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Legends of the Madonna - The Mater Dolorosa

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Madre di Dolore. L'Addolorata. Fr. Notre Dame de Pitié. La Vierge de Douleur. Spa. Nuestra Senora de Dolores. Ger. Die schmerzhafte Mutter.

One of the most important of the devotional subjects proper to the Madonna is the "Mourning Mother," the Mater Dolorosa, in which her character is that the mother of the crucified Redeemer ; the mother of the atoning Sacrifice ; the queen of martyrs ; the woman whose bosom was pierced with a sharp sword ; through whose sorrow the world was saved, whose anguish was our joy, and to whom the Roman Catholic Christians address their prayers as consoler of the afflicted, because she had herself tasted of the bitterest of all earthly sorrow, the pang of the agonized mother for the loss of her child.

In this character we have three distinct representations of the Madonna.

MATER DOLOROSA. In the first she appears alone, a seated or standing figure, often the head or half length only ; the hands clasped, the head bowed in sorrow, tears streaming from the heavy eyes, and the whole expression in-tensely mournful. The features are properly those of a woman in middle age ; but in later times the sentiment of beauty predominated over that of the mother's agony ; and I have seen the sublime Mater Dolorosa trans-formed into a merely beautiful and youthful maiden, with such an air of sentimental grief as might serve for the loss of a sparrow.

Not so with the older heads ; even those of the Caracci and the Spanish schools have often a wonderful depth of feeling.

It is common in such representations to represent the Virgin with a sword in her bosom, and even with seven swords, in allusion to the seven sorrows. This very material and palpable version of the allegorical prophecy (Luke ii. 35) has been found extremely effective as an appeal to the popular feelings, so that there are few Roman Catholic churches without such a painful and literal interpretation of the text. It occurs perpetually in prints, and there is a fine example after Vandyck ; sometimes the swords are placed round her head ; but there is no instance of such a figure from the best period of religious Art, and it must be considered as anything but artistic : in this case, the more materialized and the more matter-of-fact, the more unreal.

STABAT MATER. A second representation of the Madre di Dolore is that figure of the Virgin which, from the very earliest times, was placed on the right of the Crucifix, St. John the Evangelist being invariably on the left. I am speaking here of the crucifix as a wholly ideal and mystical emblem of our faith in a crucified Saviour ; not of the crucifixion as an event, in which the Virgin is an actor and spectator, and is usually fainting in the arms of her attendants. In the ideal subject she is merely an ideal figure, at once the mother of Christ and the personified Church. This, I think, is evident from those very ancient carvings, and examples in stained glass, in which the Virgin, as the Church, stands on one side of the cross, trampling on a female figure which personifies Judaism or the synagogue. Even when the allegory is less palpable, we feel that the treatment is wholly religious and poetical.

The usual attitude of the Hater Dolorosa by the crucifix is that of intense but resigned sorrow ; the hands clasped, the head declined and shaded by a veil, the figure closely wrapped in a dark blue or violet mantle. In some instances a more generally religious and ideal cast is given to the figure ; she stands with outspread arms, and looking up ; not weeping, but in her still beautiful face a mingled expression of faith and anguish. This is the true conception of the sublime hymn,

Stabat Mater Dolorosa Juxta crucem lachrymosa Dum pendebat filius.

In the sketch after Philippe de Champaigne she is not standing, but seated at the foot of the cross. The original picture deserves its celebrity ; it is very fine and solemn.

LA PIETA. The third, and it is the most important and most beautiful of all so far as the Virgin is concerned, is the group called the PIETÀ, which, when strictly devotional, consists only of the Virgin with her dead Son in her arms, or on her lap, or lying at her feet ; in some instances with lamenting angels, but no other personages. This group has been varied in a thousand ways; no doubt the two most perfect conceptions are those of Michael Angelo and Raphael ; the first excelling in sublimity, the latter in pathos. The celebrated marble group by Michael Angelo stands in the Vatican in a chapel to the right as we enter. The Virgin is seated ; the dead Saviour lies across the knees of his mother ; she looks down on him in mingled sorrow and resignation, but the majestic resignation predominates. The composition of Raphael exists only as a print ; but the flimsy paper, consecrated through its unspeakable beauty, is likely to be as lasting as the marble. It represents the Virgin standing with outstretched arms, and looking up with an appealing agonized expression towards heaven ; before her, on the earth, lies extended the form of the Saviour. In tenderness, dignity, simplicity, and tragic pathos, nothing can exceed this production ; the head of the Virgin in particular is regarded as a masterpiece, so far exceeding in delicacy of execution every other work of Marc Antonio, that some have thought that Raphael himself took the burin from his hand, and touched himself that face of quiet woe.

Another example of wonderful beauty is the Pieta by Francia, in our National Gallery. The form of Christ lies extended before his mother; a lamenting angel sustains the head, another is at the feet ; the Virgin, with eyes red and heavy with weeping, looks out of the picture. There needs no visible sword in her bosom to tell what anguish has pierced that maternal heart.

There is another Pietà, by Michael Angelo, quite a different conception. The Virgin sits at the foot of the cross ; before her, and half sustained by her knees, lies the form of the dead Saviour, seen in front ; his arms are held up by two angels (unwinged, as is usual with Michael Angelo). The Virgin looks up to heaven with an appealing expression ; and in one engraving of this composition the cross is inscribed with the words, " Tu non pensi quanto sangue costa." There is no painting by Michael Angelo himself, but many copies and engravings of the drawing. A beautiful small copy, by Mar-cello Venusti, is in the Queen's Gallery.

There is yet another version of the Pietà, quite mystical and devotional in its significance — but, to my feeling, more painful and material than poetical. It is variously treated ; for example : 1. The dead Redeemer is seen half length within the tomb ; his hands are extended to show his wounds; his eyes are closed, his head declined, his bleeding brow encircled by thorns. On one side is the Virgin, on the other St. John the Evangelist, in attitudes of profound grief and commiseration. 2. The dead form, half emerging from the tomb, is sustained in the arms of the Mater Dolorosa. St. John the Evangelist on the other side. There are sometimes angels.

The Pieta thus conceived as a purely religious and ideal impersonation of the atoning Sacrifice is commonly placed over the altar of the sacrament; and in many altar-pieces it forms the centre of the predella, just in front where the mass is celebrated, or on the door of the tabernacle where the Host is deposited.

When, with the Mater Dolorosa and St. John, Mary Magdalene is introduced with her dishevelled hair, the group ceases to be properly a Pieta, and becomes a representation rather than a symbol.

There are also examples of a yet more complex but still perfectly ideal and devotional treatment, in which the Mourning Mother is attended by saints.

A most celebrated instance of this treatment is the Pieta by Guido. (Bologna Gallery.) In the upper part of the composition, the figure of the dead Redeemer lies extended on a white shroud ; behind him stands the Virgin-mother, with her eyes raised to heaven, and sad appealing face, touched with so divine a sorrow — so much of dignity in the midst of infinite anguish, that I know nothing finer in its way. Her hands are resignedly folded in each other, not raised, not clasped, but languidly drooping. An angel stands at the feet of Christ looking on with a tender adoring commiseration, another, at his head, turns away weeping. A kind of curtain divides this group from the lower part of the picture, where, assembled on a platform, stand or kneel the guardian saints of Bologna : in the centre, the benevolent St. Charles Borromeo, who just about that time had been canonized and added to the list of the patrons of Bologna by a decree of the senate ; on the right, St. Dominick and St. Petronius ; on the left, St. Proculus and St. Francis. (Vide Legends of the Monastic Orders, and Sacred and Legendary Art.) These sainted personages look up as if adjuring the Virgin, even by her own deep anguish, to intercede for the city ; she is here at once our Lady of Pity, of Succor, and of Sorrow. This wonderful picture was dedicated, as an act of penance and piety, by the magistrates of Bologna, in 1616, and placed in their chapel in the church of the S. "Mendicanti," otherwise Maria della Pietà. It hung there for two centuries, for the consolation of the afflicted ; it is now placed in the Academy of Bologna for the admiration of connoisseurs.



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