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Legends of the Madonna - The Virgin of Mercy

( Originally Published 1895 )



Our Lady of Succor. Ital. La Madonna di Misericordia. Fr. Notre Dame de Miséricorde. Ger. Maria Mutter des Erbarmens. Sp. Nuestra Senora de Gracia.

When once the Virgin had been exalted and glorified in the celestial paradise, the next and the most natural result was, that she should be regarded as being in heaven the most powerful of intercessors, and on earth a most benign and ever-present protectress. In the mediaeval idea of Christ there was often something stern; the Lamb of God who died for the sins of the world is also the inexorable Judge of the quick and the dead. When he shows his wounds, it is as if a vindictive feeling was supposed to exist; as if he were called upon to remember in judgment the agonies and the degradation to which he had been exposed below for the sake of wicked, ungrateful men. In a Greek "Day of Judgment," cited by Didron, Moses holds up a scroll, on which is written, " Behold him whom ye crucified," while the Jews are dragged into ever-lasting fire. Everywhere is the sentiment of vengeance ; Christ himself is less a judge than an avenger. Not so the Virgin ; she is represented as all mercy, sympathy, and benignity. In some of the old pictures of the Day of Judgment she is seated by the side of Christ, on an equality with him, and often in an attitude of deprecation, as if abjuring him to relent ; or her eyes are turned on the redeemed souls, and she looks away from the condemned as if unable to endure the sight of their doom. In other pictures she is lower than Christ, but always on his right hand, and generally seated; while St. John the Baptist, who is usually placed opposite to her on the left of Christ, invariably stands or kneels. Instead of the Baptist, it is some-times, but rarely, John the Evangelist, who is the pendant of the Virgin.

In the Greek representations of the Last Judgment, a river of fire flows from under the throne of Christ to devour and burn up the wicked. In Western art the idea is less formidable — Christ is not at once judge and executioner ; but the sentiment is always sufficiently terrible ; " the angels and all the powers of heaven tremble before him." In the midst of these terrors, the Virgin, whether kneeling, or seated, or standing, always appears as a gentle mediator, a supplicant for mercy. In the "Day of Judgment," as represented in the " Hortus Deliciarum," we read inscribed under her figure the words, " Maria Filio suo pro Ecclesia supplicat." In a very fine picture by Martin Schoen (Schleissheim Gallery), it is the Father who, with a sword and three javelins in his hand, sits as the avenging judge ; near him Christ ; while the Virgin stands in the foreground, looking up to her Son with an expression of tender supplication, and interceding, as it appears, for the sinners kneeling round her, and whose imploring looks are directed to her. In the well-known fresco [of the Last Judgment] in the Campo Santo, Pisa, Christ and the Virgin sit throned above, each in a separate aureole, but equally glorified. Christ, pointing with one hand to the wound in his side, raises the other in a threatening attitude, and his attention is directed to the wicked, whom he hurls into perdition. The Virgin, with one hand pressed to her bosom, looks to him with an air of supplication. Both figures are regally attired, and wear radiant crowns ; and the twelve apostles attend them, seated on each side.

In the centre group of Michael Angelo's Last Judgment [Sistine Chapel, Rome] we have the same leading motif, but treated in a very different feeling. Christ stands before us in figure and mien like a half-naked athlete ; his left hand rejects, his right hand threatens, and his whole attitude is as utterly devoid of dignity as of grace. I have often wondered, as I have looked at this grand and celebrated work, what could be Michael Angelo's idea of Christ. He who was so good, so religious, so pure-minded, and so high-minded, was deficient in humility and sympathy ; if his morals escaped, his imagination was corrupted by the profane and pagan influences of his time. His conception of Christ is here most unchristian, and his conception of the Virgin is not much better. She is grand in form, but the expression is too passive. She looks down and seems to shrink ; but the significance of the attitude — the hand pressed to the maternal bosom — given to her by the old painters, is lost.

In a Last Judgment by Rubens, painted for the Jesuits of Brussels (Brussels, Musée), the Virgin extends her robe over the world, as if to shield mankind from the wrath of her Son ; pointing, at the same time, significantly to her bosom, whence he derived his earthly life. The daring bad taste and the dramatic power of this representation are characteristic alike of the painter, the time, and the community for which the picture was painted.

More beautiful and more acceptable to our feelings are those graceful representations of the Virgin as dispenser of mercy on earth ; as protectress and patroness either of all Christendom, or of some particular locality, country, or community. In such pictures she stands with outstretched arms, crowned with a diadem, or in some instances simply veiled ; her ample robe, extended on each side, is held up by angels, while under its protecting folds are gathered worshippers and votaries of all ranks and ages — men, women, children — kings, nobles, ecclesiastics— the poor, the lame, the sick. Or if the picture be less universal in its significance, dedicated perhaps by some religious order or charitable brotherhood, we see beneath her robe an assemblage of monks and nuns, or a troop of young orphans or redeemed prisoners. Such a representation is styled a Misericordia.

1. In a picture by Fra Filippo Lippi (Berlin Gallery), the Madonna of Mercy extends her protecting mantle over thirty-five kneeling figures, the faces like portraits, none elevated or beautiful, but the whole picture as an example of the subject most striking.

2. This majestic figure [p. 88] is from a bas-relief at Venice [thirteenth century] placed over the entrance of the Scuola (or brotherhood) of Charity. The members of the community are here gathered under the robe of their patroness.

3. This singular figure [p. 89], which looks like that of an Indian goddess, is from a Misericordia painted by Piero della Francesca for the hospital of Borgo San Sepolcro, in the Apennines.

4. A very beautiful and singular representation of the Virgin of Mercy without the Child, I found in the collection of Herr v. Quandt of Dresden. She stands with hands folded over her bosom, and wrapped in ample white drapery, without ornament of any kind ; over her head, a veil of transparent gauze of a brown color, such as, from various portraits of the time, appears to have been then a fashion. The expression of the face is tender and contemplative, almost sad ; and the whole figure, which is life size, is inexpressibly refined and dignified. The following inscription is on the dark back-ground to the right of the Virgin : —

IMAGO

BEATAE. MARLAE VIRGINIS

QUAE

MENS. AUGUST. MIOXXXIII.

APPARUIT

MIRACULOR. OPERATIONE

CONCURSU POP.CELERERRIM.

This beautiful picture was brought from Brescia to Vienna by a picture-dealer, and purchased by Herr v. Quandt. It was painted by Moretto of Brescia, of whom Lanzi truly says that his sacred subjects express la compunzione, la pieta, la charité istessa ; and this picture is an instance. But by whom dedicated, for what especial mercy, or in what church, I could not ascertain. I possess a charming drawing of the head by Fraulein Louise Seidler of Weimar, whose feeling for early religious Art is shown in her own works, as well as in the beautiful copies she has made of others.

It is seldom that the Madonna di Misericordia appears with-out the Child in her arms ; her maternity is supposed to be one element in her sympathy with suffering humanity. I will add, however, to the examples already given, one very celebrated instance.

The picture entitled the " Misericordia di Lucca " is famous in the history of Art. [Lucca Gallery.] It is the most important work of Fra Bartolommeo, and is dated 1515, two years before his death. The Virgin, a grand and beautiful figure, stands alone on a raised platform, with her arms extended, and looking up to heaven. The ample folds of her robe are held open by two angels. Beneath and round her feet are various groups in attitudes of supplication, who look up to her, as she looks up to heaven. On one side the donor of the picture is presented by St. Dominick. Above, in a glory, is the figure of Christ surrounded by angels, and seeming to bend towards his Mother. The expression in the heads, the dignified beneficence of the Virgin, the dramatic feeling in the groups, particularly the women and children, justify the fame of this picture as one of the greatest of the productions of mind.

There is yet another version of this subject which deserves notice from the fantastic grace of the conception. As in early Christian Art our Saviour was frequently portrayed as the Good Shepherd, so, among the later Spanish fancies, we find his Mother represented as the Divine Shepherdess. In a picture painted by Alonzo Miguel de Tobar, about the beginning of the eighteenth century, we find the Virgin Mary seated under a tree, in guise of an Arcadian pastorella, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, encircled by a glory, a crook in her hand, while she feeds her flock with the mystical roses. The beauty of expression in the head of the Virgin is such as almost to redeem the quaintness of the religious conceit ; the whole picture is described as worthy of Murillo. It was painted for a Franciscan church at Madrid, and the idea became so popular, that we find it multiplied and varied in' French and German prints of the last century; the original picture remains unequalled for its pensive poetical grace ; but it must be allowed that the idea, which at first view strikes from its singularity, is worse than questionable in point of taste, and will hardly bear repetitions

There are some ex-voto pictures of the Madonna of Mercy, which record individual acts of gratitude. One, for instance, by Niccolo Alunno (Rome, Pal. Colonna), in which the Virgin, a benign and dignified creature, stretches forth her sceptre from above, and rebukes the ugly fiend of Sin, about to seize a boy. The mother kneels on one side, with eyes uplifted, in faith and trembling supplication. The same idea I have seen repeated in a picture by Lanfranco.

The innumerable votive pictures which represent the Madonna di Misericordia with the Child in her arms, I shall notice hereafter. They are in Catholic countries the usual ornaments of charitable institutions and convents of the Order of Mercy ; and have, as I cannot but think, a very touching significance.



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