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REPRESENTED IN THE FINE ARTS.
BY MRS. JAMESON.
CORRECTED AND ENLARGED EDITION.
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY.
The Riverside Press, Cambridge.
NOTE BY THE PUBLISHERS.
Some months since Mrs. Jameson kindly consented to prepare for this
Edition of her writings the series of _Sacred and Legendary Art_, but
dying before she had time to fulfil her promise, the arrangement has
been intrusted to other hands. The text of the whole series will be an
exact reprint of the last English Edition.
TICKNOR & FIELDS.
BOSTON, Oct. 1st, 1860.
Origin of the Worship of the Madonna.
Earliest artistic Representations.
Origin of the Group of the Virgin and Child in the Fifth Century.
The First Council at Ephesus.
First Appearance of the Effigy of the Virgin on Coins.
Period of Charlemagne.
Period of the Crusades.
Revival of Art in the Thirteenth Century.
The Fourteenth Century.
Influence of Dante.
The Fifteenth Century.
The Council of Constance and the Hussite Wars.
The Sixteenth Century.
The Luxury of Church Pictures.
The Influence of Classical Literature on the Representations of the
The Seventeenth Century.
Influence of Jesuitism on Art.
Authorities followed by Painters in the earliest Times.
Legend of St. Luke.
Character of the Virgin Mary as drawn in the Gospels.
Early Descriptions of her Person; how far attended to by the Painters.
Poetical Extracts descriptive of the Virgin Mary.
SYMBOLS AND ATTRIBUTES OF THE VIRGIN.
Proper Costume and Colours.
DEVOTIONAL SUBJECTS AND HISTORICAL SUBJECTS.
The Life of the Virgin Mary as treated in a Series.
The Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows as a Series.
Titles of the Virgin, as expressed in Pictures and Effigies.
Churches dedicated to her.
THE VIRGIN WITHOUT THE CHILD.
LA VERGINE GLORIOSA. Earliest Figures. The Mosaics. The Virgin of San
Venanzio. The Virgin of Spoleto.
The Enthroned Virgin without the Child, as type of heavenly Wisdom.
L'INCORONATA, the Type of the Church triumphant. The Virgin crowned by
her Son. Examples from the old Mosaics. Examples of the Coronation of
the Virgin from various Painters.
The VIRGIN OF MERCY, as she is represented in the Last Judgment.
The Virgin, as Dispenser of Mercy on Earth. Various Examples.
The MATER DOLOROSA seated and standing, with the Seven Swords.
The _Stabat Mater_, the Ideal Pieta. The Votive Pieta by Guido.
OUR LADY OF THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION Origin of the Subject. History
of the Theological Dispute. The First Papal Decree touching the
Immaculate Conception. The Bull of Paul V. The Popularity of the
Subject in Spain. Pictures by Guido, by Roelas, Velasquez, Murillo.
The Predestination of the Virgin. Curious Picture by Cotignola.
THE VIRGIN AND CHILD.
THE VIRGIN AND CHILD ENTHRONED. _Virgo Deipara_. The Virgin in her
Maternal Character. Origin of the Group of the Mother and Child.
The Enthroned Virgin in the old Mosaics. In early Italian Art The
Virgin standing as _Regina Coeli_.
_La Madre Pia_ enthroned. _Mater Sapientiae_ with the Book.
The Virgin and Child enthroned with attendant Figures; with Angels;
with Prophets; with Apostles.
With Saints: John the Baptist; St. Anna; St. Joachim; St. Joseph.
With Martyrs and Patron Saints.
_Various Examples of Arrangement_. With the Fathers of the Church;
with St. Jerome and St. Catherine; with the Marriage of St. Catherine.
The Virgin and Child between St. Catherine and St. Barbara; with Mary
Magdalene; with St. Lucia.
The Virgin and Child between St. George and St. Nicholas; with St.
Christopher; with St. Leonard. The Virgin of Charity.
The Madonnas of Florence; of Siena; of Venice and Lombardy. How
The Virgin attended by the Monastic Saints. Examples from various
Votive Madonnas. For Mercies accorded; for Victory; for Deliverance
from Pestilence; against Flood and Fire.
Family Votive Madonnas, Examples. The Madonna of the Bentivoglio
Family. The Madonna of the Sforza Family. The Madonna of the Moyer
Family, The Madonna di Foligno. German Votive Madonna at Rouen.
Madonna of Rene, Duke of Anjou; of the Pesaro Family at Venice.
Half-length Enthroned Madonnas; first introduced by the Venetians.
The MATER AMABILIS, Early Greek Examples. The infinite Variety given
to this Subject.
Virgin and Child with St. John. He takes the Cross
The MADRE PIA; the Virgin adores her Son.
Pastoral Madonnas of the Venetian School.
Conclusion of the Devotional Subjects.
THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN FROM HER BIRTH TO HER MARRIAGE WITH JOSEPH.
THE LEGEND OF JOACHIM AND ANNA.
Joachim rejected from the Temple. Joachim herding his Sheep on the
Mountain. The Altercation between Anna and her Maid Judith. The
Meeting at the Golden Gate.
THE NATIVITY OF THE VIRGIN. The Importance and Beauty of the Subject.
THE PRESENTATION OF THE VIRGIN. A Subject of great Importance. General
Arrangement and Treatment. Various Examples from celebrated Painters.
The Virgin in the Temple.
THE MARRIAGE OF THE VIRGIN. The Legend as followed by the Painters.
Various Examples of the Marriage of the Virgin, as treated by
Perugino, Raphael, and others.
THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN MARY FROM THE ANNUNCIATION TO THE RETURN FROM
THE ANNUNCIATION, Its Beauty as a Subject. Treated as a Mystery and
as an Event. As a Mystery; not earlier than the Eleventh Century.
Its proper Place in architectural Decoration. On Altar-pieces. As
an Allegory. The Annunciation as expressing the Incarnation. Ideally
treated with Saints and Votaries. Examples by Simone Memmi, Fra
Bartolomeo, Angelico, and others.
The Annunciation as an Event. The appropriate Circumstances. The
Time, the Locality, the Accessories. The Descent of the Angel; proper
Costume; with the Lily, the Palm, the Olive.
Proper Attitude and Occupation of Mary; Expression and Deportment. The
Dove. Mistakes. Examples from various Painters.
THE VISITATION. Character of Elizabeth. The Locality and
Circumstances. Proper Accessories. Examples from various Painters.
THE DREAM OF JOSEPH. He entreats Forgiveness of Mary.
THE NATIVITY. The Prophecy of the Sibyl. _La Madonna del Parto_. The
Nativity as a Mystery; with poetical Accessories; with Saints and
The Nativity as an Event. The Time; the Places; the proper Accessories
and Circumstances; the angelic Choristers; Signification of the Ox and
THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS.
THE ADORATION OF THE MAGI; they are supposed to have been Kings.
Prophecy of Balaam. The Appearance of the Star. The Legend of the
three Kings of Cologne. Proper Accessories. Examples from various
Painters. The Land Surveyors, by Giorgione.
THE PURIFICATION OF THE VIRGIN. The Prophecy of Simeon. Greek Legend
of the _Nunc Dimittis_. Various Examples.
THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPT. The Massacre of the Innocents. The Preparation
for the Journey. The Circumstances. The Legend of the Robbers; of the
THE REPOSE OF THE HOLY FAMILY. The Subject often mistaken. Proper
Treatment of the Group. The Repose at Matarea. The Ministry of Angels.
THE LEGEND OF THE GYPSY.
THE RETURN FROM EGYPT.
THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN FROM THE SOJOURN IN EGYPT TO THE CRUCIFIXION OF
THE HOLY FAMILY. Proper Treatment of the Domestic Group as
distinguished from the Devotional. The simplest Form that of the
Mother and Child. The Child fed from his Mother's Bosom. The Infant
Holy Family of three Figures; with the little St. John; with St.
Joseph; with St. Anna.
Holy Family of four Figures; with St. Elizabeth and others.
The Holy Family of Five and Six Figures.
The Family of the Virgin grouped together.
Examples of Holy Family as treated by various Artists.
The Carpenter's Shop.
The Infant Christ learning to read.
THE DISPUTE IN THE TEMPLE. The Virgin seeks her Son.
THE DEATH OF JOSEPH.
THE MARRIAGE AT CANA. Proper Treatment of the Virgin in this Subject;
as treated by Luini and by Paul Veronese.
The Virgin attends on the Ministry of Christ. Mystical Treatment by
LO SPASIMO. Christ takes leave of his Mother. Women who are introduced
into Scenes of the Passion of our Lord.
The Procession to Calvary, _Lo Spasimo di Sicilia_.
THE CRUCIFIXION. Proper Treatment of the Virgin in this Subject. The
impropriety of placing her upon the ground. Her Fortitude. Christ
recommends his Mother to St. John.
THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS. Proper Place and Action of the Virgin in
THE DEPOSITION. Proper Treatment of this Form of the _Mater Dolorosa_.
Persons introduced. Various Examples.
THE ENTOMBMENT. Treated as an historical Scene. As one of the Sorrows
of the Rosary; attended by Saints.
The _Mater Dolorosa_ attended by St. Peter. Attended by St. John and
THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN MARY FROM THE RESURRECTION OF THE LORD TO THE
THE APPARITION OF CHRIST TO HIS MOTHER. Beauty and Sentiment of the
old Legend; how represented by the Artists.
THE ASCENSION OF OUR LORD. The proper Place of the Virgin Mary.
THE DESCENT OF THE HOLY GHOST; Mary being one of the principal
THE APOSTLES TAKE LEAVE OF THE VIRGIN.
THE DEATH AND ASSUMPTION OF THE VIRGIN. The old Greek Legend.
The Angel announces to Mary her approaching Death.
The Death of the Virgin, an ancient and important Subject. As treated
in the Greek School; in early German Art; in Italian Art. Various
The Apostles carry the Body of the Virgin to the Tomb.
THE ASSUMPTION. Distinction between the Assumption of the Body and the
Assumption of the Soul of the Virgin. The Assumption as a Mystery; as
LA MADONNA BELLA CINTOLA. The Legend of the Girdle; as painted in the
Cathedral at Prato.
Examples of the Assumption as represented by various Artists.
THE CORONATION as distinguished from the _Incoronata_; how treated as
an historical Subject. Conclusion.
The decease of Mrs. Jameson, the accomplished woman and popular
writer, at an advanced period of life, took place in March, 1860,
after a brief illness. But the frame had long been worn out by past
years of anxiety, and the fatigues of laborious literary occupation
conscientiously undertaken and carried out. Having entered certain
fields of research and enterprise, perhaps at first accidentally, Mrs.
Jameson could not satisfy herself by anything less than the utmost
that minute collection and progressive study could do to sustain her
popularity. Distant and exhausting journeys, diligent examination of
far-scattered examples of Art, voluminous and various reading, became
seemingly more and more necessary to her; and at the very time of life
when rest and slackened effort would have been natural,--not merely
because her labours were in aid of others, but to satisfy her own high
sense of what is demanded by Art and Literature,--did her hand and
brain work more and more perseveringly and thoughtfully, till at last
she sank under her weariness; and passed away.
The father of Miss Murphy was a miniature-painter of repute, attached,
we believe, to the household of the Princess Charlotte. His daughter
Anna was naturally taught by him the principles of his own art;
but she had instincts for all,--taste for music,--a feeling for
poetry,--and a delicate appreciation of the drama. These gifts--in
her youth rarer in combination than they are now (when the connection
of the arts is becoming understood, and the love of all increasingly
diffused)--were, during part of Mrs. Jameson's life, turned to the
service of education.--It was not till after her marriage, that a
foreign tour led her into authorship, by the publication of "The Diary
of an Ennuyee," somewhere about the year 1826.--It was impossible to
avoid detecting in that record the presence of taste, thought, and
feeling, brought in an original fashion to bear on Art, Society,
Morals.--The reception of the book was decisive.--It was followed, at
intervals, by "The Loves of the Poets," "Memoirs of Italian Painters,"
"The Lives of Female Sovereigns," "Characteristics of Women" (a series
of Shakspeare studies; possibly its writer's most popular book). After
this, the Germanism so prevalent five-and-twenty years ago, and now
somewhat gone by, possessed itself of the authoress, and she published
her reminiscences of Munich, the imitative art of which was new, and
esteemed as almost a revelation. To the list of Mrs. Jameson's books
may be added her translation of the easy, if not vigorous Dramas
by the Princess Amelia of Saxony, and her "Winter Studies and
Summer Rambles"--recollections of a visit to Canada. This included
the account of her strange and solitary canoe voyage, and her
residence among a tribe of Indians. From this time forward, social
questions--especially those concerning the position of women in life
and action--engrossed a large share of Mrs. Jameson's attention; and
she wrote on them occasionally, always in a large and enlightened
spirit, rarely without touches of delicacy and sentiment.--Even when
we are unable to accept all Mrs. Jameson's conclusions, or to join her
in the hero or heroine worship of this or the other favourite example,
we have seldom a complaint to make of the manner of the authoress. It
was always earnest, eloquent, and poetical.
Besides a volume or two of collected essays, thoughts, notes on books,
and on subjects of Art, we have left to mention the elaborate volumes
on "Sacred and Legendary Art," as the greatest literary labour of a
busy life. Mrs. Jameson was putting the last finish to the concluding
portion of her work, when she was bidden to cease forever.
There is little more to be told,--save that, in the course of her
indefatigable literary career, Mrs. Jameson drew round herself a large
circle of steady friends--these among the highest illustrators of
Literature and Art in France, Germany, and Italy; and that, latterly,
a pension from Government was added to her slender earnings. These, it
may be said without indelicacy, were liberally apportioned to the aid
of others,--Mrs. Jameson being, for herself, simple, self-relying,
and self-denying;--holding that high view of the duties belonging
to pursuits of imagination which rendered meanness, or servility, or
dishonourable dealing, or license glossed over with some convenient
name, impossible to her.--She was a faithful friend, a devoted
relative, a gracefully-cultivated, and honest literary worker, whose
mind was set on "the best and honourablest things."
* * * * *
Some months since Mrs. Jameson kindly consented to prepare for this
edition of her writings the "Legends of the Madonna," "Sacred and
Legendary Art," and "Legends of the Monastic Orders;" but, dying
before she had time to fulfil her promise, the arrangement has been
intrusted to other hands. The text of this whole series will be an
exact reprint of the last English Edition.
* * * * *
The portrait annexed to this volume is from a photograph taken in
London only a short time before Mrs. Jameson's death.
BOSTON, September, 1860.
TO THE FIRST EDITION.
In presenting to my friends and to the public this Series of the
Sacred and Legendary Art, few preparatory words will be required.
If in the former volumes I felt diffident of my own powers to do any
justice to my subject, I have yet been encouraged by the sympathy and
approbation of those who nave kindly accepted of what has been done,
and yet more kindly excused deficiencies, errors, and oversights,
which the wide range of subjects rendered almost unavoidable.
With far more of doubt and diffidence, yet not less trust in the
benevolence and candour of my critics, do I present this volume to the
public. I hope it will be distinctly understood, that the general plan
of the work is merely artistic; that it really aims at nothing more
than to render the various subjects intelligible. For this reason
it has been thought advisable to set aside, in a great measure,
individual preferences, and all predilections for particular schools
and particular periods of Art,--to take, in short, the widest possible
range as regards examples,--and then to leave the reader, when thus
guided to the meaning of what he sees, to select, compare, admire,
according to his own discrimination, taste, and requirements. The
great difficulty has been to keep within reasonable limits. Though
the subject has a unity not found in the other volumes, it is
really boundless as regards variety and complexity. I may have been
superficial from mere superabundance of materials; sometimes mistaken
as to facts and dates; the tastes, the feelings, and the faith of my
readers may not always go along with me; but if attention and interest
have been exited--if the sphere of enjoyment in works of Art have been
enlarged and enlightened, I have done all I ever wished--all I ever
hoped, to do.
With regard to a point of infinitely greater importance, I may
be allowed to plead,--that it has been impossible to treat of the
representations of the Blessed Virgin without touching on doctrines
such as constitute the principal differences between the creeds of
Christendom. I have had to ascend most perilous heights, to dive
into terribly obscure depths. Not for worlds would I be guilty of a
scoffing allusion to any belief or any object held sacred by sincere
and earnest hearts; but neither has it been possible for me to write
in a tone of acquiescence, where I altogether differ in feeling
and opinion. On this point I shall need, and feel sure that I shall
obtain, the generous construction of readers of all persuasions.
I. ORIGIN AND HISTORY OF THE EFFIGIES OF THE MADONNA.
Through all the most beautiful and precious productions of human
genius and human skill which the middle ages and the _renaissance_
have bequeathed to us, we trace, more or less developed, more or less
apparent, present in shape before us, or suggested through inevitable
associations, one prevailing idea: it is that of an impersonation in
the feminine character of beneficence, purity, and power, standing
between an offended Deity and poor, sinning, suffering humanity, and
clothed in the visible form of Mary, the Mother of our Lord.
To the Roman Catholics this idea remains an indisputable religious
truth of the highest import. Those of a different creed may think fit
to dispose of the whole subject of the Madonna either as a form of
superstition or a form of Art. But merely as a form of Art, we cannot
in these days confine ourselves to empty conventional criticism. We
are obliged to look further and deeper; and in this department of
Legendary Art, as in the others, we must take the higher ground,
perilous though it be. We must seek to comprehend the dominant idea
lying behind and beyond the mere representation. For, after all,
some consideration is due to facts which we must necessarily accept,
whether we deal with antiquarian theology or artistic criticism;
namely, that the worship of the Madonna did prevail through all the
Christian and civilized world for nearly a thousand years; that, in
spite of errors, exaggerations, abuses, this worship did comprehend
certain great elemental truths interwoven with our human nature, and
to be evolved perhaps with our future destinies. Therefore did it work
itself into the life and soul of man; therefore has it been worked
_out_ in the manifestations of his genius; and therefore the multiform
imagery in which it has been clothed, from the rudest imitations of
life, to the most exquisite creations of mind, may be resolved, as a
whole, into one subject, and become one great monument in the history
of progressive thought and faith, as well as in the history of
Of the pictures in our galleries, public or private,--of the
architectural adornments of those majestic edifices which sprung up
in the middle ages (where they have not been despoiled or desecrated
by a zeal as fervent as that which reared them), the largest and most
beautiful portion have reference to the Madonna,--her character,
her person, her history. It was a theme which never tired her
votaries,--whether, as in the hands of great and sincere artists,
it became one of the noblest and loveliest, or, as in the hands
of superficial, unbelieving, time-serving artists, one of the most
degraded. All that human genius, inspired by faith, could achieve of
best, all that fanaticism, sensualism, atheism, could perpetrate of
worst, do we find in the cycle of those representations which have
been dedicated to the glory of the Virgin. And indeed the ethics of
the Madonna worship, as evolved in art, might be not unaptly likened
to the ethics of human love: so long as the object of sense remained
in subjection to the moral idea--so long as the appeal was to the
best of our faculties and affections--so long was the image grand or
refined, and the influences to be ranked with those which have helped
to humanize and civilize our race; but so soon as the object became
a mere idol, then worship and worshippers, art and artists, were
It is not my intention to enter here on that disputed point, the
origin of the worship of the Madonna. Our present theme lies within
prescribed limits,--wide enough, however, to embrace an immense
field of thought: it seeks to trace the progressive influence of
that worship on the fine arts for a thousand years or more, and to
interpret the forms in which it has been clothed. That the veneration
paid to Mary in the early Church was a very natural feeling in those
who advocated the divinity of her Son, would be granted, I suppose,
by all but the most bigoted reformers; that it led to unwise and
wild extremes, confounding the creature with the Creator, would be
admitted, I suppose, by all but the most bigoted Roman Catholics. How
it extended from the East over the nations of the West, how it grew
and spread, may be read in ecclesiastical histories. Everywhere it
seems to have found in the human heart some deep sympathy--deeper far
than mere theological doctrine could reach--ready to accept it; and in
every land the ground prepared for it in some already dominant idea
of a mother-Goddess, chaste, beautiful, and benign. As, in the oldest
Hebrew rites and Pagan superstitions, men traced the promise of a
coming Messiah,--as the deliverers and kings of the Old Testament, and
even the demigods of heathendom, became accepted types of the person
of Christ,--so the Eve of the Mosaic history, the Astarte of the
"The mooned Ashtaroth, queen and mother both,"--
the Isis nursing Horus of the Egyptians, the Demeter and the
Aphrodite of the Greeks, the Scythian Freya, have been considered
by some writers as types of a divine maternity, foreshadowing the
Virgin-mother of Christ. Others will have it that these scattered,
dim, mistaken--often gross and perverted--ideas which were afterwards
gathered into the pure, dignified, tender image of the Madonna,
were but as the voice of a mighty prophecy, sounded through all the
generations of men, even from the beginning of time, of the coming
moral regeneration, and complete and harmonious development of the
whole human race, by the establishment, on a higher basis, of what
has been called the "feminine element" in society. And let me at least
speak for myself. In the perpetual iteration of that beautiful image
of THE WOMAN highly blessed--_there_, where others saw only pictures
or statues, I have seen this great hope standing like a spirit beside
the visible form; in the fervent worship once universally given to
that gracious presence, I have beheld an acknowledgment of a higher as
well as gentler power than that of the strong hand and the might that
makes the right,--and in every earnest votary one who, as he knelt,
was in this sense pious beyond the reach of his own thought, and
"devout beyond the meaning of his will."
It is curious to observe, as the worship of the Virgin-mother expanded
and gathered to itself the relics of many an ancient faith, how
the new and the old elements, some of them apparently the most
heterogeneous, became amalgamated, and were combined into the early
forms of art;--how the Madonna, when she assumed the characteristics
of the great Diana of Ephesus, at once the type of Fertility, and the
Goddess of Chastity, became, as the impersonation of motherhood, all
beauty, bounty and graciousness; and at the same time, by virtue of
her perpetual virginity, the patroness of single and ascetic life--the
example and the excuse for many of the wildest of the early monkish
theories. With Christianity, new ideas of the moral and religious
responsibility of woman entered the world; and while these ideas were
yet struggling with the Hebrew and classical prejudices concerning the
whole sex, they seem to have produced some curious perplexity in the
minds of the greatest doctors of the faith. Christ, as they assure
us, was born of a woman only, and had no earthly father, that neither
sex might despair; "for had he been born a man (which was necessary),
yet not born of woman, the women might have despaired of themselves,
recollecting the first offence, the first man having been deceived by
a woman. Therefore we are to suppose that, for the exaltation of the
male sex, Christ appeared on earth as a man; and, for the consolation
of womankind, he was born of a woman only; as if it had been said,
'From henceforth no creature shall be base before God, unless
perverted by depravity.'" (Augustine, Opera Supt. 238, Serm. 63.)
Such is the reasoning of St. Augustine, who, I must observe, had an
especial veneration for his mother Monica; and it is perhaps for her
sake that he seems here desirous to prove that through the Virgin Mary
all womankind were henceforth elevated in the scale of being. And
this was the idea entertained of her subsequently: "Ennobler of thy
nature!" says Dante apostrophizing her, as if her perfections had
ennobled not merely her own sex, but the whole human race.
[Footnote 1: "Tu se' colei che l'umana natura Nobilitasti."]
But also with Christianity came the want of a new type of womanly
perfection, combining all the attributes of the ancient female
divinities with others altogether new. Christ, as the model-man,
united the virtues of the two sexes, till the idea that there are
essentially masculine and feminine virtues intruded itself on the
higher Christian conception, and seems to have necessitated the
The first historical mention of a direct worship paid to the Virgin
Mary, occurs in a passage in the works of St. Epiphanius, who died
in 403. In enumerating the heresies (eighty-four in number) which had
sprung up in the early Church, he mentions a sect of women, who had
emigrated from Thrace into Arabia, with whom it was customary to
offer cakes of meal and honey to the Virgin Mary, as if she had been a
divinity, transferring to her, in fact, the worship paid to Ceres. The
very first instance which occurs in written history of an invocation
to Mary, is in the life of St. Justina, as related by Gregory
Nazianzen. Justina calls on the Virgin-mother to protect her against
the seducer and sorcerer, Cyprian; and does not call in vain. (Sacred
and Legendary Art.) These passages, however, do not prove that
previously to the fourth century there had been no worship or
invocation of the Virgin, but rather the contrary. However this may
be, it is to the same period--the fourth century--we refer the most
ancient representations of the Virgin in art. The earliest figures
extant are those on the Christian sarcophagi; but neither in the early
sculpture nor in the mosaics of St. Maria Maggiore do we find any
figure of the Virgin standing alone; she forms part of a group of
the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi. There is no attempt at
individuality or portraiture. St. Augustine says expressly, that there
existed in his time no _authentic_ portrait of the Virgin; but it
is inferred from his account that, authentic or not, such pictures
did then exist, since there were already disputes concerning their
authenticity. There were at this period received symbols of the person
and character of Christ, as the lamb, the vine, the fish, &c., but
not, as far as I can learn, any such accepted symbols of the Virgin
Mary. Further, it is the opinion of the learned in ecclesiastical
antiquities that, previous to the first Council of Ephesus, it was the
custom to represent the figure of the Virgin alone without the Child;
but that none of these original effigies remain to us, only supposed
copies of a later date. And this is all I have been able to
discover relative to her in connection with the sacred imagery of the
first four centuries of our era.
[Footnote 1: Vide "_Memorie dell' Immagine di M.V. dell' Imprunela_."
* * * * *
The condemnation of Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus, in the year
431, forms a most important epoch in the history of religious art.
I have given further on a sketch of this celebrated schism, and its
immediate and progressive results. It may be thus summed up here. The
Nestorians maintained, that in Christ the two natures of God and man
remained separate, and that Mary, his human mother, was parent of
the man, but not of the God; consequently the title which, during
the previous century, had been popularly applied to her, "Theotokos"
(Mother of God), was improper and profane. The party opposed to
Nestorius, the Monophysite, maintained that in Christ the divine and
human were blended in one incarnate nature, and that consequently Mary
was indeed the Mother of God. By the decree of the first Council
of Ephesus, Nestorius and his party were condemned as heretics; and
henceforth the representation of that beautiful group, since popularly
known as the "Madonna and Child," became the expression of the
orthodox faith. Every one who wished to prove his hatred of the
arch-heretic exhibited the image of the maternal Virgin holding in
her arms the Infant Godhead, either in his house as a picture, or
embroidered on his garments, or on his furniture, on his personal
ornaments--in short, wherever it could be introduced. It is worth
remarking, that Cyril, who was so influential in fixing the orthodox
group, had passed the greater part of his life in Egypt, and must nave
been familiar with the Egyptian type of Isis nursing Horus. Nor, as I
conceive, is there any irreverence in supposing that a time-honoured
intelligible symbol should be chosen to embody and formalize a creed.
For it must be remembered that the group of the Mother and Child was
not at first a representation, but merely a theological symbol set up
in the orthodox churches, and adopted by the orthodox Christians.
It is just after the Council of Ephesus that history first makes
mention of a supposed authentic portrait of the Virgin Mary. The
Empress Eudocia, when travelling in the Holy Land, sent home such
a picture of the Virgin holding the Child to her sister-in-law
Pulcheria, who placed it in a church at Constantinople. It was at that
time regarded, as of very high antiquity, and supposed to have been
painted from the life. It is certain that a picture, traditionally
said to be the same which Eudocia had sent to Pulcheria, did exist
at Constantinople, and was so much venerated by the people as to be
regarded as a sort of palladium, and borne in a superb litter or car
in the midst of the imperial host, when the emperor led the army in
person. The fate of this relic is not certainly known. It is said to
have been taken by the Turks in 1453, and dragged through the mire;
but others deny this as utterly derogatory to the majesty of the Queen
of Heaven, who never would have suffered such an indignity to have
been put on her sacred image. According to the Venetian legend, it was
this identical effigy which was taken by the blind old Dandolo, when
he besieged and took Constantinople in 1204, and brought in triumph
to Venice, where it has ever since been preserved in the church of St.
Mark, and held in _somma venerazione_. No mention is made of St. Luke
in the earliest account of this picture, though like all the antique
effigies of uncertain origin, it was in after times attributed to him.
The history of the next three hundred years testifies to the triumph
of orthodoxy, the extension and popularity of the worship of the
Virgin, and the consequent multiplication of her image in every form
and material, through the whole of Christendom.
Then followed the schism of the Iconoclasts, which distracted
the Church for more than one hundred years, under Leo III., the
Isaurian, and his immediate successors. Such were the extravagances
of superstition to which the image-worship had led the excitable
Orientals, that, if Leo had been a wise and temperate reformer, he
might have done much good in checking its excesses; but he was himself
an ignorant, merciless barbarian. The persecution by which he sought
to exterminate the sacred pictures of the Madonna, and the cruelties
exercised on her unhappy votaries, produced a general destruction
of the most curious and precious remains of antique art. In other
respects, the immediate result was naturally enough a reaction, which
not only reinstated pictures in the veneration of the people, but
greatly increased their influence over the imagination; for it is at
this time that we first hear of a miraculous picture. Among those
who most strongly defended the use of sacred images in the churches,
was St. John Damascene, one of the great lights of the Oriental
Church. According to the Greek legend, he was condemned to lose his
right hand, which was accordingly cut off; but he, full of faith,
prostrating himself before a picture of the Virgin, stretched out the
bleeding stump, and with it touched her lips, and immediately a new
hand sprung forth "like a branch from a tree." Hence, among the Greek
effigies of the Virgin, there is one peculiarly commemorative of this
miracle, styled "the Virgin with three hands." (Didron, Manuel, p.
462.) In the west of Europe, where the abuses of the image-worship had
never yet reached the wild superstition of the Oriental Christians,
the fury of the Iconoclasts excited horror and consternation. The
temperate and eloquent apology for sacred pictures, addressed by
Gregory II. to the Emperor Leo, had the effect of mitigating the
persecution in Italy, where the work of destruction could not be
carried out to the same extent as in the Byzantine provinces. Hence it
is in Italy only that any important remains of sacred art anterior to
the Iconoclast dynasty have been preserved.
[Footnote 1: It appears, from one of these letters from Gregory II,
that it was the custom at that time (725) to employ religious pictures
as a means of instruction in the schools. He says, that if Lee were
to enter a school in Italy, and to say that he prohibited pictures,
the children would infallibly throw their hornbooks (_Ta volexxe del
alfabeto_) at his head.--v. _Bosio_, p. 567.]
The second Council of Nice, under the Empress Irene in 787, condemned
the Iconoclasts, and restored the use of the sacred pictures in the
churches. Nevertheless, the controversy still raged till after the
death of Theophilus, the last and the most cruel of the Iconoclasts,
in 842. His widow Theodora achieved the final triumph of the orthodox
party, and restored the Virgin to her throne. We must observe,
however, that only pictures were allowed; all sculptured imagery
was still prohibited, and has never since been allowed in the Greek
Church, except in very low relief. The flatter the surface, the more
It is, I think, about 886, that we first find the effigy of the Virgin
on the coins of the Greek empire. On a gold coin of Leo VI., the
Philosopher, she stands veiled, and draped, with a noble head, no
glory, and the arms outspread, just as she appears in the old mosaics.
On a coin of Romanus the Younger, she crowns the emperor, having
herself the nimbus; she is draped and veiled. On a coin of Nicephorus
Phocus (who had great pretensions to piety), the Virgin stands,
presenting a cross to the emperor, with the inscription, "Theotokos,
be propitious." On a gold coin of John Zimisces, 975, we first find
the Virgin and Child,--the symbol merely: she holds against her bosom
a circular glory, within which is the head of the Infant Christ. In
the successive reigns of the next two centuries, she almost constantly
appears as crowning the emperor.
Returning to the West, we find that in the succeeding period, from
Charlemagne to the first crusade, the popular devotion to the Virgin,
and the multiplication of sacred pictures, continued steadily to
increase; yet in the tenth and eleventh centuries art was at its
lowest ebb. At this time, the subjects relative to the Virgin were
principally the Madonna and Child, represented according to the Greek
form; and those scenes from the Gospel in which she is introduced, as
the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Worship of the Magi.
Towards the end of the tenth century the custom of adding the angelic
salutation, the "_Ave Maria_," to the Lord's prayer, was first
introduced; and by the end of the following century, it had been
adopted in the offices of the Church. This was, at first, intended as
a perpetual reminder of the mystery of the Incarnation, as announced
by the angel. It must have had the effect of keeping the idea of
Mary as united with that of her Son, and as the instrument of the
Incarnation, continually in the minds of the people.
The pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the crusades in the eleventh and
the twelfth centuries, had a most striking effect on religious art,
though this effect was not fully evolved till a century later. More
particularly did this returning wave of Oriental influences modify the
representations of the Virgin. Fragments of the apocryphal gospels
and legends of Palestine and Egypt were now introduced, worked up
into ballads, stories, and dramas, and gradually incorporated with the
teaching of the Church. A great variety of subjects derived from the
Greek artists, and from particular localities and traditions of the
East, became naturalized in Western Europe, Among these were the
legends of Joachim and Anna; and the death, the assumption, and the
coronation of the Virgin.
Then came the thirteenth century, an era notable in the history
of mind, more especially notable in the history of art. The seed
scattered hither and thither, during the stormy and warlike period of
the crusades, now sprung up and flourished, bearing diverse fruit.
A more contemplative enthusiasm, a superstition tinged with a morbid
melancholy, fermented into life and form. In that general "fit of
_compunction_," which we are told seized all Italy at this time, the
passionate devotion for the benign Madonna mingled the poetry of
pity with that of pain; and assuredly this state of feeling, with its
mental and moral requirements, must have assisted in emancipating art
from the rigid formalism of the degenerate Greek school. Men's hearts,
throbbing with a more feeling, more pensive life, demanded something
more _like_ life,--and produced it. It is curious to trace in the
Madonnas of contemporary, but far distant and unconnected schools of
painting, the simultaneous dawning of a sympathetic sentiment--for the
first time something in the faces of the divine beings responsive to
the feeling of the worshippers. It was this, perhaps, which caused
the enthusiasm excited by Cimabue's great Madonna, and made the people
shout and dance for joy when it was uncovered before them. Compared
with the spectral rigidity, the hard monotony, of the conventional
Byzantines, the more animated eyes, the little touch of sweetness in
the still, mild face, must have been like a smile out of heaven. As
we trace the same softer influence in the earliest Siena and Cologne
pictures of about the same period, we may fairly regard it as an
impress of the spirit of the time, rather than that of an individual
In the succeeding century these elements of poetic art, expanded and
animated by an awakened observation of nature, and a sympathy with
her external manifestations, were most especially directed by the
increasing influence of the worship of the Virgin, a worship at once
religious and chivalrous. The title of "Our Lady" came first into
general use in the days of chivalry, for she was the lady "of all
hearts," whose colours all were proud to wear. Never had her votaries
so abounded. Hundreds upon hundreds had enrolled themselves in
brotherhoods, vowed to her especial service; or devoted to acts of
charity, to be performed in her name. Already the great religious
communities, which at this time comprehended all the enthusiasm,
learning, and influence of the Church, had placed themselves solemnly
and especially under her protection. The Cistercians wore white in
honour of her purity; the Servi wore black in respect to her sorrows;
the Franciscans had enrolled themselves as champions of the Immaculate
Conception; and the Dominicans introduced the rosary. All these richly
endowed communities vied with each other in multiplying churches,
chapels, and pictures, in honour of their patroness, and expressive of
her several attributes. The devout painter, kneeling before his easel,
addressed himself to the task of portraying those heavenly lineaments
which had visited him perhaps in dreams. Many of the professed monks
and friars became themselves accomplished artists.
[Footnote 1: _Fr._ Notre Dame. _Ital._ La Madonna. _Ger._ Unser liebe
[Footnote 2: As the Serviti, who were called in France, _les esclaves
[Footnote 3: As the order of "Our Lady of Mercy," for the deliverance
of captives.--_Vide_ Legends of the Monastic Orders.]
[Footnote 4: A very curious and startling example of the theological
character of the Virgin in the thirteenth century is figured in Miss
Twining's work, "_The Symbols of early Christian Art_;" certainly the
most complete and useful book of the kind which I know of. Here the
Madonna and Child are seated side by side with the Trinity; the Holy
Spirit resting on her crowned head.]
At this time, Jacopo di Voragine compiled the "Golden Legend," a
collection of sacred stories, some already current, some new, or
in a new form. This famous book added many themes to those already
admitted, and became the authority and storehouse for the early
painters in their groups and dramatic compositions. The increasing
enthusiasm for the Virgin naturally caused an increasing demand for
the subjects taken from her personal history, and led, consequently,
to a more exact study of those natural objects and effects which were
required as accessories, to greater skill in grouping the figures, and
to a higher development of historic art.
But of all the influences on Italian art in that wonderful fourteenth
century, Dante was the greatest. He was the intimate friend of Giotto.
Through the communion of mind, not less than through his writings,
he infused into religious art that mingled theology, poetry, and
mysticism, which ruled in the Giottesque school during the following
century, and went hand in hand with the development of the power and
practice of imitation. Now, the theology of Dante was the theology of
his age. His ideas respecting the Virgin Mary were precisely those
to which the writings of St. Bernard, St. Bonaventura, and St. Thomas
Aquinas had already lent all the persuasive power of eloquence, and
the Church all the weight of her authority. Dante rendered these
doctrines into poetry, and Giotto and his followers rendered them
into form. In the Paradise of Dante, the glorification of Mary,
as the "Mystic Rose" (_Roxa Mystica_) and Queen of Heaven,--with
the attendant angels, circle within circle, floating round her in
adoration, and singing the Regina Coeli, and saints and patriarchs
stretching forth their hands towards her,--is all a splendid, but
still indefinite vision of dazzling light crossed by shadowy forms.
The painters of the fourteenth century, in translating these glories
into a definite shape, had to deal with imperfect knowledge and
imperfect means; they failed in the power to realize either their own
or the poet's conception; and yet--thanks to the divine poet!--that
early conception of some of the most beautiful of the Madonna
subjects--for instance, the _Coronation_ and the _Sposalizio_--has
never, as a religious and poetical conception, been surpassed by later
artists, in spite of all the appliances of colour, and mastery of
light and shade, and marvellous efficiency of hand since attained.
Every reader of Dante will remember the sublime hymn towards the close
of the Paradiso:--
"Vergine Madre, figlia del tuo figlio!
Umile ed alta piu che creatura,
Terrains fisso d'eterno consiglio;
Tu se' colei che l'umana natura
Nobilitasti si, che 'l suo fattore
Non disdegno di farsi sua fattura;
Nel ventre tuo si raccese l'amore
Per lo cui caldo nell' eterna pace
Cosi e germinato questo fiore;
Qui se' a noi meridiana face
Di caritade, e giuso intra mortali
Se' di speranza fontana vivace:
Donna, se' tanto grande e tanto vali,
Che qual vuol grazia e a te non ricorre
Sua disianza vuol volar senz' ali;
La tua benignita noa pur soccorre
A chi dimanda, ma molte fiate
Liberamente al dimandar precorre;
In te misericordia, in te pietate,
In te magnificenza, in te s' aduna
Quantunque in creatura e di bontate!"
To render the splendour, the terseness, the harmony, of this
magnificent hymn seems impossible. Cary's translation has, however,
the merit of fidelity to the sense:--
"Oh, Virgin-Mother, daughter of thy Son!
Created beings all in lowliness
Surpassing, as in height above them all;
Term by the eternal counsel preordain'd;
Ennobler of thy nature, so advanc'd
In thee, that its great Maker did not scorn
To make himself his own creation;
For in thy womb, rekindling, shone the love
Reveal'd, whose genial influence makes now
This flower to germin in eternal peace:
Here thou, to us, of charity and love
Art as the noon-day torch; and art beneath,
To mortal men, of hope a living spring.
So mighty art thou, Lady, and so great,
That he who grace desireth, and comes not
To thee for aidance, fain would have desire
Fly without wings. Not only him who asks,
Thy bounty succours; but doth freely oft
Forerun the asking. Whatsoe'er may be
Of excellence in creature, pity mild,
Relenting mercy, large munificence,
Are all combin'd in thee!"
It is interesting to turn to the corresponding stanzas in Chaucer.
The invocation to the Virgin with which he commences the story of St.
Cecilia is rendered almost word for word from Dante:--
"Thou Maid and Mother, daughter of thy Son!
Thou wel of mercy, sinful soules cure!"
The last stanza of the invocation is his own, and as characteristic of
the practical Chaucer, as it would have been contrary to the genius of
"And for that faith is dead withouten workis,
So for to worken give me wit and grace!
That I be quit from thence that most dark is;
O thou that art so fair and full of grace,
Be thou mine advocate in that high place,
There, as withouten end is sung Hozanne,
Thou Christes mother, daughter dear of Anne!"
Still more beautiful and more his own is the invocation in the
"Prioress's Tale." I give the stanzas as modernized by Wordsworth:--
"O Mother Maid! O Maid and Mother free!
O bush unburnt, burning in Moses' sight!
That down didst ravish from the Deity,
Through humbleness, the Spirit that that did alight
Upon thy heart, whence, through that glory's might
Conceived was the Father's sapience,
Help me to tell it in thy reverence!
"Lady, thy goodness, thy magnificence,
Thy virtue, and thy great humility,
Surpass all science and all utterance;
For sometimes, Lady! ere men pray to thee,
Thou go'st before in thy benignity,
The light to us vouchsafing of thy prayer,
To be our guide unto thy Son so dear.
"My knowledge is so weak, O blissful Queen,
To tell abroad thy mighty worthiness,
That I the weight of it may not sustain;
But as a child of twelve months old, or less,
That laboureth his language to express,
Even so fare I; and therefore, I thee pray,
Guide thou my song, which I of thee shall say."
And again, we may turn to Petrarch's hymn to the Virgin, wherein
he prays to be delivered from his love and everlasting regrets for
"Vergine bella, che di sol vestita,
Coronata di stelle, al sommo Sole
Piacesti si, che'n te sua luce ascose.
"Vergine pura, d'ogni parte intera,
Del tuo parto gentil figliuola e madre!
"Vergine sola al mondo senza esempio,
Che 'l ciel di tue bellezze innamorasti."
The fancy of the theologians of the middle ages played rather
dangerously, as it appears to me, for the uninitiated and
uninstructed, with the perplexity of these divine relationships. It is
impossible not to feel that in their admiration for the divine beauty
of Mary, in borrowing the amatory language and luxuriant allegories
of the Canticles, which represent her as an object of delight to the
Supreme Being, theologians, poets, and artists had wrought themselves
up to a wild pitch of enthusiasm. In such passages as those I have
quoted above, and in the grand old Church hymns, we find the best
commentary and interpretation of the sacred pictures of the fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries. Yet during the thirteenth century there was
a purity in the spirit of the worship which at once inspired and
regulated the forms in which it was manifested. The Annunciations and
Nativities were still distinguished by a chaste and sacred simplicity.
The features of the Madonna herself, even where they were not what we
call beautiful, had yet a touch of that divine and contemplative grace
which the theologians and the poets had associated with the queenly,
maternal, and bridal character of Mary.
Thus the impulses given in the early part of the fourteenth century
continued in progressive development through the fifteenth; the
spiritual for some time in advance of the material influences; the
moral idea emanating as it were _from_ the soul, and the influences
of external nature flowing _into_ it; the comprehensive power of fancy
using more and more the apprehensive power of imitation, and both
working together till their "blended might" achieved its full fruition
in the works of Raphael.
* * * * *
Early in the fifteenth century, the Council of Constance (A.D. 1414),
and the condemnation of Huss, gave a new impulse to the worship of the
Virgin. The Hussite wars, and the sacrilegious indignity with which
her sacred images had been treated in the north, filled her orthodox
votaries of the south, of Europe with a consternation and horror
like that excited by the Iconoclasts of the eighth century, and were
followed by a similar reaction. The Church was called upon to assert
more strongly than ever its orthodox veneration for her, and, as a
natural consequence, votive pictures multiplied, the works of the
excelling artists of the fifteenth century testify to the zeal of the
votaries, and the kindred spirit in which the painters worked.
Gerson, a celebrated French priest, and chancellor of the university
of Paris, distinguished himself in the Council of Constance by the
eloquence with which he pleaded for the Immaculate Conception, and the
enthusiasm with which he preached in favour of instituting a festival
in honour of this mystery, as well as another in honour of Joseph,
the husband of the Virgin. In both he was unsuccessful during his
lifetime; but for both eventually his writings prepared the way.
He also composed a Latin poem of three thousand lines in praise of
Joseph, which was among the first works published after the invention
of printing. Together with St. Joseph, the parents of the Virgin, St.
Anna more particularly, became objects, of popular veneration, and
all were at length exalted to the rank of patron saints, by having
festivals instituted in their honour. It is towards the end of the
fifteenth century, or rather a little later, that we first meet with
that charming domestic group, called the "Holy Family," afterwards
so popular, so widely diffused, and treated with such an infinite
* * * * *
Towards the end of this century sprung up a new influence,--the
revival of classical learning, a passionate enthusiasm for the poetry
and mythology of the Greeks, and a taste for the remains of antique
art. This influence on the representations of the Virgin, as far as
it was merely external, was good. An added dignity and grace, a more
free and correct drawing, a truer feeling for harmony of proportion
and all that constitutes elegance, were gradually infused into the
forms and attitudes. But dangerous became the craving for mere
beauty,--dangerous the study of the classical and heathen literature.
This was the commencement of that thoroughly pagan taste which in
the following century demoralized Christian art. There was now an
attempt at varying the arrangement of the sacred groups which led to
irreverence, or at best to a sort of superficial mannered grandeur;
and from this period we date the first introduction of the portrait
Virgins. An early, and most scandalous example remains to us in one
of the frescoes in the Vatican, which represents Giulia Farnese in the
character of the Madonna, and Pope Alexander VI. (the infamous Borgia)
kneeling at her feet in the character of a votary. Under the influence
of the Medici the churches of Florence were filled with pictures of
the Virgin, in which the only thing aimed at was an alluring and
even meretricious beauty. Savonarola thundered from his pulpit in the
garden of San Marco against these impieties. He exclaimed against
the profaneness of those who represented the meek mother of Christ in
gorgeous apparel, with head unveiled, and under the features of women
too well and publicly known. He emphatically declared that if the
painters knew as well as he did the influence of such pictures in
perverting simple minds, they would hold their own works in horror and
detestation. Savonarola yielded to none in orthodox reverence for the
Madonna; but he desired that she should be represented in an orthodox
manner. He perished at the stake, but not till after he had made
a bonfire in the Piazza at Florence of the offensive effigies; he
perished--persecuted to death by the Borgia family. But his influence
on the greatest Florentine artists of his time is apparent in the
Virgins of Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi, and Fra Bartolomeo, all of
whom had been his friends, admirers, and disciples: and all, differing
from each other, were alike in this, that, whether it be the dignified
severity of Botticelli, or the chaste simplicity of Lorenzo di Credi,
or the noble tenderness of Fra Bartolomeo, we feel that each of them
had aimed to portray worthily the sacred character of the Mother of
the Redeemer. And to these, as I think, we might add Raphael himself,
who visited Florence but a short time after the horrible execution
of Savonarola, and must have learned through his friend Bartolomeo to
mourn the fate and revere the memory of that remarkable man, whom he
placed afterwards in the grand fresco of the "Theologia," among the
doctors and teachers of the Church. (Rome, Vatican.) Of the numerous
Virgins painted by Raphael in after times, not one is supposed to have
been a portrait: he says himself, in a letter to Count Castiglione,
that he painted from an idea in his own mind, "mi servo d' una certa
idea che mi viene in mente;" while in the contemporary works of Andrea
del Sarto, we have the features of his handsome but vulgar wife in
every Madonna he painted.
[Footnote 1: The tendency to portraiture, in early Florentine and
German art, is observable from an early period. The historical sacred
subjects of Masaccio, Ghirlandajo, and Van Eyck, are crowded with
portraits of living personages. Their introduction into devotional
subjects, in the character of sacred persons, is far less excusable.]
In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the constellation of living
genius in every department of art, the riches of the Church, the
luxurious habits and classical studies of the churchmen, the decline
of religious conviction, and the ascendency of religious controversy,
had combined to multiply church pictures, particularly those of a
large and decorative character. But, instead of the reign of faith,
we had now the reign of taste. There was an absolute passion for
picturesque grouping; and, as the assembled figures were to be as
varied as possible in action and attitude, the artistic treatment, in
order to prevent the lines of form and the colours of the draperies
from interfering with each other, required great skill and profound
study: some of these scenic groups have become, in the hands of great
painters, such as Titian, Paul Veronese, and Annibale Caracci, so
magnificent, that we are inclined to forgive their splendid errors.
The influence of Sanazzaro, and of his famous Latin poem on the
Nativity ("_De Partu Virginis_"), on the artists of the middle of the
sixteenth century, and on the choice and treatment of the subjects
pertaining to the Madonna, can hardly be calculated; it was like that
of Dante in the fourteenth century, but in its nature and result how
different! The grand materialism of Michael Angelo is supposed to have
been allied to the genius of Dante; but would Dante have acknowledged
the group of the Holy Family in the Florentine Gallery, to my feeling,
one of the most profane and offensive of the so-called _religious_
pictures, in conception and execution, which ever proceeded from
the mind or hand of a great painter? No doubt some of the sculptural
Virgins of Michael Angelo are magnificent and stately in attitude and
expression, but too austere and mannered as religious conceptions: nor
can we wonder if the predilection for the treatment of mere form led
his followers and imitators into every species of exaggeration and
affectation. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the same artist
who painted a Leda, or a Psyche, or a Venus one day, painted for the
same patron a Virgin of Mercy, or a "Mater Purissima" on the morrow.
_Here_, the votary told his beads, and recited his Aves, before
the blessed Mother of the Redeemer; _there_, she was invoked in
the purest Latin by titles which the classical mythology had far
otherwise consecrated. I know nothing more disgusting in art than the
long-limbed, studied, inflated Madonnas, looking grand with all their
might, of this period; luckily they have fallen into such disrepute
that we seldom see them. The "Madonna dell' lungo Collo" of Parmigiano
might be cited as a favourable example of this mistaken and wholly
artificial grace. (Florence, Pitti Pal.)
But in the midst of these paganized and degenerate influences, the
reform in the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church was preparing
a revolution in religious art. The Council of Trent had severely
denounced the impropriety of certain pictures admitted into churches:
at the same time, in the conflict of creed which now divided
Christendom, the agencies of art could not safely be neglected by that
Church which had used them with such signal success. Spiritual art
was indeed no more. It was dead: it could never be revived without
a return to those modes of thought and belief which had at first
inspired it. Instead of religious art, appeared what I must call
_theological_ art. Among the events of this age, which had great
influence on the worship and the representations of the Madonna,
I must place the battle of Lepanto, in 1571, in which the combined
fleets of Christendom, led by Don Juan of Austria, achieved a
memorable victory over the Turks. This victory was attributed by Pope
Pius V. to the especial interposition of the Blessed Virgin. A new
invocation was now added to her Litany, under the title of _Auxilium
Christianorum_; a new festival, that of the Rosary, was now added to
those already held in her honour; and all the artistic genius which
existed in Italy, and all the piety of orthodox Christendom, were now
laid under contribution to incase in marble sculpture, to enrich with
countless offerings, that miraculous house, which the angels had
borne over land and sea, and set down at Loretto; and that miraculous,
bejewelled, and brocaded Madonna, enshrined within it.
* * * * *
In the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Caracci school gave
a new impetus to religious, or rather, as it has been styled in
contradistinction, sacerdotal or theological art. If these great
painters had been remarkable merely for the application of new
artistic methods, for the success with which they combined the aims of
"Di Michel Angiol la terribil via
E 'l vero natural di Tiziano,"
the study of the antique with the observation of real life,--their
works undoubtedly would never have taken such a hold on the minds of
their contemporaries, nor kept it so long. Everything to live must
have an infusion of truth within it, and this "patchwork ideal," as
it has been well styled, was held together by such a principle. The
founders of the Caracci school, and their immediate followers, felt
the influences of the time, and worked them out. They were devout
believers in their Church, and most sincere worshippers of the
Madonna. Guido, in particular, was so distinguished by his passionate
enthusiasm for her, that he was supposed to have been favoured by a
particular vision, which enabled him more worthily to represent her
It is curious that, hand in hand with this development of taste and
feeling in the appreciation of natural sentiment and beauty, and
this tendency to realism, we find the associations of a peculiar and
specific sanctity remaining with the old Byzantine type. This arose
from the fact, always to be borne in mind, that the most ancient
artistic figure of the Madonna was a purely theological symbol;
apparently the moral type was too nearly allied to the human and
the real to satisfy faith. It is the ugly, dark-coloured, ancient
Greek Madonnas, such as this, which had all along the credit of
being miraculous; and "to this day," says Kugler, "the Neapolitan
lemonade-seller will allow no other than a formal Greek Madonna, with
olive-green complexion and veiled head, to be set up in his booth." It
is the same in Russia. Such pictures, in which there is no attempt
at representation, real or ideal, and which merely have a sort of
imaginary sanctity and power, are not so much idols as they are mere
_Fetishes_. The most lovely Madonna by Raphael or Titian would not
have the same effect. Guido, who himself painted lovely Virgins,
went every Saturday to pray before the little black _Madonna della
Guardia_, and, as we are assured, held this old Eastern relic in
In the pictures of the Madonna, produced by the most eminent painters
of the seventeenth century, is embodied the theology of the time.
The Virgin Mary is not, like the Madonna di San Sisto, "a single
projection of the artist's mind," but, as far as he could put his
studies together, she is "a compound of every creature's best,"
sometimes majestic, sometimes graceful, often full of sentiment,
elegance, and refinement, but wanting wholly in the spiritual element.
If the Madonna did really sit to Guido in person, (see Malvasia,
"Felsina Pittrice,") we fancy she must have revealed her loveliness,
but veiled her divinity.
Without doubt the finest Madonnas of the seventeenth century are
those produced by the Spanish school; not because they more realize
our spiritual conception of the Virgin--quite the contrary: for here
the expression of life through sensation and emotion prevails over
abstract mind, grandeur, and grace;--but because the intensely human
and sympathetic character given to the Madonna appeals most strongly
to our human nature. The appeal is to the faith through the feelings,
rather than through the imagination. Morales and Ribera excelled
in the Mater Dolorosa; and who has surpassed Murilio in the tender
exultation of maternity? There is a freshness and a depth of
feeling in the best Madonnas of the late Spanish school, which puts to
shame the mannerism of the Italians, and the naturalism of the Flemish
painters of the same period: and this because the Spaniards were
intense and enthusiastic believers, not mere thinkers, in art as in
[Footnote 1: See in the Handbook to the Private Galleries of Art some
remarks on the tendencies of the Spanish School, p, 172.]
As in the sixth century, the favourite dogma of the time (the union
of the divine and human nature in Christ, and the dignity of Mary
as parent of both) had been embodied in the group of the Virgin
and Child, so now, in the seventeenth, the doctrine of the eternal
sanctification and predestination of Mary was, after a long
controversy, triumphant, and took form in the "Immaculate Conception;"
that beautiful subject in which Guido and Murilio excelled, and which
became the darling theme of the later schools of art. It is worthy
of remark, that while in the sixth century, and for a thousand years
afterwards, the Virgin, in all devotional subjects, was associated in
some visible manner with her divine Son, in this she appears without
the Infant in her arms. The maternal character is set aside, and
she stands alone, absolute in herself, and complete in her own
perfections. This is a very significant characteristic of the
prevalent theology of the time.
I forbear to say much of the productions of a school of art which
sprung up simultaneously with that of the Caracci, and in the end
overpowered its higher aspirations. The _Naturalisti_, as they were
called, imitated nature without selection, and produced some charming
painters. But their religious pictures are almost all intolerable,
and their Madonnas are almost all portraits. Rubens and Albano painted
their wives; Allori and Vandyck their mistresses; Domenichino his
daughter. Salvator Rosa, in his Satires, exclaims against this general
profaneness in terms not less strong than those of Savonarola in his
Sermons; but the corruption was by this time beyond the reach of cure;
the sin could neither be preached nor chided away. Striking effects of
light and shade, peculiar attitudes, scenic groups, the perpetual and
dramatic introduction of legendary scenes and personages, of visions
and miracles of the Madonna vouchsafed to her votaries, characterize
the productions of the seventeenth century. As "they who are whole
need not a physician, but they who are sick," so in proportion to
the decline of faith were the excitements to faith, or rather to
credulity: just in proportion as men were less inclined to believe
were the wonders multiplied which they were called on to believe.
I have not spoken of the influence of Jesuitism on art. This Order
kept alive that devotion for the Madonna which their great founder
Loyola had so ardently professed when he chose for the "Lady" of
his thoughts, "no princess, no duchess, but one far greater, more
peerless." The learning of the Jesuits supplied some themes not
hitherto in use, principally of a fanciful and allegorical kind, and
never had the meek Mary been so decked out with earthly ornament
as in their church pictures. If the sanctification of simplicity,
gentleness, maternal love, and heroic fortitude, were calculated
to elevate the popular mind, the sanctification of mere glitter and
ornament, embroidered robes, and jewelled crowns, must have tended
to degrade it. It is surely an unworthy and a foolish excuse that, in
thus desecrating with the vainest and most vulgar finery the beautiful
ideal of the Virgin, an appeal was made to the awe and admiration
of vulgar and ignorant minds; for this is precisely what, in all
religious imagery, should be avoided. As, however, this sacrilegious
millinery does not come within the province of the fine arts, I may
pass it over here.
Among the Jesuit prints of the seventeenth century, I remember one
which represents the Virgin and Child in the centre, and around are
the most famous heretics of all ages, lying prostrate, or hanging by
the neck. Julian the Apostate; Leo the Isaurian; his son, Constantine
Capronymus; Arius; Nestorius; Manicheus; Luther; Calvin:--very
characteristic of the age of controversy which had succeeded to the
age of faith, when, instead of solemn saints and grateful votaries, we
have dead or dying heretics surrounding the Mother of Mercy!
* * * * *
After this rapid sketch of the influences which modified in a general
way the pictures of the Madonna, we may array before us, and learn to
compare, the types which distinguished in a more particular manner the
separate schools, caught from some more local or individual impulses.
Thus we have the stern, awful quietude of the old Mosaics; the hard
lifelessness of the degenerate Greek; the pensive sentiment of
the Siena, and stately elegance of the Florentine Madonnas; the
intellectual Milanese, with their large foreheads and thoughtful eyes;
the tender, refined mysticism of the Umbrian; the sumptuous loveliness
of the Venetian; the quaint, characteristic simplicity of the early
German, so stamped with their nationality, that I never looked round
me in a room full of German girls without thinking of Albert Durer's
Virgins; the intense life-like feeling of the Spanish; the prosaic,
portrait-like nature of the Flemish schools, and so on. But here an
obvious question suggests itself. In the midst of all this diversity,
these ever-changing influences, was there no characteristic type
universally accepted, suggested by common religious associations, if
not defined by ecclesiastical authority, to which the artist was bound
to conform? How is it that the impersonation of the Virgin fluctuated,
not only with the fluctuating tendencies of successive ages, but even
with the caprices of the individual artist?
This leads us back to reconsider the sources from which the artist
drew his inspiration.
The legend which represents St. Luke the Evangelist as a painter
appears to be of Eastern origin, and quite unknown in Western Europe
before the first crusade. It crept in then, and was accepted with many
other oriental superstitions and traditions. It may have originated
in the real existence of a Greek painter named Luca--a saint, too,
he may have been; for the Greeks have a whole calendar of canonized
artists,--painters, poets, and musicians; and this Greek San Luca may
have been a painter of those Madonnas imported from the ateliers of
Mount Athos into the West by merchants and pilgrims; and the West,
which knew but of one St. Luke, may have easily confounded the painter
and the evangelist.
But we must also remember, that St. Luke the Evangelist was early
regarded as the great authority with respect to the few Scripture
particulars relating to the character and life of Mary; so that,
in the figurative sense, he may be said to have _painted_ that
portrait of her which has been since received as the perfect type
of womanhood:--1. Her noble, trustful humility, when she receives
the salutation of the angel (Luke i. 38); the complete and feminine
surrender of her whole being to the higher, holier will--"Be it unto
me according to thy word." 2. Then, the decision and prudence of
character, shown in her visit to Elizabeth, her older relative; her
journey in haste over the hills to consult with her cousin, which
journey it is otherwise difficult to accord with the oriental customs
of the time, unless Mary, young as she was, had possessed unusual
promptitude and energy of disposition. (Luke i. 39, 40.) 3. The proof
of her intellectual power in the beautiful hymn she has left us, "_My
soul doth magnify the Lord._" (Luke i. 46.) The commentators are
not agreed as to whether this effusion was poured forth by immediate
inspiration, or composed and written down, because the same words,
"and Mary said," may be interpreted in either sense; but we can no
more doubt her being the authoress, than we can doubt of any other
particulars recorded in the same Gospel: it proves that she must have
been, for her time and country, most rarely gifted in mind, and deeply
read in the Scriptures. 4. She was of a contemplative, reflecting,
rather silent disposition. "She kept all these sayings, and pondered
them in her heart." (Luke ii. 51.) She made no boast of that wondrous
and most blessed destiny to which she was called; she thought upon it
in silence. It is inferred that as many of these sayings and events
could be known to herself alone, St. Luke the Evangelist could have
learned them only from her own lips. 5. Next her truly maternal
devotion to her divine Son, whom she attended humbly through his whole
ministry; 6. and lastly, the sublime fortitude and faith with which
she followed her Son to the death scene, stood beside the cross till
all was finished, and then went home, and _lived_ (Luke xxiii.); for
she was to be to us an example of all that a woman could endure, as
well as all that a woman could be and act out in her earthly life.
(John xix. 25.) Such was the character of Mary; such the _portrait_
really _painted_ by St. Luke; and, as it seems to me, these scattered,
artless, unintentional notices of conduct and character converge into
the most perfect moral type of the intellectual, tender, simple, and
heroic woman that ever was placed before us for our edification and
[Footnote 1: Milton places in the mouth of our Saviour an allusion to
the influence of his Mother in early life:--
"These growing thoughts my mother soon perceiving
By words at times cast forth, duly rejoiced,
And said to me apart, 'High are thy thoughts,
O Son; but nourish them, and let them soar
To what height sacred virtue and true worth
Can raise them, though above example high.'"]
But in the Church traditions and enactments, another character
was, from the fifth century, assigned to her, out of which grew the
theological type, very beautiful and exalted, but absorbing to a great
degree the scriptural and moral type, and substituting for the merely
human attributes others borrowed from her relation to the great
scheme of redemption; for it was contended that, as the mother of
_the Divine_, she could not be herself less than divine; consequently
above the angels, and first of all created beings. According to the
doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, her tender woman's wisdom
became supernatural gifts; the beautiful humility was changed into a
knowledge of her own predestined glory; and, being raised bodily into
immortality, and placed beside her Son, in all "the sacred splendour
of beneficence," she came to be regarded as our intercessor before
that divine Son, who could refuse nothing to his mother. The relative
position of the Mother and Son being spiritual and indestructible was
continued in heaven; and thus step by step the woman was transmuted
into the divinity.
But, like her Son, Mary had walked in human form upon earth, and in
form must have resembled her Son; for, as it is argued, Christ had no
earthly father, therefore could only have derived his human lineaments
from his mother. All the old legends assume that the resemblance
between the Son and the Mother must have been perfect. Dante alludes
to this belief:
"Riguarda ormai nella faccia ch' a Christo
Piu s' assomiglia."
"Now raise thy view
Unto the visage most resembling Christ."
The accepted type of the head of Christ was to be taken as a model in
its mild, intellectual majesty, for that of the Virgin-mother, as far
as difference of sex would allow.
In the ecclesiastical history of Nicephorus Gallixtus, he has inserted
a description of the person of Mary, which he declares to have been
given by Epiphanius, who lived in the fourth century, and by him
derived from a more ancient source. It must be confessed, that the
type of person here assigned to the Virgin is more energetic for a
woman than that which has been assigned to our Saviour as a man. "She
was of middle stature; her face oval; her eyes brilliant, and of an
olive tint; her eyebrows arched and black; her hair was of a pale
brown; her complexion fair as wheat. She spoke little, but she spoke
freely and affably; she was not troubled in her speech, but grave,
courteous, tranquil. Her dress was without ornament, and in her
deportment was nothing lax or feeble." To this ancient description
of her person and manners, we are to add the scriptural and popular
portrait of her mind; the gentleness, the purity, the intellect,
power, and fortitude; the gifts of the poetess and prophetess; the
humility in which she exceeded all womankind. Lastly, we are to
engraft on these personal and moral qualities, the theological
attributes which the Church, from early times, had assigned to
her, the supernatural endowments which lifted her above angels
and men:--all these were to be combined into one glorious type of
perfection. Where shall we seek this highest, holiest impersonation!
Where has it been attained, or even approached? Not, certainly, in the
mere woman, nor yet in the mere idol; not in those lovely creations
which awaken a sympathetic throb of tenderness; nor in those stern,
motionless types,--which embody a dogma; not in the classic features
of marble goddesses, borrowed as models; nor in the painted images
which stare upon us from tawdry altars in flaxen wigs and embroidered
petticoats. But where?
Of course we each form to ourselves some notion of what we require;
and these requirements will be as diverse as our natures and our
habits of thought. For myself, I have seen my own ideal once, and only
once, attained: _there_, where Raphael--inspired if ever painter was
inspired--projected on the space before him that wonderful creation
which we style the _Madonna di San Sisto_ (Dresden Gal.); for there
she stands--the transfigured woman, at once completely human and
completely divine, an abstraction of power, purity, and love, poised
on the empurpled air, and requiring no other support; looking out,
with her melancholy, loving mouth, her slightly dilated, sibylline
eyes, quite through the universe, to the end and consummation of all
things;--sad, as if she beheld afar off the visionary sword that
was to reach her heart through HIM, now resting as enthroned on
that heart; yet already exalted through the homage of the redeemed
generations who were to salute her as Blessed. Six times have I
visited the city made glorious by the possession of this treasure, and
as often, when again at a distance, with recollections disturbed by
feeble copies and prints, I have begun to think, "Is it so indeed? is
she indeed so divine? or does not rather the imagination encircle
her with a halo of religion and poetry, and lend a grace which is not
really there?" and as often, when returned, I have stood before it and
confessed that there is more in that form and face than I had ever
yet conceived. I cannot here talk the language of critics, and speak
of this picture merely as a picture, for to me it was a revelation.
In the same gallery is the lovely Madonna of the Meyer family:
inexpressibly touching and perfect in its way, but conveying only one
of the attributes of Mary, her benign pity; while the Madonna di San
Sisto is an abstract of _all_.
[Footnote 1: Expression is the great and characteristic excellence of
Raphael more especially in his Madonnas. It is precisely this which
all copies and engravings render at best most imperfectly; and in
point of expression the most successful engraving of the Madonna di
San Sisto is certainly that of Steinla.]
* * * * *
The poets are ever the best commentators on the painters. I have
already given from the great "singers of high poems" in the fourteenth
century _their_ exposition of the theological type of the Madonna.
Now, in some striking passages of our modern poets, we may find a most
beautiful commentary on what I have termed the _moral_ type.
The first is from Wordsworth, and may be recited before the Madonna di
"Mother! whose virgin bosom was uncrost
With the least shade of thought to sin allied!
Woman! above all women glorified;
Out tainted nature's solitary boast;
Purer than foam on central ocean tost;
Brighter than eastern skies at daybreak strewn
With fancied roses, than the unblemish'd moon
Before her wane begins on heaven's blue coast,
Thy Image falls to earth. Yet some I ween,
Not unforgiven, the suppliant knee might bend,
As to a visible Power, in which did blend
All that was mix'd and reconcil'd in thee,
Of mother's love with maiden purity,
Of high with low, celestial with terrene."
The next, from Shelley, reads like a hymn in honour of the Immaculate
Seraph of Heaven! too gentle to be human,
Veiling beneath that radiant form of woman
All that is insupportable in thee
Of light, and love, and immortality!
Sweet Benediction in the eternal curse!
Veil'd Glory of this lampless Universe!
Thou Moon beyond the clouds! Thou living Form
Among the Dead! Thou Star above the storm!
Thou Wonder, and thou Beauty, and thou Terror!
Thou Harmony of Nature's art! Thou Mirror
In whom, as in the splendour of the Sun,
All shapes look glorious which thou gazest on!"
"See where she stands! a mortal shape endued
With love, and life, and light, and deity;
The motion which may change but cannot die,
An image of some bright eternity;
A shadow of some golden dream; a splendour
Leaving the third sphere pilotless."
I do not know whether intentionally or not, but we have here assembled
some of the favourite symbols of the Virgin--the moon, the star, the
"_terribilis ut castrorum acies_" (Cant. vi. 10), and the mirror.
The third is a passage from Robert Browning, which appears to me to
sum up the moral ideal:--
"There is a vision in the heart of each,
Of justice, mercy, wisdom, tenderness
To wrong and pain, and knowledge of their cure;
And these embodied in a woman's form
That best transmits them pure as first received
From God above her to mankind below!"
II. SYMBOLS AND ATTRIBUTES OF THE VIRGIN.
That which the genius of the greatest of painters only once expressed,
we must not look to find in his predecessors, who saw only partial
glimpses of the union of the divine and human in the feminine form;
still less in his degenerate successors, who never beheld it at all.
The difficulty of fully expressing this complex ideal, and the
allegorical spirit of the time, first suggested the expedient of
placing round the figure of the glorified Virgin certain accessory
symbols, which should assist the artist to express, and the observer
to comprehend, what seemed beyond the power of art to portray;--a
language of metaphor then understood, and which we also must
understand if we would seize the complete theological idea intended
to be conveyed.
I shall begin with those symbols which are borrowed from the Litanies
of the Virgin, and from certain texts of the Canticles, in all ages
of the Church applied to her; symbols which, in the fifteenth and
sixteenth centuries, frequently accompany those representations
which set forth her Glorification or Predestination; and, in the
seventeenth, are introduced into the "Immaculate Conception."
1. The Sun and the Moon.--"Electa ut Sol, pulchra ut Luna," is one
of the texts of the Canticles applied to Mary; and also in a passage
of the Revelation, "_A woman clothed with the sun, having the moon
under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars._" Hence the
radiance of the sun above her head, and the crescent moon beneath her
feet. From inevitable association the crescent moon suggests the
idea of her perpetual chastity; but in this sense it would be a pagan
rather than a Christian attribute.
2. The STAR.--This attribute, often embroidered in front of the veil
of the Virgin or on the right shoulder of her blue mantle, has become
almost as a badge from which several well-known pictures derive
their title, "La Madonna della Stella." It is in the first place
an attribute alluding to the most beautiful and expressive of her
many titles:--"_Stella Maris_" Star of the Sea, which is one
interpretation of her Jewish name, _Miriam_: but she is also "_Stella
Jacobi_," the Star of Jacob; "_Stella Matutina_," the Morning Star;
"_Stella non Erratica_," the Fixed Star. When, instead of the single
star on her veil or mantle, she has the crown of twelve stars, the
allusion is to the text of the Apocalypse already quoted, and the
number of stars is in allusion to the number of the Apostles.
"Ave Maris Stella
Dei Mater alma!" &c.]
[Footnote 2: "In capite inquit ejus corona stellarum duodecim; quidni
coronent sidera quam sol vestit?"--_St. Bernard_.]
3. The LILY.--"_I am the rose of Sharon, and lily of the valleys._"
(Cant. ii. 1, 2.) As the general emblem of purity, the lily is
introduced into the Annunciation, where it ought to be without
stamens: and in the enthroned Madonnas it is frequently placed in
the hands of attendant angels, more particularly in the Florentine
Madonnas; the lily, as the emblem of their patroness, being chosen
by the citizens as the _device_ of the city. For the same reason it
became that of the French monarchy. Thorns are sometimes interlaced
with the lily, to express the "_Lilium inter Spinas_." (Cant. ii. 2.)
4. The ROSE.--She is the rose of Sharon, as well as the lily of the
valley; and as an emblem of love and beauty, the rose is especially
dedicated to her. The plantation or garden of roses is often
introduced; sometimes it forms the background of the picture. There
is a most beautiful example in a Madonna by Cesare di Sesto (Milan,
Brera); and another, "the Madonna of the Rose Bush," by Martin Schoen.
[Footnote 1: Quasi plantatio rosae in Jericho.]
5. The ENCLOSED GARDEN (_Hortus conclusus_) is an image borrowed,
like many others, from the Song of Solomon. (Cant. iv. 12.) I have
seen this enclosed garden very significantly placed in the background
of the Annunciation, and in pictures of the Immaculate Conception.
Sometimes the enclosure is formed of a treillage or hedge of roses, as
in a beautiful Virgin by Francia. Sometimes it is merely formed of
stakes or palisades, as In some of the prints by Albert Durer.
[Footnote 1: Munich Gal.; another by Antonio da Negroponte in the
San Francesco della Vigna at Venice, is also an instance of this
The WELL always full; the FOUNTAIN forever sealed; the TOWER of David;
the TEMPLE of Solomon; the CITY of David (_Civitas sancti_), (Cant iv.
4. 12, 15); all these are attributes borrowed from the Canticles, and
are introduced into pictures and stained glass.
6. The PORTA CLAITSA, the Closed Gate, is another metaphor, taken from
the prophecy of Ezekiel (xliv. 4).
7. The CEDAR of Lebanon (_Cedrus exaliata_, "exalted as a cedar in
Lebanon"), because of its height, its incorruptible substance,
its perfume, and the healing virtues attributed to it in the East,
expresses the greatness, the beauty, the goodness of Mary.
The victorious PALM, the Plantain "far spreading," and the Cypress
pointing to heaven, are also emblems of the Virgin.
The OLIVE, as a sign of peace, hope, and abundance, is also a fitting
emblem of the graces of Mary.
[Footnote 1: Quasi oliva speciosa in campis.]
8. The Stem of Jesse (Isa. xi. 1), figured as a green branch entwined
with flowers, is also very significant.
9. The MIRROR (_Specula sine macula_) is a metaphor borrowed from the
Book of Wisdom (vii, 25). We meet with it in some of the late pictures
of the Immaculate Conception.
10. The SEALED BOOK is also a symbol often placed in the hands of the
Virgin in a mystical Annunciation, and sufficiently significant. The
allusion is to the text, "In that book were all my members written;"
and also to the text in Isaiah (xxix. 11, 12), in which he describes
the vision of the book that was sealed, and could be read neither by
the learned nor the unlearned.
11. "The Bush which burned and was not consumed," is introduced, with
a mystical significance, into an Annunciation by Titian.
* * * * *
Besides these symbols, which have a mystic and sacred significance,
and are applicable to the Virgin only, certain attributes and
accessories are introduced into pictures of the Madonna and Child,
which are capable of a more general interpretation.
1. The GLOBE, as the emblem of sovereignty, was very early placed in
the hand of the divine Child. When the globe is under the feet of
the Madonna and encircled by a serpent, as in some later pictures,
it figures our Redemption; her triumph over a fallen world--fallen
2. The SERPENT is the general emblem of Sin or Satan; but under the
feet of the Virgin it has a peculiar significance. She has generally
her foot on the head of the reptile. "SHE shall bruise thy head," as
it is interpreted in the Roman Catholic Church.
[Footnote 1: _Ipsa_ conteret caput tuum.]
3. The APPLE, which of all the attributes is the most common,
signifies the fall of man, which made Redemption necessary. It is
sometimes placed in the hands of the Child; but when in the hand of
the Mother, she is then designated as the second Eve.
[Footnote 1: Mors per Evam: vita per Mariam.]
4. The POMEGRANATE, with the seeds displayed, was the ancient emblem
of hope, and more particularly of religious hope. It is often placed
in the hands of the Child, who sometimes presents it to his Mother.
Other fruits and flowers, always beautiful accessories, are frequently
introduced according to the taste of the artist. But fruits in a
general sense signified "the fruits of the Spirit--joy, peace, love;"
and flowers were consecrated to the Virgin: hence we yet see them
placed before her as offerings.
5. EARS OF WHEAT in the hand of the Infant (as in a lovely little
Madonna by Ludovico Caracci) figured the bread in the Eucharist,
and GRAPES the wine.
[Footnote 1: Lansdowne Collection. There was another exactly similar
in the collection of Mr. Rogers.]
6. The BOOK.--In the hand of the Infant Christ, the book is the Gospel
in a general sense, or it is the Book of Wisdom. In the hand of the
Madonna, it may have one of two meanings. When open, or when she has
her finger between the leaves, or when the Child is turning over the
pages, then it is the Book of Wisdom, and is always supposed to be
open at the seventh chapter. When the book is clasped or sealed, it is
a mystical symbol of the Virgin herself, as I have already explained.
7. The DOVE, as the received emblem of the Holy Spirit, is properly
placed above, as hovering over the Virgin. There is an exception to
this rule in a very interesting picture in the Louvre, where the
Holy Dove (with the _nimbus_) is placed at the feet of the Child.
This is so unusual, and so contrary to all the received proprieties
of religious art, that I think the _nimbus_ may have been added
[Footnote 1: The Virgin has the air of a gipsy. (Louvre, 515.)]
The seven doves round the head of the Virgin signify the seven gifts
of the Spirit. These characterize her as personified Wisdom--the Mater
Doves placed near Mary when she is reading, or at work in the temple,
are expressive of her gentleness and tenderness.
8. BIRDS.--The bird in the Egyptian hieroglyphics signified the soul
of man. In the very ancient pictures there can be no doubt, I think,
that the bird in the hand of Christ figured the soul, or the spiritual
as opposed to the material. But, in the later pictures, the original
meaning being lost, birds became mere ornamental accessories, or
playthings. Sometimes it is a parrot from the East, sometimes a
partridge (the partridge is frequent in the Venetian pictures):
sometimes a goldfinch, as in Raphael's Madonna _del Cardellino_. In a
Madonna by Guercino, the Mother holds a bird perched on her hand, and
the Child, with a most _naive_ infantine expression, shrinks back from
it. In a picture by Baroccio, he holds it up before a cat (Nat.
Gal. 29), so completely were the original symbolism and all the
religious proprieties of art at this time set aside.
[Footnote 1: It was in the collection of Mr. Rogers.]
Other animals are occasionally introduced. Extremely offensive are
the apes when admitted into devotional pictures. We have associations
with the animal as a mockery of the human, which render it a very
disagreeable accessory. It appears that, in the sixteenth century,
it became the fashion to keep apes as pets, and every reader of
Vasari will remember the frequent mention of these animals as pets
and favourites of the artists. Thus only can I account for the
introduction of the ape, particularly in the Ferrarese pictures.
Bassano's dog, Baroccio's cat, are often introduced. In a famous
picture by Titian, "La Vierge au Lapin," we have the rabbit. (Louvre.)
The introduction of these and other animals marks the decline of
Certain women of the Old Testament are regarded as especial types of
EVE. Mary is regarded as the second Eve, because, through her, came
the promised Redemption. She bruised the head of the Serpent. The Tree
of Life, the Fall, or Eve holding the Apple, are constantly introduced
allusively in the Madonna pictures, as ornaments of her throne, or
on the predella of an altar-piece, representing the Annunciation, the
Nativity, or the Coronation.
RACHEL figures as the ideal of contemplative life.
RUTH, as the ancestress of David.
ABISHAG, as "the Virgin who was brought to the King." (I Kings i. 1.)
BATHSHEBA, because she sat upon a throne on the right hand of her Son.
JUDITH and ESTHER, as having redeemed their people, and brought
deliverance to Israel. It is because of their typical character, as
emblems of the Virgin, that these Jewish heroines so often figure in
the religious pictures.
[Footnote 1: The artistic treatment of these characters as types of
the Virgin, will be found in the fourth series of "Legendary Art."]
In his "Paradiso" (c. xxxii.), Dante represents Eve, Rachel, Sara,
Ruth, Judith, as seated at the feet of the Virgin Mary, beneath her
throne in heaven; and next to Rachel, by a refinement of spiritual and
poetical gallantry, he has placed his Beatrice.
In the beautiful frescoes of the church of St. Apollinaris at Remagen,
these Hebrew women stand together in a group below the throne of the
Of the Prophets and the Sibyls who attend on Christ in his character
of the Messiah or Redeemer, I shall have much to say, when describing
the artistic treatment of the history and character of Our Lord.
Those of the prophets who are supposed to refer more particularly to
the Incarnation, properly attend on the Virgin and Child; but in the
ancient altar-pieces, they are not placed within the same frame, nor
are they grouped immediately round her throne, but form the outer
accessories, or are treated separately as symbolical.
First, MOSES, because he beheld the burning bush, "which burned and
was not consumed." He is generally in the act of removing his sandals.
AARON, because his rod blossomed miraculously.
GIDEON, on whose fleece descended the dew of heaven, while all was
DANIEL, who beheld the stone which was cut out without hands, and
became a great mountain, filling the earth. (ch. ii. 45.)
DAVID, as prophet and ancestor. "Listen, O daughter, and incline thine
ISAIAH, "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."
EZEKIEL, "This gate shall be shut." (ch. xliv. 2.)
Certain of these personages, Moses, Aaron, Gideon, Daniel, Ezekiel,
are not merely accessories and attendant figures, but in a manner
attributes, as expressing the character of the Virgin. Thus in many
instances, we find the prophetical personages altogether omitted, and
we have simply the attribute figuring the prophecy itself, the burning
bush, the rod, the dewy fleece, &c.
The Sibyls are sometimes introduced alternately with the Prophets. In
general, if there be only two, they are the Tiburtina, who showed the
vision to Augustus, and the Cumean Sibyl who foretold the birth of our
Saviour. The Sibyls were much the fashion in the classic times of the
sixteenth century; Michael Angelo and Raphael have left us consummate
But I must repeat that the full consideration of the Prophets and
Sibyls as accessories belongs to another department of sacred art, and
they will find their place there.
The Evangelists frequently, and sometimes one or more of the
Twelve Apostles, appear as accessories which assist the theological
conception. When other figures are introduced, they are generally
either the protecting saints of the country or locality, or the saints
of the Religious Order to whom the edifice belongs: or, where the
picture or window is an _ex-voto_, we find the patron saints of the
confraternity, or of the donor or votary who has dedicated it.
Angels seated at the feet of the Madonna and playing on musical
instruments, are most lovely and appropriate accessories, for the
choral angels are always around her in heaven, and on earth she is
the especial patroness of music and minstrelsy. Her delegate
Cecilia patronized _sacred_ music; but _all_ music and musicians,
all minstrels, and all who plied the "gaye science," were under the
protection of Mary. When the angels are singing from their music
books, and others are accompanying them with lutes and viols, the
song is not always supposed to be the same. In a Nativity they sing
the "Gloria in excelsis Deo;" in a Coronation, the "Regina Coeli;"
in an enthroned Madonna with votaries, the "Salve Regina, Mater
Misericordiae!" in a pastoral Madonna and Child it may be the "Alma
[Footnote 1: The picture by Lo Spagna, lately added to our National
Gallery, is a beautiful example.]
* * * * *
In all the most ancient devotional effigies (those in the catacombs
and the old mosaics), the Virgin appears as a majestic woman of mature
age. In those subjects taken from her history which precede her return
from Egypt, and in the Holy Families, she should appear as a young
maiden from fifteen to seventeen years old.
In the subjects taken from her history which follow the baptism of our
Lord, she should appear as a matron between forty and fifty, but still
of a sweet and gracious aspect. When Michael Angelo was reproached
with representing his Mater Dolorosa much too young, he replied that
the perfect virtue and serenity of the character of Mary would have
preserved her beauty and youthful appearance long beyond the usual
[Footnote 1: The group in St. Peter's, Rome.]
Because some of the Greek pictures and carved images had become black
through extreme age, it was argued by certain devout writers, that the
Virgin herself must have been of a very dark complexion; and in favour
of this idea they quoted this text from the Canticles, "I am black,