is a " raiment of needlework " — " a vesture of gold wrought about with divers colors " — generally blue, crimson, and white, adorned with gold, gems, and even ermine. In the Coronation by Filippo Lippi, at Spoleto, she wears a white robe embroidered with golden suns. In a beautiful little Coro-nation in the Wallerstein collection she wears a white robe embroidered with suns and moons, the former red with golden rays, the latter blue with colored rays — perhaps in allusion to the text so often applied in reference to her, a " woman clothed with the sun," etc. (Rev. xii. 1, or Cant. vi. 10).

2. In the set of cartoons for the tapestries of the Sistine Chapel, as originally prepared by Raphael, we have the foundation, the heaven-bestowed powers, the trials and sufferings of the early Church, exhibited in the calling of St. Peter, the conversion of St. Paul, the acts and miracles of the apostles, the martyrdom of St. Stephen ; and the series closed with the Coronation of the Virgin, placed over the altar, as typical of the final triumph of the Church, the completion and fulfilment of all the promises made to man, set forth in the exaltation and union of the mortal with the immortal, when the human Mother and her divine Son are reunited and seated on the same throne. Raphael placed on one side of the celestial group St. John the Baptist, representing sanctification through the rite of baptism ; and on the other, St. Jerome, the general symbol of sanctification through faith and repentance. The cartoon of this grand symbolical composition, in which all the figures were colossal, is unhappily lost ; the tapestry is missing from the Vatican collection ; 2 two old engravings, however, exist, from which some idea may be formed of the original group. (Passavant's Rafael, vol. ii. p. 258 [Ger. ed. ; p. 172, Eng. ed.].)

3. It will be interesting to remember that the earliest existing impression taken from an engraved metal plate is a "Coronation of the Virgin." Maso Finiguerra, a skilful gold-smith and worker in niello, living at Florence in 1434, was employed to execute a pyx (the small casket in which the consecrated wafer of the sacrament is deposited), and he decorated it with a representation of the Coronation in presence of saints and angels, in all about thirty figures, minutely and exquisitely engraved on the silver face. Whether Finiguerra was the first worker in niello to whom it occurred to fill up the lines cut in the silver with a black fluid, and then, by laying it on a piece of damp paper and forcibly rubbing it, take off the facsimile of his design and try its effects before the final process — this we cannot ascertain ; we only know that the impression of his Coronation is the earliest specimen known to exist, and gave -rise to the practice of cutting designs on plates of copper (instead of silver, for the purpose of multiplying impressions of them. The pyx, finished by Maso in 1452, is now in the Florence Gallery in the " Salle des Bronzes." The invaluable print, first of its species, exists in the National Library at Paris. There is a very exact facsimile of it in Ottley's "History of Engraving " [vol. i. p. 304]. Christ and the Virgin are here seated together on a lofty architectural throne : her hands are crossed on her bosom, and she bends her meek veiled head to receive the crown, which her Son, who wears a triple tiara, places on her brow. The saints most conspicuous are St. John the Baptist, patron of Florence and of the church for which the pyx was executed, and a female saint, I believe St. Reparata, both standing; kneeling in front are St. Cosmo and St. Damian, the patrons of the Medici family, then paramount at Florence. (See Sacred and Legendary Art, p. 426.)

4. In an illuminated " Office of the Virgin " I found a version of this subject which must be rare, and probably confined to miniatures. Christ is seated on a throne, and the Virgin kneels before him ; he bends forward, and tenderly takes her clasped hands in both his own. An empty throne is at the right hand of Christ, over which hovers an angel bearing a crown. This is the moment which precedes the Coronation, as the group already described in the S. Maria-in-Trastevere exhibits the moment which follows the Coronation.

5. Finally, we must bear in mind that those effigies in which the Madonna is holding lier Child, while angels place a crown upon her head, do not represent THE CORONATION properly so called, but merely the Virgin honored as Mother of Christ and Queen of Heaven (Mater Christi, Regina Coeli) ; and that those representations of the Coronation which conclude a series of the life of the Virgin, and surmount her death-bed or her tomb, are historical and dramatic rather than devotional and typical. Of this historical treatment there are beautiful examples from Cimabue down to Raphael, which will be noticed hereafter in their proper place.



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