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Angels In Pictures Of The Virgin Mary

( Originally Published 1898 )



THE pictures of the Madonna, or Virgin Mary, may be divided into two classes; the devotional, which illustrate the doctrines or teaching of the early Church, and the historical, or the representation of the actual scenes in the life of the Mother of Christ.

When the Virgin is represented wearing a crown or bearing a sceptre, and attended by worshipping angels, she is in the character of the Queen of Angels. The earlier examples of these pictures, as seen in the Florentine Academy, and in the Churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce in Florence, are charming in their simplicity, and represent a majestic and mystical womanhood, which entitles them to consideration as works of Art. But later, especially in the seventeenth century, these pictures degenerated into portraits of the self-conscious, unintelligent prettiness of the models from whom they were painted. This subject was a favorite one with certain decadent artists, and the contrast between the most ancient and the later pictures of it, gives one a strong impression of the lack of reverence or ideality in men who could thus represent that holy woman, whose heart found expression in her beautiful hymn, beginning, "My soul doth magnify the Lord," St. Luke i., 46. These pictures have neither the humility, the intellectual power, nor the sublime faith which the face of the Virgin Mary should express.

A favorite devotional picture was the Coronation of the Virgin. This representation is an emblem of the Church Triumphant, and is one of the most beautiful, as it was one of the most approved, of the Middle Ages. It appeals to all hearts, since it pictures the reunion of the Mother and Son in heaven, after their separation by his death, and shows him no longer despised and rejected, but reigning in the fullness of power, and exalting his mother above men and angels, welcoming her to his throne, and placing a glorious crown upon her head.

In the most ancient Coronations, which are very interesting, no angels appear. From the time of Giotto, — the beginning of the fourteenth century, — how-ever, angels were witnesses of this scene. Fra Angelico's Coronation, in the Louvre, in which the Virgin kneels to be crowned, has a group of musical angels on each side. One of the most interesting pictures of this subject that I have seen is in the Academy of Venice, by Vivarini, an artist of the island of Murano, who lived in the fifteenth century.

It is a very large picture, having a throne in the centre, magnificently ornamented and upheld by six pillars on a splendid pedestal. Christ and the Virgin are seated on the throne, he already crowned, and engaged in placing the crown on the head of Mary. The celestial dove hovers between them, and the Heavenly Father appears above, and rests a hand on the shoulder of each. Above are nine choirs of angels ; nearest are the glowing seraphim and cherubim having wings but otherwise so indistinct as to be formless ; above these are thrones, holding the globe of sovereignty ; to the right are dominations, virtues, powers, and to the left princedoms. archangels, and angels. In the lower portion of the same picture are prophets and Patriarchs with the Hebrew Scriptures, the Apostles with the Gospel, saints and martyrs, virgins and holy women, lovely children bearing the cross, nails, spear, and crown of thorns, and the Evangelists and Fathers of the Church. There are at least seventy heads in this picture without the angels ; the children are beautiful, and all are finished with great delicacy and care. It is an invaluable example of symbolic art, as well as an exponent of an entire system of theology.

The Coronation was often a most splendid picture, as it warranted the use of magnificent draperies and other accessories. It was also a joyous picture. Every figure introduced had an air of happiness, and the angels were especially glad.

In the picture known as the Mother of Mercy, the Virgin is often attended by angels. In ancient pictures and bas-reliefs of this subject, she was frequently standing and wearing a long, full cloak, like that of St. Ursula, which was held aside by two angels, thus disclosing groups of kneeling suppliants, praying to her for mercy.

Very often in this picture the Virgin holds the Infant Jesus in her arms. In other fine examples, — notably in the masterpiece of Fra Bartolommeo, in the Church of St. Romano, in Lucca, --the figure of Christ surrounded by angels is seen in the clouds, as if he aided in these works of compassion. Such pictures are numerous in hospitals and charitable institutions, especially in those that are in the care of the Order of Mercy, where they are singularly appropriate. A bas-relief above the entrance to the Scuola della Caritas, in Venice, is a fine example of this subject.

Pictures of the so-called Pietà, represent the Virgin holding the body of the dead Christ on her knees. The greatest artists whose works are known to us have represented this subject in sculpture and painting. When it is a strictly devotional work, the Virgin, the Christ, and mourning angels are the only figures admissible. There are many examples in which there are no angels, the Mother being alone with the dead Christ.

The Pietà by Francia, in the National Gallery, is very beautiful in sentiment, and in execution is full of the tenderness of this master. The Christ is supported by two angels, and the Virgin, with an expression of anguish, seems to look at the beholder as if beseeching sympathy.

In the sublimely pathetic marble group, by Michael Angelo, in a chapel of the Vatican, there are no angels, but we have engravings of another Pietà by this master, in which the Virgin sits at the foot of the cross, her eyes raised and her arms extended towards heaven, while two angels support the Christ, seated lower down, and leaning against the knees of the Virgin. According to the custom of Michael Angelo, these angels have no wings, but their expression is such as would make it impossible to mistake them for earthly children.

There were no pictures of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary until the seventeenth century, when Spanish and Italian artists vied with each other in representing this subject, and these works may be said to abound in angels.

When the Virgin stands on the moon with full sunlight surrounding her, and wearing the crown of twelve stars, she is the personification of the woman described in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Revelation.

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin was much in favor with the Spanish Church before its confirmation by the bull of Pope Paul V. in 1617, which was welcomed in Seville, not only by the most solemn religious services, but also by the booming of can-non, and the celebration of bullfights, tournaments, and banquets. Spain and all its colonies were placed under the protection of the Immaculate Conception. Even now, almost three centuries after this event, it is not unusual for Spaniards to use the salute, " Ave Maria purissima ! " the response being, " Sin peccado concepida!"

Not long after the publication of the bull, Pacheco laid down rules for the representation of this subject in Art, which have been conscientiously followed. The Virgin is very young, her hair golden, her robe white, and her mantle blue. The angels near her bear roses, lilies, and palms. She stands on the moon, wears the starry crown, and the vanquished dragon is beneath her. As the Franciscans were always enthusiastically de-voted to this dogma, it was usual to represent the girdle of the Virgin by the cord of the Franciscans.

Murillo, the painter of this subject par excellence, was not strictly bound by Pacheco's rules. He adhered to the colors prescribed for the drapery ; he varied the tint of the hair, and often was not careful to represent the cord of St. Francis. He never omitted the moon, but it was sometimes full rather than in the crescent, and he pointed the horns upward, while Pacheco directed them to point downward ; and he usually omitted the starry crown. But so satisfactory were Murillo's Immaculate Conceptions that he was never accused of being unorthodox.

Other pictures of the Madonna, by this great Spanish master, are wanting in the characteristics which he invariably gives the Virgin in this subject. Others are commonplace, and might be duplicated among Spanish peasant women ; but the Virgin of his Conceptions are ideal. Spotlessly pure, full of grace and repose, exquisite in refinement and delicacy, her hands folded on her breast, and her sweetly serious eyes raised as in prayer, she seems a fitting companion to the angels about her, but all unsuited to the sufferings of the life before her.

Murillo painted this picture twenty-five times, and no two of these works are exactly the same, although the differences are sometimes slight. The angels are so numerous that they seem to fill all space, and to be coming forward in still greater numbers out of the depths of the sky. If the dragon is there, he is concealed by these lovely, spiritual attendants on the queen of their order.

Guido Reni painted several pictures of this subject which was well suited to the master of the Aurora, and afforded full play to his ideal of beauty, and his delicacy of execution.

But it was in the Spanish school that these pictures were multiplied, and this is not strange when we remember that every candidate admitted to the academy of painting in Seville was required to declare his full belief in " the most pure conception of Our Lady."

Mr. Stirling, in his handbook of Spain, speaks of a Conception by Roelas, painted before the time of Murillo, which he calls " equal to Guido." Velasquez also painted a fine Conception, probably before the rules of Pacheco were known, as the Virgin's robe is violet, and she has no unusual beauty. It is, however, a solemn and remarkable work in the bold, early style of this great artist.

In the ancient pictures of the En-throned Madonna there are always attendant angels ; in some later works they are omitted. In this subject the Madonna holds the Infant Jesus on her lap, and is surrounded by angels. The earliest Enthroned Madonnas represent the Virgin seated between the Archangels St. Michael and St. Gabriel, as symbolic of life and death. This representation dates from the eighth century in the carved ivories of the Greek Church, and was repeated in sculpture and glass painting during six or seven hundred years.

Later St. Gabriel appears in the Annunciation only, but as St. Michael was the guardian of Jesus and his mother in their earthly life, he is often beside them, as well as St. Raphael, the guardian spirit of all human beings. Perugino presents both these guardian archangels in his lovely picture in the National Gallery.

This is one of the rare examples in which the three archangels are seen together, each with his appropriate symbol.

In the usual picture of this subject the Madonna is literally enthroned, her throne being rich and decorative. Raphael, however, placed her on the clouds, the child standing beside her, and the angels below, rather than above them. This might be called the Madonna in Glory, although she is seated on the clouds as on a throne.

Angels were represented as attendant upon the Virgin very early in the history of Art. Even the ancient mosaics of Ravenna show them about her throne, and as her office of Queen of Angels came to be more and more considered, angels were represented as adoring her, sustaining her throne, and performing a variety of services, the most charming being that of the musical angels.

When Art reached the height of the fifteenth century, the angelic choristers were exquisite in beauty and in sentiment, as they knelt or stood near the Virgin, or sat upon the steps of her throne, playing upon lute and pipe, or singing as only angels can.

There are so-called half-length En-throned Madonnas, in which the Virgin and Child and angels alone appear. Occasionally the Infant St. John the Baptist is introduced in these pictures, as in the illustration here given, after Botticelli.

The picture known as the Mater Amabilis, in which the Madonna caresses the Child, or tenderly gazes at him, rarely has the angelic attendants, but Gian Bellini filled the background of such a picture with winged cherub heads.

There are two classes of pictures of the Madonna and Child, in which the little St. John Baptist is present. When St. John adores Jesus, kisses his feet, or in any way seems to recognize his superiority, it is a purely devotional picture, while a great number of others are simply domestic, friendly scenes. In all of these angels appear in varying numbers.

An exquisite picture, by Filippino Lippi, shows the kneeling Virgin adoring the Child, who rests on the ground, while near by the little St. John also kneels. The group is surrounded by five angels, one of whom scatters roses over the Infant, while the others worship him with folded hands.

Among the historical and legendary subjects illustrative of the life of the Virgin, are those connected with her parents, Joachim and Anna, her Nativity and Presentation in the Temple, and her life there, — her Marriage and all the scenes preceding the Annunciation. Of the latter I have written in connection with the Angel Gabriel. Many of these pictures are very beautiful, and angels are frequently introduced in them.

After the Annunciation follows the Visitation, or the Salutation of Elizabeth. I know of but one fine picture of this scene — by Pinturicchio — in which an-gels are present at the meeting of the Holy Women. It is a poetic conception, and the humility of the two angels, with downcast eyes and folded hands, gives them the appearance of attendants on the journey of the Virgin, rather than that of witnesses of the Salutation.

The Nativity of Christ, the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Adoration of the Magi — Wise Men — have been rep-resented in a variety of ways, and are subjects easily distinguished. The first two are most effective when treated with perfect simplicity, with no accessories unsuited to the humble condition of Joseph and Mary and the Shepherds; with such scenes the presence of the angels is in perfect harmony. The Nativity by Albertinelli, in the Uffizi Gallery, and the Adoration of the Shepherds by Correggio, in the Dresden gallery, are fine examples of these subjects.

The Adoration of the Magi, or Kings, as the legends call them, admits of all the splendor that an artist desires to depict. Many pictures of this scene display magnificent collections of vases, ewers, and other vessels of gold and silver, while the costumes, jewelled diadems, and chains of the Kings, are as gorgeous in texture and color as Veronese, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other artists could make them. Veronese perhaps excelled all others in making his Adoration of the Kings, in the Dresden gallery, an imposing and gorgeous pageant.

Angels are by no means a necessary part of this scene, but are always present in the earliest representations of it. A poetic element is imparted to this picture when the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus to the Shepherds is introduced in the background ; or when the star which directed the Magi in their course appears in the sky, surrounded by angel heads.

In representations of the Flight into Egypt, which Joseph had been directed to make, by an angel in a dream, these heavenly attendants are seen bringing fruits and flowers to the travellers, pitching their tents, leading the ass on which the Virgin rides, watching over them by night, and serving them by day.

So in the Repose in Egypt, — one of the most charming of these kindred subjects,— the attendant angels are a delightful feature, and so varied are their occupations, and so fanciful the conceits of the painters of this scene, that many pages might be devoted to a description of them. For example, Van Dyck, in his picture in the Ashburton collection, has represented the Virgin seated under a spreading tree, holding the Child, while a number of angels dance in a round to the music made by other angels in the clouds above.

Lucas Cranach shows the angels washing linen; Albert Dürer represents St. Joseph as shaping a piece of wood with his axe ; some of the many angels present gather up the chips and put them in baskets; others dance and frolic merrily about the group, while still other more serious angels,—probably guardian spirits, devoutly folding their hands, stand or kneel around the cradle of the Infant Jesus.

Titian, in one of his pictures of this subject, introduced a little angel who waters the ass in a stream. Rembrandt gives his Repose the air of a gipsy camp, which is emphasized by the fact that the only light comes from a lantern hung on a tree. I do not know who painted a Repose that I have seen, to which a very human feeling is imparted by St. Joseph ; he is shaking his fist at the ass, which has opened its mouth to bray.

In the almost numberless representations of the Madonna and Child, and of the Holy Family, angels are frequently introduced. These subjects are so easily recognized, and, speaking generally, are so simply treated as to require no comment here.

I have referred to the legend that an angel announced the approach of death to the Virgin Mary, and have explained the difference between the symbolism of this subject, and that of the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus, all of which is made clear by our illustration.

In pictures of the death scene there are always angels present, in greater or lesser numbers. In the representations of the Assumption of the Virgin she is some-times borne upward by angels, and again she ascends without aid. In all cases she is attended by choirs of angels, as in the magnificent Assumption by Titian, which is the pride of the Academy in Venice.

In the purely devotional Assumptions such as that sculptured above the portal of the Cathedral of Florence, -- the Santa Maria del Fiore, — the Virgin is within the mandorla, or almond-shaped aureole. She is clothed in white and wears a veil and crown; her hands are joined and she ascends in a glory of light, surrounded by angels. The only special difference in these sculptures is the position of the Virgin, who sometimes sits, and again stands upright, in the mandorla. When the representation corresponds to this, except that the Virgin has no crown, it may more properly be called the Glorification of the Virgin.

Besides the representations of angels who make a part of the devotional and historical scenes in the lives of Christ and the Virgin, of the Evangelists, Apostles, and Fathers of the Church, there are a great number that illustrate the legends of the saints. For example, that of St. Cecilia, whose music charmed even the angelic choirs, so that the angels brought to her the roses of Paradise, is one of the most beautiful.

After the death of St. Catherine of Alexandria, angels bore her body to the top of Mount Sinai, as represented in our illustration by Mucke.

When St. Christina was beaten and thrown into a dungeon, angels bound up her wounds, and St. Agatha was comforted by them in her prison.

These are a few examples of the numerous appearances of angels in the legends of the saints.

Perhaps there are no artistic representations that appeal to a greater number of people, of all possible types, than do those of angels, in both sculpture and painting. One reason for this seems to me to be that angels represent our highest ideal of created beings, — beings that we can only realize through the power of imagination, either our own imagination or that of another. It may be that of a writer, who, in a vivid word-picture, conjures up before us a vision of beings that we have not seen, as do Dante and Mil-ton. Or it may be' a sculptor or painter who, rendering his own ideal, helps us to see with his eyes and to accept or reject his work as it appeals to, or repels us.

This recalls the words of Ruskin when he says that the noblest use of imagination is to " enable us to bring sensibly to our sight the things which are recorded as belonging to our future state, or as invisibly surrounding us in this. It is given us, that we may imagine the cloud of witnesses in heaven and earth, and see, as if they were now present, the souls of the righteous waiting for us ; that we may conceive the great army of the inhabitants of heaven, and discover among them those whom we most desire to be with forever ; that we may be able to vision forth the ministry of angels beside us, and see the chariots of fire on the mountains that gird us round ; but, above all, to call up the scenes and facts in which we are commanded to believe, and be present, as if in the body, at every recorded event of the history of the Redeemer."

With such a thought in mind, it is well worth while to study the various types of angels which are a rich portion of the legacies of the artists to the world. It is surely right to attempt to imagine the glories of a sphere beyond this,—a heaven of purity and glory. One of the most powerful aids to this imagination is the contemplation of religious pictures, especially those that were executed with such reverence and sincerity as make them appear to reproduce actual scenes, and, for the time, carry us out of ourselves and into the imaginary earth and heaven of the master whose works we study.

Thus we may leave this brief review of the subject of Angels in Art, feeling that its further development by each reader for himself is a pursuit in harmony with St. Paul's admonition : " Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."



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