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Legends of the Madonna by Mrs. Jameson

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If the figures are full-length, a certain symmetry being required,
they are either both standing or both kneeling; it is only in later
times that the Virgin sits, and the angel kneels. When disposed in
circles or semicircles, they are often merely busts, or half-length
figures, separated perhaps by a framework of tracery, or set on each
side of the principal subject, whatever that may be. Hence it is
that we so often find in galleries and collections, pictures of the
Annunciation in two separate parts, the angel in one frame, the
Virgin in another; and perhaps the two pictures, thus disunited,
may have found their way into different countries and different
collections,--the Virgin being in Italy and the angel in England.

Sometimes the Annunciation--still as a mystical subject--forms an
altar-piece of itself. In many Roman Catholic churches there is
a chapel or an altar dedicated expressly to the mystery of the
Annunciation, the subject forming of course the principal decoration.
At Florence there is a church--one of the most splendid and
interesting of its many beautiful edifices--dedicated to the
Annunciation, or rather to the Virgin in her especial character and
dignity, as the Instrument of the Incarnation, and thence styled
the church _della Santissima Nunziata_. The fine mosaic of the
Annunciation by Ghirlandajo is placed over the principal entrance. Of
this church, and of the order of the Servi, to whom it belongs, I have
already spoken at length. Here, in the first chapel on the left, as
we enter, is to be found the miraculous picture of the Annunciation,
formerly held in such veneration, not merely by all Florence, but
all Christendom:--found, but not seen--for it is still concealed from
profane eyes, and exhibited to the devout only on great occasions. The
name of the painter is disputed; but, according to tradition, it is
the work of a certain Bartolomeo; who, while he sat meditating on the
various excellences and perfections of our Lady, and most especially
on her divine beauty, and thinking, with humility, how inadequate were
his own powers to represent her worthily, fell asleep; and on awaking,
found the head of the Virgin had been wondrously completed, either by
the hand of an angel, or by that of St. Luke, who had descended from
heaven on purpose. Though this curious relic has been frequently
restored, no one has presumed to touch the features of the Virgin,
which are, I am told--for I have never been blessed with a sight
of the original picture--marvellously sweet and beautiful. It is
concealed by a veil, on which is painted a fine head of the Redeemer,
by Andrea del Sarto; and forty-two lamps of silver burn continually
round it. There is a copy in the Pitti Palace, by Carlo Dolce.

It is evident that the Annunciation, as a mystery, admits of a style
of treatment which would not be allowable in the representation of
an event. In the former case, the artist is emancipated from all
considerations of locality or circumstance. Whether the background
be of gold, or of blue, or star-bespangled sky,--a mere curtain, or a
temple of gorgeous architecture; whether the accessories be the most
simple or the most elaborate, the most real or the most ideal; all
this is of little moment, and might be left to the imagination of the
artist, or might be modified according to the conditions imposed by
the purpose of the representation and the material employed, so long
as the chief object is fulfilled--the significant expression of an
abstract dogma, appealing to the faith, not to the senses or the
understanding, of the observer.

To this class, then, belong all those church images and pictures of
the Annunciation, either confined to the two personages, with just
sufficient of attitude and expression to place them in relation to
each other, or with such accompaniments as served to carry out the
mystical idea, still keeping it as far as possible removed from the
region of earthly possibilities. In the fifteenth century--that age of
mysticism--we find the Annunciation, not merely treated as an abstract
religious emblem, but as a sort of divine allegory or poem, which
in old French and Flemish art is clothed in the quaintest, the most
curious forms. I recollect going into a church at Breslau, and
finding over one of the altars a most elaborate carving in wood of
the Annunciation. Mary is seated within a Gothic porch of open tracery
work; a unicorn takes refuge in her bosom: outside, a kneeling angel
winds a hunting horn; three or four dogs are crouching near him. I
looked and wondered. At first I could make nothing of this singular
allegory; but afterwards found the explanation, in a learned French
work on the "Stalles d'Amiens." I give the original passage, for it
will assist the reader to the comprehension of many curious works of
art; but I do not venture to translate it.

"On sait qu'an XVI siecle, le mystere de l'Incarnation etoit souvent
represente par une allegorie ainsi concue: Une licorne se refugiant
au sein d'une vierge pure, quatre levriers la pressant d'une course
rapide, un veneur aile sonnant de la trompette. La science de la
zoologie mystique du temps aide a en trouver l'explication; le
fabuleux animal dont l'unique corne ne blessait que pour purger de
tout venin l'endroit du corps qu'elle avoit touche, figuroit Jesus
Christ, medecin et sauveur des ames; on donnait aux levriers agiles
les noms de Misericordia, Veritas, Justitia, Pax, les quatre raisons
qui ont presse le Verbe eternel de sortir de son repos mais comme
c'etoit par la Vierge Marie qu'il avoit voulu descendre parmi les
hommes et se mettre en leur puissance, on croyoit ne pouvoir mieux
faire que de choisir dans la fable, le fait d'une pucelle pouvant
seule servir de piege a la licorne, en l'attirant par le charme
et le parfum de son sein virginal qu'elle lui presentoit; enfin
l'ange Gabriel concourant au mystere etoit bien reconnoissable sous
les traits du venenr aile lancant les levriers et embouchant la

* * * * *

It appears that this was an accepted religious allegory, as familiar
in the sixteenth century as those of Spenser's "Fairy Queen" or the
"Pilgrim's Progress" are to us. I have since found it frequently
reproduced in the old French and German prints: there is a specimen
in the British Museum; and there is a picture similarly treated in the
Musee at Amiens. I have never seen it in an Italian picture or print;
unless a print after Guido, wherein a beautiful maiden is seated under
a tree, and a unicorn has sought refuge in her lap, be intended to
convey the same far-fetched allegory.

Very common, however, in Italian art, is a less fantastic, but still
wholly poetical version of the Annunciation, representing, in fact,
not the Annunciation, but the Incarnation. Thus, in a picture by
Giovanni Sanzio (the father of Raphael) (Brera, Milan), Mary stands
under a splendid portico; she appears as if just risen from her seat
her hands are meekly folded over her bosom; her head declined. The
angel kneels outside the portico, holding forth his lily; while above,
in the heavens, the Padre Eterno sends forth the Redeemer, who, in
form of the infant Christ bearing his cross, floats downwards towards
the earth, preceded by the mystic Dove. This manner of representing
the Incarnation is strongly disapproved of by the Abbe Mery (v.
Theologie des Peintres), as not only an error, but a heresy: yet it
was frequently repeated in the sixteenth century.

The Annunciation is also a mystery when certain emblems are introduced
conveying a certain signification; as when Mary is seated on a throne,
wearing a radiant crown of mingled gems and flowers, and receives the
message of the angel with all the majesty that could be expressed by
the painter; or is seated, in a garden enclosed by a hedge of roses
(the _Hortus clausus_ or _conclusus_ of the Canticles); or where the
angel holds in his hands the sealed book, as in the famous altar-piece
at Cologne.

In a picture by Simone Memmi, the Virgin seated on a Gothic throne
receives, as the higher and superior being, yet with a shrinking
timidity, the salutation of the angel, who comes as the messenger
of peace, olive-crowned, and bearing a branch of olive in his hand.
(Florence Gal.) This poetical version is very characteristic of the
early Siena school, in which we often find a certain fanciful and
original way of treating well known subjects. Taddeo Bartoli, another
Sienese, and Martin Schoen, the most poetical of the early Germans,
also adopted the olive-symbol; and we find it also in the tabernacle
of King Rene, already described.

The treatment is clearly devotional and ideal where attendant
saints and votaries stand or kneel around, contemplating with devout
gratitude or ecstatic wonder the divine mystery. Thus, in a remarkable
and most beautiful picture by Fra Bartolomeo, the Virgin is seated on
her throne; the angel descends from on high bearing his lily: around
the throne attend St. John the Baptist and St. Francis, St. Jerome,
St. Paul, and St. Margaret. (Bologna Gal.) Again, in a very beautiful
picture by Francia, Mary stands in the midst of an open landscape; her
hands, folded over each other, press to her bosom a book closed and
clasped: St. Jerome stands on the right, John the Baptist on the left;
both look up with a devout expression to the angel descending from
above. In both these examples Mary is very nobly and expressively
represented as the chosen and predestined vehicle of human redemption.
It is not here the Annunciation, but the "_Sacratissima Annunziata_"
we see before us. In a curious picture by Francesco da Cotignola,
Mary stands on a sculptured pedestal, in the midst of an architectural
decoration of many-coloured marbles, most elaborately painted: through
an opening is seen a distant landscape, and the blue sky; on her
right stands St. John the Baptist, pointing upwards; on her left St.
Francis, adoring; the votary kneels in front. (Berlin Gal.) Votive
pictures of the Annunciation were frequently expressive offerings from
those who desired, or those who had received, the blessing of an heir;
and this I take to be an instance.

In the following example, the picture is votive in another sense,
and altogether poetical. The Virgin Mary receives the message of the
angel, as usual; but before her, at a little distance, kneels the
Cardinal Torrecremata, who presents three young girls, also kneeling,
to one of whom the Virgin gives a purse of money. This curious and
beautiful picture becomes intelligible, when we find that it was
painted for a charitable community, instituted by Torrecremata,
for educating and endowing poor orphan girls, and styled the
"_Confraternita dell' Annunziata_."[1]

[Footnote 1: Benozzo Gozzoli, in S. Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.]

In the charming Annunciation by Angelico, the scene is in the cloister
of his own convent of St. Mark. A Dominican (St. Peter Martyr)
stands in the background with hands folded in prayer. I might add
many beautiful examples from Fra Bartolomeo, and in sculpture from
Benedetto Maiano, Luca della Robbia, and others, but have said enough
to enable the observer to judge of the intention of the artist. The
Annunciation by Sansovino among the bas-reliefs, which cover the
chapel at Loretto is of great elegance.

I must, however, notice one more picture. Of six Annunciations
painted by Rubens, five represent the event; the sixth is one of his
magnificent and most palpable allegories, all glowing with life and
reality. Here Mary kneels on the summit of a flight of steps; a dove,
encompassed by cherubim, hovers over her head. Before her kneels
the celestial messenger; behind him Moses and Aaron, with David and
other patriarchal ancestors of Christ. In the clouds above is seen
the heavenly Father; on his right are two female figures, Peace and
Reconciliation; on his left, angels bear the ark of the covenant. In
the lower part of the picture, stand Isaiah and Jeremiah, with four
sibyls:--thus connecting the prophecies of the Old Testament, and
the promises made to the Gentile nations through the sibyls, with the
fulfilment of both in the message from on high.


Had the Annunciation to Mary been merely mentioned as an awful and
incomprehensible vision, it would have been better to have adhered to
the mystical style of treatment, or left it alone altogether; but the
Scripture history, by giving the whole narration as a simple fact, a
real event, left it free for representation as such; and, as such, the
fancy of the artist was to be controlled and limited only by the words
of Scripture as commonly understood and interpreted, and by those
proprieties of time, place, and circumstance, which would be required
in the representation of any other historical incident or action.

When all the accompaniments show that nothing more was in the mind
of the artist than the aim to exhibit an incident in the life of the
Virgin, or an introduction to that of our Lord, the representation is
no longer mystical and devotional, but historical. The story was to be
told with all the fidelity, or at least all the likelihood, that was
possible; and it is clear that, in this case, the subject admitted,
and even required, a more dramatic treatment, with such accessories
and accompaniments as might bring the scene within the sphere of the
actual. In this sense it is not to be mistaken. Although the action is
of itself so very simple, and the actors confined to two persons, it
is astonishing to note the infinite variations of which this favourite
theme has been found susceptible. Whether all these be equally
appropriate and laudable, is quite another question; and in how far
the painters have truly interpreted the Scriptural narration, is now
to be considered.

And first, with regard to the time, which is not especially mentioned.
It was presumed by the Fathers and early commentators on Scripture,
that the Annunciation must have taken place in early spring-time, at
eventide, soon after sunset, the hour since consecrated as the "Ave
Maria," as the bell which announces it is called the "Angelus;"[1]
but other authorities say that it was rather at midnight, because
the nativity of our Lord took place at the corresponding hour in the
following December. This we find exactly attended to by many of the
old painters, and indicated either by the moon and stars in the sky,
or by a taper or a lamp burning near.

[Footnote 1: So Lord Byron:--

"Ave Maria! blessed be the hour!
The time, the clime, the spot, where I so oft
Have felt that moment in its fullest power
Sink o'er the earth so beautiful and soft,
While swung the deep bell in the distant tower,
Or the faint dying day-hymn stole aloft,
And not a breath crept through the rosy air,
And yet the forest leaves seem'd stirr'd with prayer"]

* * * * *

With regard to the locality, we are told by St. Luke that the angel
Gabriel was sent from God, and that "he came _in_ to Mary" (Luke i.
28), which seems to express that she was _within_ her house.

In describing the actual scene of the interview between the angel and
Mary, the legendary story of the Virgin adheres very closely to the
scriptural text. But it also relates, that Mary went forth at evening
to draw water from the fountain; that she heard a voice which said,
"Hail thou that art full of grace!" and thereupon being troubled, she
looked to the right and to the left, and seeing no one, returned to
her _house_, and sat down to her work, (Protevangelion, ix. 7.) Had
any exact attention been paid to oriental customs, Mary might have
been working or reading or meditating on the roof of her house; but
this has not suggested itself in any instance that I can remember. We
have, as the scene of the interview, an interior which is sometimes
like an oratory, sometimes a portico with open arcades; but more
generally a bedroom. The poverty of Joseph and Mary, and their humble
condition in life, are sometimes attended to, but not always; for,
according to one tradition, the house at Nazareth was that which Mary
had inherited from her parents, Joachim and Anna, who were people of
substance. Hence, the painters had an excuse for making the chamber
richly furnished, the portico sustained by marble pillars, or
decorated with sculpture. In the German and Flemish pictures, the
artist, true to the national characteristic of _naive_ and literal
illustration, gives us a German or a Gothic chamber, with a lattice
window of small panes of glass, and a couch with pillows, or a
comfortable four-post bedstead, furnished with draperies, thus
imparting to the whole scene an air of the most vivid homely reality.

As for the accessories, the most usual, almost indispensable, is the
pot of lilies, the symbolical _Fleur de Marie_, which I have already
explained at length. There is also a basket containing needle work and
implements of female industry, as scissors, &c.; not merely to express
Mary's habitual industry, but because it is related that when she
returned to her house, "she took the purple linen, and sat down to
work it." The work-basket is therefore seldom omitted. Sometimes a
distaff lies at her feet, as in Raphael's Annunciation. In old German
pictures we have often a spinning-wheel. To these emblems of industry
is often added a basket, or a dish, containing fruit; and near it a
pitcher of water to express the temperance of the blessed Virgin.

There is grace and meaning in the introduction of birds, always
emblems of the spiritual. Titian places a tame partridge at the feet
of Mary, which expresses her tenderness; but the introduction of a
cat, as in Barroccio's picture, is insufferable.

* * * * *

The archangel Gabriel, "one of those who stand continually in the
presence of God," having received his mission, descends to earth.
In the very earliest representation of the Annunciation, as an event
(Mosaic, S. Maria Maggiore), we have this descent of the winged spirit
from on high; and I have seen other instances. There is a small and
beautiful sketch by Garofalo (Alton Towers), in which, from amidst
a flood of light, and a choir of celestial spirits, such as Milton
describes as adoring the "divine sacrifice" proclaimed for sinful man
(Par. Lost, b. iii.), the archangel spreads his lucid wings, and seems
just about to take his flight to Nazareth. He was accompanied, says
the Italian legend, by a train of lower angels, anxious to behold
and reverence their Queen; these remained, however, at the door, or
"before the gate," while Gabriel entered.

The old German masters are fond of representing him as entering by
a door in the background, while the serene Virgin, seated in front,
seems aware of his presence without seeing him.

In some of the old pictures, he comes in flying from above, or he is
upborne by an effulgent cloud, and surrounded by a glory which lights
the whole picture,--a really _celestial_ messenger, as in a fresco
by Spinello Aretino. In others, he comes gliding in, "smooth sliding
without step;" sometimes he enters like a heavenly ambassador, and
little angels hold up his train. In a picture by Tintoretto, he comes
rushing in as upon a whirlwind, followed by a legion of lesser angels;
while on the outside of the building, Joseph the carpenter is seen
quietly at his work. (Venice, School of S. Rocco.)

But, whether walking or flying, Gabriel bears, of course, the
conventional angelic form, that of the human creature, winged,
beautiful, and radiant with eternal youth, yet with a grave and
serious mien, in the later pictures, the drapery given to the angel is
offensively scanty; his sandals, and bare arms, and fluttering robe,
too much _a l'antique_; he comes in the attitude of a flying Mercury,
or a dancer in a ballet. But in the early Italian pictures his dress
is arranged with a kind of solemn propriety: it is that of an acolyte,
white and full, and falling in large folds over his arms, and in
general concealing his feet. In the German pictures, he often wears
the priestly robe, richly embroidered, and clasped in front by a
jewel. His ambrosial curls fall over this cope in "hyacinthine
flow." The wings are essential, and never omitted. They are white, or
many-coloured, eyed like the peacock's train, or bedropped with gold.
He usually bears the lily in his hand, but not always. Sometimes it is
the sceptre, the ancient attribute of a herald; and this has a scroll
around it, with the words, "Ave Maria gratia plena!" The sceptre or
wand is, occasionally surmounted by a cross.

In general, the palm is given to the angel who announces the death of
Mary. In one or two instances only I have seen the palm given to the
angel Gabriel, as in a predella by Angelico; for which, however, the
painter had the authority of Dante, or Dante some authority earlier
still. He says of Gabriel,

"That he bore the _palm_
Down unto Mary when the Son of God
Vouchsafed to clothe him in terrestrial weeds."

The olive-bough has a mystical sense wherever adopted: it is the
symbol of _peace_ on earth. Often the angel bears neither lily, nor
sceptre, nor palm, nor olive. His hands are folded on his bosom; or,
with one hand stretched forth, and the other pointing upwards, he
declares his mission from on high.

In the old Greek pictures, and in the most ancient Italian examples,
the angel stands; as in the picture by Cimabue, wherein the Greek
model is very exactly followed. According to the Roman Catholic
belief, Mary is Queen of heaven, and of angels--the superior being;
consequently, there is propriety in making the angel deliver his
message kneeling: but even according to the Protestant belief the
attitude would not be unbecoming, for the angel, having uttered
his salutation, might well prostrate himself as witness of the
transcending miracle, and beneath the overshadowing presence of
the Holy Spirit.

Now, as to the attitude and occupation of Mary at the moment the
angel entered, authorities are not agreed. It is usual to exhibit her
as kneeling in prayer, or reading with a large book open on a desk
before her. St. Bernard says that she was studying the book of the
prophet Isaiah, and as she recited the verse, "Behold, a Virgin shall
conceive, and bear a son," she thought within her heart, in her great
humility, "How blessed the woman of whom these words are written!
Would I might be but her handmaid to serve her, and allowed, to kiss
her feet!"--when, in the same instant, the wondrous vision burst
upon her, and the holy prophecy was realized in herself. (Il perfetto

I think it is a manifest fault to disturb the sublime tenor of the
scene by representing Mary as starting up in alarm; for, in the first
place, she was accustomed, as we have seen, to the perpetual ministry
of angels, who daily and hourly attended on her. It is, indeed, said
that Mary was troubled; but it was not the presence, but the "saying"
of the angel which troubled her--it was the question "how this should
be?" (Luke i. 29.) The attitude, therefore, which some painters have
given to her, as if she had started from her seat, not only in terror,
but in indignation, is altogether misplaced. A signal instance is
the statue of the Virgin by Mocchi in the choir of the cathedral at
Orvieto, so grand in itself, and yet so offensive as a devotional
figure. Misplaced is also, I think, the sort of timid shrinking
surprise which is the expression in some pictures. The moment is
much too awful, the expectance much too sublime, for any such human,
girlish emotions. If the painter intend to express the moment in which
the angel appears and utters the salutation, "Hail!" then Mary may be
standing, and her looks directed towards him, as in a fine majestic
Annunciation of Andrea del Sarto. Standing was the antique attitude
of prayer; so that if we suppose her to have been interrupted in her
devotions, the attitude is still appropriate. But if that moment
be chosen in which she expressed her submission to the divine will,
"Behold the handmaid of the Lord! let it be unto me according to thy
word!" then she might surely kneel with bowed bead, and folded hands,
and "downcast eyes beneath th' almighty Dove." No attitude could be
too humble to express that response; and Dante has given us, as the
most perfect illustration of the virtue of humility, the sentiment and
attitude of Mary when submitting herself to the divine will. (Purg.
x., Cary's Trans.)

"The angel (who came down to earth
With tidings of the peace to many years
Wept for in vain, that op'd the heavenly gates
From their long interdict) before us seem'd
In a sweet act so sculptur'd to the life,
He look'd no silent image. One had sworn
He had said 'Hail!' for SHE was imag'd there,
By whom the key did open to God's love;
And in her act as sensibly imprest
That word, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord,'
As figure seal'd on wax."

And very beautifully has Flaxman transferred the sculpture "divinely
wrought upon the rock of marble white" to earthly form.

* * * * *

The presence of the Holy Spirit in the historical Annunciations is to
be accounted for by the words of St. Luke, and the visible form of the
Dove is conventional and authorized. In many pictures, the celestial
Dove enters by the open casement. Sometimes it seems to brood
immediately over the head of the Virgin; sometimes it hovers towards
her bosom. As for the perpetual introduction of the emblem of the
Padre Eterno, seen above the sky, under the usual half-figure of a
kingly ancient man, surrounded by a glory of cherubim, and sending
forth upon a beam of light the immaculate Dove, there is nothing to
be said but the usual excuse for the mediaeval artists, that certainly
there was no _conscious_ irreverence. The old painters, great as they
were in art, lived in ignorant but zealous times--in times when
faith was so fixed, so much a part of the life and soul, that it was
not easily shocked or shaken; as it was not founded in knowledge or
reason, so nothing that startled the reason could impair it. Religion,
which now speaks to us through words, then spoke to the people through
visible forms universally accepted; and, in the fine arts, we accept
such forms according to the feeling which _then_ existed in men's
minds, and which, in its sincerity, demands our respect, though now we
might not, could not, tolerate the repetition. We must also remember
that it was not in the ages of ignorance and faith that we find
the grossest materialism in art. It was in the learned, half-pagan
sixteenth and the polished seventeenth century, that this materialized
theology became most offensive. Of all the artists who have sinned
in the Annunciation--and they are many--Nicolo Poussin is perhaps
the worst. Yet he was a good, a pious man, as well as a learned and
accomplished painter. All through the history of the art, the French
show themselves as the most signal violators of good taste, and what
they have invented a word for--_bienseance_. They are worse than the
old Germans; worse than the modern Spaniards--and that is saying much.

In Raphael's Annunciation, Mary is seated in a reclining attitude,
leaning against the side of her couch, and holding a book. The angel,
whose attitude expresses a graceful _empressement_, kneels at some
distance, holding the lily.

* * * * *

Michael Angelo gives us a most majestic Virgin standing on the steps
of a prie-Dieu, and turning with hands upraised towards the angel, who
appears to have entered by the open door; his figure is most clumsy
and material, and his attitude unmeaning and ungraceful. It is, I
think, the only instance in which Michael Angelo has given wings to
an angelic being: for here they could not be dispensed with.

In a beautiful Annunciation by Johan Van Eyck (Munich Gal., Cabinet
iii. 35), the Virgin kneels at a desk with a book before her. She has
long fair hair, and a noble intellectual brow. Gabriel, holding his
sceptre, stands in the door-way. The Dove enters by the lattice. A
bed is in the background, and in front a pot of lilies. In another
Annunciation by Van Eyck, painted on the Ghent altar-piece, we have
the mystic, not the historical, representation, and a very beautiful
effect is produced by clothing both the angel and Mary in robes of
pure white. (Berlin Gal., 520, 521.)

In an engraving after Rembrandt, the Virgin kneels by a fountain,
and the angel kneels on the opposite side. This seems to express the
legendary scene.

These few observations on the general arrangement of the theme,
whether mystical or historical, will, I hope, assist the observer in
discriminating for himself. I must not venture further, for we have a
wide range of subjects before us.


_Ital._ La Visitazione di Maria. _Fr._ La Visitation de la Vierge
_Ger._ Die Heimsuchung Mariae. July 2.

After the Annunciation of the angel, the Scripture goes on to relate
how "Mary arose and went up into the hill country with haste, to
the house of her cousin Elizabeth, and saluted her." This meeting
of the two kinswomen is the subject styled in art the "Visitation,"
and sometimes the "Salutation of Elizabeth." It is of considerable
importance, in a series of the life of the Virgin, as an event; and
also, when taken separately in its religious significance, as being
the first recognition of the character of the Messiah. "Whence is this
to me," exclaims Elizabeth, "that the mother of my Lord should come to
me?" (Luke i. 43); and as she spoke this through the influence of the
Holy Spirit, and not through knowledge, she is considered in the light
of a prophetess.

Of Elizabeth I must premise a few words, because in many
representations relating to the life of the Virgin, and particularly
in those domestic groups, the Holy Families properly so called, she
is a personage of great importance, and we ought to be able, by some
preconceived idea of her bearing and character, to test the propriety
of that impersonation usually adopted by the artists. We must remember
that she was much older than her cousin, a woman "well stricken
in years;" but it is a, great mistake to represent her as old, as
wrinkled and decrepit, as some painters have done. We are told that
she was righteous before the Lord, "walking in all his commandments
blameless:" the manner in which she received the visit of Mary,
acknowledging with a glad humility the higher destinies of her young
relative, show her to have been free from all envy and jealousy.
Therefore all pictures of Elizabeth should exhibit her as an elderly,
but not an aged matron; a dignified, mild, and gracious creature; one
selected to high honour by the Searcher of hearts, who, looking down
on hers, had beheld it pure from any secret taint of selfishness, even
as her conduct had been blameless before man.[1]

[Footnote 1: For a full account of the legends relating to Elizabeth,
the mother of the Baptist, see the fourth series of Sacred and
Legendary Art.]

* * * * *

Such a woman as we believe Mary to have been must have loved and
honoured such a woman as Elizabeth. Wherefore, having heard that
Elizabeth had been exalted to a miraculous motherhood, she made haste
to visit her, not to ask her advice,--for being graced with all good
gifts of the Holy Spirit, and herself the mother of Wisdom, she could
not need advice,--but to sympathize with her cousin and reveal what
had happened to herself.

Thus then they met, "these two mothers of two great princes, of whom
one was pronounced the greatest born of woman, and the other was his
Lord:" happiest and most exalted of all womankind before or since,
"needs must they have discoursed like seraphim and the most ecstasied
order of Intelligences!" Such was the blessed encounter represented in
the Visitation.

* * * * *

The number of the figures, the locality and circumstances, vary
greatly. Sometimes we have only the two women, without accessories
of any kind, and nothing interferes with the high solemnity of that
moment in which Elizabeth confesses the mother of her Lord. The better
to express this willing homage, this momentous prophecy, she is often
kneeling. Other figures are frequently introduced, because it could
not be supposed that Mary made the journey from Nazareth to the
dwelling of Zacharias near Jerusalem, a distance of fifty miles,
alone. Whether her husband Joseph accompanied her, is doubtful;
and while many artists have introduced him, others have omitted him
altogether. According to the ancient Greek formula laid down for the
religious painters, Mary is accompanied by a servant or a boy, who
carries a stick across his shoulder, and a basket slung to it. The old
Italians who followed the Byzantine models seldom omit this attendant,
but in some instances (as in the magnificent composition of Michael
Angelo, in the possession of Mr. Bromley, of Wootten) a handmaid
bearing a basket on her head is substituted for the boy. In many
instances Joseph, attired as a traveller, appears behind the Virgin,
and Zacharias, in his priestly turban and costume, behind Elizabeth.

The locality is often an open porch or a garden in front of a house;
and this garden of Zacharias is celebrated in Eastern tradition. It is
related that the blessed Virgin, during her residence with her cousin
Elizabeth, frequently recreated herself by walking in the garden
of Zacharias, while she meditated on the strange and lofty destiny
to which she was appointed; and farther, that happening one day to
touch a certain flower, which grew there, with her most blessed hand,
from being inodorous before, it became from that moment deliciously
fragrant. The garden therefore was a fit place for the meeting.

* * * * *

1. The earliest representation of the Visitation to which I can refer
is a rude but not ungraceful drawing, in the Catacombs at Rome, of two
women embracing. It is not of very high antiquity, perhaps the seventh
or eighth century, but there can be so doubt about the subject.
(Cemetery of Julius, v. Bosio, Roma sotterana.)

2. Cimabue has followed the Greek formula, and his simple group
appears to me to have great feeling and simplicity.

3. More modern instances, from the date of the revival of art, abound
in every form. Almost every painter who has treated subjects from the
life of the Virgin has treated the Visitation. In the composition by
Raphael (Madrid Gal.) there are the two figures only; and I should
object to this otherwise perfect picture, the bashful conscious look
of the Virgin Mary. The heads are, however, eminently beautiful and
dignified. In the far background is seen the Baptism of Christ--very
happily and significantly introduced, not merely as expressing the
name of the votary who dedicated the picture, _Giovan-Battista_
Branconio, but also as expressing the relation between the two unborn
Children--the Christ and his Prophet.

4. The group by Sebastian del Piombo is singularly grand, showing in
every part the influence of Michael Angelo, but richly coloured in
Sebastian's best manner. The figures are seen only to the knees. In
the background, Zacharias is seen hurrying down some steps to receive
the Virgin.[1]

[Footnote 1: Louvre, 1224. There is, in the Louvre, another Visitation
of singular and characteristic beauty by D. Ghirlandajo.]

5. The group by Pinturicchio, with the attendant angels, is remarkable
for its poetic grace; and that by Lucas v. Leyden is equally
remarkable for affectionate sentiment.

6. Still more beautiful, and more dramatic and varied, is another
composition by Pinturicchio in the Sala Borgia. (Vatican, Rome.) The
Virgin and St. Elizabeth, in the centre, take each other's hands.
Behind the Virgin is St. Joseph, a maiden with a basket on her head,
and other attendants. Behind St. Elizabeth, we have a view into the
interior of her house, through arcades richly sculptured; and within,
Zacharias is reading, and the handmaids of Elizabeth, are spinning and
sewing. This elegant fresco was painted for Alexander VI.

7. There is a fine picture of this subject, by Andrea Sabattini of
Salerno, the history of which is rather curious. "It was painted at
the request of the Sanseverini, princes of Salerno, to be presented to
a nunnery, in which one of that noble family had taken the veil. Under
the form of the blessed Virgin, Andrea represented the last princess
of Salerno, who was of the family of Villa Marina; under that of St.
Joseph, the prince her husband; an old servant of the family figures
as St. Elizabeth; and in the features of Zacharias we recognize those
of Bernardo Tasso, the father of Torquato Tasso, and then secretary
to the prince of Salerno. After remaining for many years over the high
altar of the church, it was removed through the scruples of one of
the Neapolitan archbishops, who was scandalized by the impropriety of
placing the portraits of well-known personages in such a situation."
The picture, once removed from its place, disappeared, and by some
means found its way to the Louvre. Andrea, who was one of the most
distinguished of the scholars of Raphael, died in 1545.[1]

[Footnote 1: This picture is thus described in the old catalogues of
the Louvre (No. 1207); but is not to be found in that of Villot.]

8. The composition by Rubens has all that scenic effect and dramatic
movement which was characteristic of the painter. The meeting takes
place on a flight of steps leading to the house of Zacharias. The
Virgin wears a hat, as one just arrived from a journey; Joseph
and Zacharias greet each other; a maiden with a basket on her head
follows; and in the foreground a man unloads the ass.

I will mention two other example, each perfect in its way, in two most
opposite styles of treatment.

9. The first is the simple majestic composition of Albertinelli.
(Florence Gal.) The two women, standing alone under a richly
sculptured arch, and relieved against the bright azure sky, embrace
each other. There are no accessories. Mary is attired in dark-blue
drapery, and Elizabeth wears an ample robe of a saffron or rather
amber colour. The mingled grandeur, power, and grace, and depth of
expression in these two figures, are quite extraordinary; they look
like what they are, and worthy to be mothers of the greatest of kings
and the greatest of prophets. Albertinelli has here emulated his
friend Bartolomeo--his friend, whom he so loved, that when, after the
horrible execution of Savonarola, Bartolomeo, broken-hearted, threw
himself into the convent of St. Mark, Albertinelli became almost
distracted and desperate. He would certainly, says Vasari, have gone
into the same convent, but for the hatred be bore the monks, "of whom
he was always saying the most injurious things."

Through some hidden influence of intense sympathy, Albertinelli,
though in point of character the very antipodes of his friend, often
painted so like him, that his pictures--and this noble picture more
particularly--might be mistaken for the work of the Frate.

* * * * *

10. We will now turn to a conception altogether different, and equally
a masterpiece; it is the small but exquisitely finished composition
by Rembrandt. (Grosvenor Gal.) The scene is the garden in front of
the house of Zacharias; Elizabeth is descending the steps in haste
to receive and embrace with outstretched arms the Virgin Mary, who
appears to have just alighted from her journey. The aged Zacharias,
supported by a youth, is seen following Elizabeth to welcome their
guest. Behind Mary stands a black female attendant, in the act of
removing a mantle from her shoulders; in the background a servant,
or (as I think) Joseph, holds the ass on which Mary has journeyed; a
peacock with a gem-like train, and a hen with a brood of chickens (the
latter the emblem of maternity), are in the foreground. Though the
representation thus conceived appears like a scene of every-day life,
nothing can be more poetical than the treatment, more intensely true
and noble than the expression of the diminutive figures, more masterly
and finished than the execution, more magical and lustrous than the
effect of the whole. The work of Albertinelli, in its large and solemn
beauty and religious significance, is worthy of being placed over an
altar, on which we might offer up the work of Rembrandt as men offer
incense, gems, and gold.

As the Visitation is not easily mistaken, I have said enough of it
here; and we pass to the next subject,--The Dream of Joseph.

* * * * *

Although the feast of the Visitation is fixed for the 2d of July, it
was, and is, a received opinion, that Mary began her journey to the
hill country but a short time, even a few days, after the Annunciation
of the angel. It was the sixth month with Elizabeth, and Mary
sojourned with her three months. Hence it is supposed, by many
commentators, that Mary must have been present at the birth of John
the Baptist. It may seem surprising that the early painters should not
have made use of this supposition. I am not aware that there exists
among the numerous representations of the birth of St. John, any
instance of the Virgin being introduced; it should seem that the lofty
ideas entertained of the Mater Dei rendered it impossible to place her
in a scene where she would necessarily take a subordinate position:
this I think sufficiently accounts for her absence.[1] Mary then
returned to her own dwelling at Nazareth; and when Joseph (who in
these legendary stories is constantly represented as a house-carpenter
and builder, and travelling about to exercise his trade in various
places) also came back to his home, and beheld his wife, the
suspicion entered his mind that she was about to become a mother,
and very naturally his mind was troubled "with sorrow and insecure
apprehensions; but being a just man, that is, according to the
Scriptures and other wise writers, a good, a charitable man, he would
not openly disgrace her, for he found it more agreeable to justice to
treat an offending person with the easiest sentence, than to render
her desperate, and without remedy, and provoked by the suffering of
the worst of what she could fear. No obligation to justice can force
a man to be cruel; pity, and forbearance, and long-suffering, and
fair interpretation, and excusing our brother" (and our sister), "and
taking things in the best sense, and passing the gentlest sentence,
are as certainly our duty, and owing to every person who _does_ offend
and _can_ repent, as calling men to account can be owing to the law."
(v. Bishop Taylor's Life of Christ.) Thus says the good Bishop Taylor,
praising Joseph, that he was too truly just to call furiously for
justice, and that, waiving the killing letter of the law, he was
"minded to dismiss his wife privily;" and in this he emulated the
mercy of his divine foster-Son, who did not cruelly condemn the woman
whom he knew to be guilty, but dismissed her "to repent and sin no
more." But while Joseph was pondering thus in his heart, the angel
of the Lord, the prince of angels, even Gabriel, appeared to him in a
dream, saying, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee
Mary thy wife!" and he awoke and obeyed that divine voice.

[Footnote 1: There is, however, in the Liverpool Museum, a very
exquisite miniature of the birth of St. John the Baptist, in which the
female figure standing near represents, I think, the Virgin Mary. It
was cut out of a choral book of the Siena school.]

This first vision of the angel is not in works of art easily
distinguished from the second vision but there is a charming fresco by
Luini, which can bear no other interpretation. Joseph is seated by the
carpenter's bench, and leans his head on his hand slumbering. (Milan,
Brera.) An angel stands by him pointing to Mary who is seen at a
window above, busied with needlework.

On waking from this vision, Joseph, says the legend, "entreated
forgiveness of Mary for having wronged her even in thought." This is
a subject quite unknown, I believe, before the fifteenth century, and
not commonly met with since, but there are some instances. On one of
the carved stalls of the Cathedral of Amiens it is very poetically
treated. (Stalles d'Amiens, p. 205.) Mary is seated on a throne under
a magnificent canopy; Joseph, kneeling before her and presented by two
angels, pleads for pardon. She extends one hand to him; in the other
is the volume of the Holy Scriptures. There is a similar version of
the text in sculpture over one of the doors of Notre-Dame at Paris.
There is also a picture by Alessandro Tiarini (Le repentir de Saint
Joseph, Louvre, 416), and reckoned by Malvasia, his finest work,
wherein Joseph kneels before the Virgin, who stands with a dignified
air, and, while she raises him with one hand, points with the other
up to heaven. Behind is seen the angel Gabriel with his finger on
his lip, as commanding silence, and two other angels. The figures are
life-size, the execution and colour very fine; the whole conception in
the grand but mannered style of the Guido school.


_Ital._ Il Presepio. Il Nascimento del Nostro Signore. _Fr._ La
Nativite. _Ger._ Die Geburt Christi. Dec. 25.

The birth of our Saviour is related with characteristic simplicity
and brevity in the Gospels; but in the early Christian traditions this
great event is preceded and accompanied by several circumstances
which have assumed a certain importance and interest in the artistic

According to an ancient legend, the Emperor Augustus Caesar repaired
to the sibyl Tiburtina, to inquire whether he should consent to allow
himself to be worshipped with divine honours, which the Senate had
decreed to him. The sibyl, after some days of meditation, took the
Emperor apart, and showed him an altar; and above the altar, in the
opening heavens, and in a glory of light, he beheld a beautiful Virgin
holding an Infant in her arms, and at the same time a voice was heard
saying, "This is the altar of the Son of the living God;" whereupon
Augustus caused an altar to be erected on the Capitoline Hill, with
this inscription, _Ara primogeniti Dei_; and on the same spot, in
later times, was built the church called the _Ara-Coeli_, well known,
with its flight of one hundred and twenty-four marble steps, to all
who have visited Rome.

Of the sibyls, generally, in their relation to sacred art, I have
already spoken.[1] This particular prophecy of the Tiburtine sibyl
to Augustus rests on some very antique traditions, pagan as well as
Christian. It is supposed to have suggested the "Pollio" of Virgil,
which suggested the "Messiah" of Pope. It is mentioned by writers of
the third and fourth centuries, and our own divines have not wholly
rejected it, for Bishop Taylor mentions the sibyl's prophecy among
"the great and glorious accidents happening about the birth of Jesus."
(Life of Jesus Christ, sec. 4.)

[Footnote 1: Introduction. The personal character and history of the
Sibyls will be treated in detail in the fourth series of Sacred and
Legendary Art.]

A very rude but curious bas-relief preserved in the church of the
Ara-Coeli is perhaps the oldest representation extant. The Church
legend assigns to it a fabulous antiquity; but it must be older than
the twelfth century, as it is alluded to by writers of that period.
Here the Emperor Augustus kneels before the Madonna and Child and at
his side is the sibyl, Tiburtina, pointing upwards.

Since the revival of art, the incident has been frequently treated. It
was painted by Cavallini, about 1340, on the vault of the choir of
the Ara-Coeli. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it became
a favourite subject. It admitted of those classical forms, and that
mingling of the heathen and the Christian in style and costume, which
were calculated to please the churchmen and artists of the time, and
the examples are innumerable.

The most celebrated, I believe, is the fresco by Baldassare Peruzzi,
in which the figure of the sibyl is certainly very majestic, but
the rest of the group utterly vulgar and commonplace. (Siena, Fonte
Giusta.) Less famous, but on the whole preferable in point of taste,
is the group by Garofalo, in the palace of the Quirinal; and there
is another by Titian, in which the scene is laid in a fine landscape
after his manner. Vasari mentions a cartoon of this subject, painted
by Rosso for Francis I., "among the best things Rosso ever produced,"
and introducing the King and Queen of France, their guards, and a
concourse of people, as spectators of the scene. In some instances the
locality is a temple, with an altar, before which kneels the Emperor,
having laid upon it his sceptre and laurel crown: the sibyl points to
the vision seen through a window above. I think it is so represented
in a large picture at Hampton Court, by Pietro da Cortona.

* * * * *

The sibylline prophecy is supposed to have occurred a short tune
before the Nativity, about the same period when the decree went forth
"that all the world should be taxed." Joseph, therefore, arose and
saddled his ass, and set his wife upon it, and went up from Nazareth
to Bethlehem. The way was long, and steep, and weary; "and when Joseph
looked back, he saw the face of Mary that it was sorrowful, as of one
in pain; but when he looked back again, she smiled. And when they,
were come to Bethlehem, there was no room for them in the inn, because
of the great concourse of people. And Mary said to Joseph, "Take me
down for I suffer." (Protevangelion.)

The journey to Bethlehem, and the grief and perplexity of Joseph, have
been often represented. 1. There exists a very ancient Greek carving
in ivory, wherein Mary is seated on the ass, with an expression of
suffering, and Joseph tenderly sustains her; she has one arm round his
neck, leaning on him: an angel leads the ass, lighting the way with
a torch. It is supposed that this curious relic formed part of the
ornaments of the ivory throne of the Exarch of Ravenna, and that it is
at least as old as the sixth century.[1] 2. There is an instance more
dramatic in an engraving after a master of the seventeenth century.
Mary, seated on the ass, and holding the bridle, raises her eyes to
heaven with an expression of resignation; Joseph, cap in hand, humbly
expostulates with the master of the inn, who points towards the
stable; the innkeeper's wife looks up at the Virgin with a strong
expression of pity and sympathy. 3. I remember another print of the
same subject, where, in the background, angels are seen preparing the
cradle in a cave.

[Footnote 1: It is engraved in Gori's "Thesaurus," and described in
Muenter's "Sinnbilder."]

I may as well add that the Virgin, in this character of mysterious,
and religious, and most pure maternity, is venerated under the title
of _La Madonna del Parto_.[1]

[Footnote 1: Every one who has visited Naples will remember the
church on the Mergellina, dedicated to the _Madonna del Parto_, where
lies, beneath his pagan tomb, the poet Sannazzaro. Mr. Hallam, in
a beautiful passage of his "History of the Literature of Europe,"
has pointed out the influence of the genius of Tasso on the whole
school of Bolognese painters of that time. Not less striking was the
influence of Sannazzaro and his famous poem on the Nativity (_De Partu
Virginis_), on the contemporary productions of Italian art, and more
particularly as regards the subject under consideration: I can trace
it through all the schools of art, from Milan to Naples, during the
latter half of the sixteenth century. Of Sannazzaro's poem, Mr.
Hallam says, that "it would be difficult to find its equal for purity,
elegance, and harmony of versification." It is not the less true, that
even its greatest merits as a Latin poem exercised the most perverse
influence on the religious art of that period. It was, indeed, only
_one_ of the many influences which may be said to have demoralized the
artists of the sixteenth century, but it was one of the greatest.]

The Nativity of our Saviour, like the Annunciation, has been treated
in two ways, as a mystery and as an event, and we must be careful to
discriminate between them.


In the first sense the artist has intended simply to express the
advent of the Divinity on earth in the form of an Infant, and the
_motif_ is clearly taken from a text in the Office of the Virgin,
_Virgo quem genuit, adoravit._ In the beautiful words of Jeremy
Taylor, "She blessed him, she worshipped him, and she thanked him that
he would be born of her;" as, indeed, many a young mother has done
before and since, when she has hung in adoration over the cradle of
her first-born child;--but _here_ the child was to be a descended
God; and nothing, as it seems to me, can be more graceful and more
profoundly suggestive than the manner in which some of the early
Italian artists have expressed this idea. When, in such pictures, the
locality is marked by the poor stable, or the rough rocky cave, it
becomes "a temple full of religion, full of glory, where angels are
the ministers, the holy Virgin the worshipper, and Christ the Deity."
Very few accessories are admitted, merely such as serve to denote that
the subject is "a Nativity," properly so called, and not the "Madre
Pia," as already described. The divine Infant lies in the centre of
the picture, sometimes on a white napkin, sometimes with no other
bed than the flowery turf; sometimes his head rests on a wheat-sheaf,
always here interpreted as "the bread of life." He places his finger
on his lip, which expresses the _Verbum sum_ (or, _Vere Verbum hoc
est abbreviatum_), "I am the word," or "I am the bread of life" (_Ego
sum panis ille vitae._ John vi. 48), and fixes his eyes on the heavens
above, where the angels are singing the _Gloria in excelsis._ In
one instance, I remember, an angel holds up the cross before him; in
another, he grasps it in his hand; or it is a nail, or the crown of
thorns, anticipative of his earthly destiny. The Virgin kneels on one
side; St. Joseph, when introduced, kneels on the other; and frequently
angels unite with them in the act of adoration, or sustain the
new-born Child. In this poetical version of the subject, Lorenzo
di Credi, Perugino, Francia, and Bellini, excelled all others[1].
Lorenzo, in particular, became quite renowned for the manner in which
he treated it, and a number of beautiful compositions from his hand
exist in the Florentine and other galleries.

[Footnote 1: There are also most charming examples in sculpture by
Luca della Robbia, Donatello, and other masters of the Florentine

There are instances in which attendant saints and votaries are
introduced as beholding and adoring this great mystery. 1. For
instance, in a picture by Cima, Tobit and the angel are introduced
on one side, and St. Helena and St. Catherine on the other. 2. In a
picture by Francia (Bologna Gal.), the Infant, reclining upon a white
napkin, is adored by the kneeling Virgin, by St. Augustine, and by two
angels also kneeling. The votary, Antonio Galeazzo Bentivoglio, for
whom the picture was painted, kneels in the habit of a pilgrim.[1] He
had lately returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, thus
poetically expressed in the scene of the Nativity, and the picture was
dedicated as an act of thanksgiving as well as of faith. St. Joseph
and St. Francis stand on one side; on the other is a shepherd crowned
with laurel. Francia, according to tradition, painted his own portrait
as St. Francis; and his friend the poet, Girolamo Casio de' Medici,
as the shepherd. 3. In a large and famous Nativity by Giulio Romano
(Louvre, 293), which once belonged to our Charles I., St. John the
Evangelist, and St. Longinus (who pierced our Saviour's side with his
lance), are standing on each side as two witnesses to the divinity of
Christ;--here strangely enough placed on a par: but we are reminded
that Longinus had lately been inaugurated as patron of Mantua, (v.
Sacred and Legendary Art.)

[Footnote 1: "An excellent likeness," says Vasari. It is engraved as
such in Litta's Memorials of the Bentivogli. Girolamo Casio received
the laurel crown from the hand of Clement VII. in 1523. A beautiful
votive Madonna, dedicated by Girolamo Casio and his son Giacomo, and
painted by Beltraffio, is in the Louvre.]

In a triptych by Hans Hemling (Berlin Gal.) we have in the centre the
Child, adored, as usual, by the Virgin mother and attending angels,
the votary also kneeling: in the compartment on the right, we find the
manifestation of the Redeemer to the _west_ exhibited in the prophecy
of the sibyl to Augustus; on the left, the manifestation of the
Redeemer to the _east_ is expressed by the journey of the Magi, and
the miraculous star--"we have seen his star _in the east_."

But of all these ideal Nativities, the most striking is one by Sandro
Botticelli, which is indeed a comprehensive poem, a kind of hymn on
the Nativity, and might be set to music. In the centre is a shed,
beneath which the Virgin, kneeling, adores the Child, who has
his finger on his lip. Joseph is seen a little behind, as if in
meditation. On the right hand, the angel presents three figures
(probably the shepherds) crowned with olive; on the left is a similar
group. On the roof of the shed, three angels, with olive-branches in
their hands, sing the _Gloria in excelsis_. Above these are twelve
angels dancing or floating round in a circle, holding olive-branches
between them. In the foreground, in the margin of the picture,
three figures rising out of the flames of purgatory are received and
embraced by angels. With all its quaint fantastic grace and dryness of
execution, the whole conception is full of meaning, religious as well
as poetical. The introduction of the olive, and the redeemed, souls,
may express "peace on earth, good will towards men;" or the olive may
likewise refer to that period of universal peace in which the _Prince
of Peace_ was born into the world.[1]

[Footnote 1: This singular picture, formerly in the Ottley collection,
was, when I saw it, in the possession of Mr. Fuller Maitland, of
Stensted Park.]

I must mention one more instance for its extreme beauty. In a picture
by Lorenzo di Credi (Florence, Pal. Pitti) the Infant Christ lies on
the ground on a part of the veil of the Virgin, and holds in his hand
a bird. In the background, the miraculous star sheds on the earth a
perpendicular blaze of light, and farther off are the shepherds. On
the other side, St. Jerome, introduced, perhaps, because he made his
abode at Bethlehem, is seated beside his lion.


We now come to the Nativity historically treated, in which time,
place, and circumstance, have to be considered as in any other actual

The time was the depth of winter, at midnight; the place a poor
stable. According to some authorities, this stable was the interior
of a cavern, still shown at Bethlehem as the scene of the Nativity, in
front of which was a ruined house, once inhabited by Jesse, the father
of David, and near the spot where David pastured his sheep: but the
house was now a shed partly thatched, and open at that bitter mason to
all the winds of heaven. Here it was that the Blessed Virgin "brought
forth her first-born Son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid
him in a manger."

We find in the early Greek representations, and in the early Italian
painters who imitated the Byzantine models, that in the arrangement
a certain pattern was followed: the locality is a sort of
cave--literally a hole in a rock; the Virgin Mother reclines on a
couch; near her lies the new-born Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.
In one very ancient example (a miniature of the ninth century in a
Greek Menologium), an attendant is washing the Child.

But from the fourteenth century we find this treatment discontinued.
It gave just offence. The greatest theologians insisted that the birth
of the Infant Christ was as pure and miraculous as his conception; and
it was considered little less than heretical to portray Mary reclining
on a couch as one exhausted by the pangs of childbirth (Isaiah lxvi.
7), or to exhibit assistants as washing the heavenly Infant. "To her
alone," says St. Bernard, "did not the punishment of Eve extend." "Not
in sorrow," says Bishop Taylor, "not in pain, but in the posture and
guise of worshippers (that is, kneeling), and in the midst of glorious
thoughts and speculations, did Mary bring her Son into the world."

We must seek for the accessories and circumstances usually introduced
by the painters in the old legendary traditions then accepted and
believed. (Protevangelion, xiv.) Thus one legend relates that
Joseph went to seek a midwife, and met a woman coming down from the
mountains, with whom he returned to the stable. But when they entered
it was filled with light greater than the sun at noonday; and as the
light decreased and they were able to open their eyes, they beheld
Mary sitting there with her Infant at her bosom. And the Hebrew woman
being amazed said, "Can this be true?" and Mary answered, "It is true;
as there is no child like unto my son, so there is no woman like unto
his mother."

* * * * *

These circumstances we find in some of the early representations,
more or less modified by the taste of the artist. I have seen, for
instance, an old German print, in which the Virgin "in the posture
and guise of worshippers," kneels before her Child as usual; while the
background exhibits a hilly country, and Joseph with a lantern in his
hand is helping a woman over a stile. Sometimes there are two women,
and then the second is always Mary Salome, who, according to a passage
in the same popular authority, visited the mother in her hour of

The angelic choristers in the sky, or upon the roof of the stable,
sing the _Gloria in excelsis Deo_; they are never, I believe, omitted,
and in early pictures are always three in number; but in later
pictures, the mystic _three_ become a chorus of musicians Joseph is
generally sitting by, leaning on his staff in profound meditation, or
asleep as one overcome by fatigue; or with a taper or a lantern in his
hand, to express the night-time.

Among the accessories, the ox and the ass are indispensable. The
introduction of these animals rests on an antique tradition mentioned
by St. Jerome, and also on two texts of prophecy: "The ox knoweth his
owner, and the ass his master's crib" (Isaiah i. 3); and Habakkuk iii.
4, is rendered, in the Vulgate, "He shall lie down between the ox and
the ass." From the sixth century, which is the supposed date of
the earliest extant, to the sixteenth century, there was never any
representation of the Nativity without these two animals; thus in the
old carol so often quoted--

"Agnovit bos et asinus
Quod Puer erat Dominus!"

In some of the earliest pictures the animals kneel, "confessing the
Lord." (Isaiah xliii. 20.) In some instances they stare into the
manger with a most _naive_ expression of amazement at what they find
there. One of the old Latin hymns, _De Nativitate Domini_, describes
them, in that wintry night, as warming the new-born Infant with their
breath; and they have always been interpreted as symbols, the ox as
emblem of the Jews, the ass of the Gentiles.

I wonder if it has ever occurred to those who have studied the
inner life and meaning of these old representations,--owed to them,
perhaps, homilies of wisdom, as well as visions of poetry,--that the
introduction of the ox and the ass, those symbols of animal servitude
and inferiority, might be otherwise translated;--that their pathetic
dumb recognition of the Saviour of the world might be interpreted
as extending to them also a participation in his mission of love and
mercy;--that since to the lower creatures it was not denied to be
present at that great manifestation, they are thus brought nearer to
the sympathies of our humanity, as we are, thereby, lifted to a nearer
communion with the universal spirit of love;--but this is "considering
too deeply," perhaps, for the occasion. Return we to our pictures.
Certainly we are not in danger of being led into any profound or
fanciful speculations by the ignorant painters of the later schools of
art. In their "Nativities," the ox and ass are not, indeed, omitted;
they must be present by religious and prescriptive usage; but they
are to be made picturesque, as if they were in the stable by right,
and as if it were only a stable, not a temple hallowed to a diviner
significance. The ass, instead of looking devoutly into the cradle,
stretches out his lazy length in the foreground; the ox winks his eyes
with a more than bovine stupidity. In some of the old German pictures,
while the Hebrew ox is quietly chewing the cud, the Gentile ass "lifts
up his voice" and brays with open mouth, as if in triumph.

One version of this subject, by Agnolo Gaddi, is conceived with much
simplicity and originality. The Virgin and Joseph are seen together
within a rude and otherwise solitary building. She points expressively
to the manger where lies the divine Infant, while Joseph leans on his
staff and appears lost in thought.

Correggio has been much admired for representing in his famous
Nativity the whole picture as lighted by the glory which proceeds from
the divine Infant, as if the idea had been new and original. ("_La
Notte_," Dresden Gal.) It occurs frequently before and since his time,
and is founded on the legendary story quoted above, which describes
the cave or stable filled with a dazzling and supernatural light.

* * * * *

It is not often we find the Nativity represented as an historical
event without the presence of the shepherds; nor is the supernatural
announcement to the shepherds often treated as a separate subject: it
generally forms part of the background of the Nativity; but there are
some striking examples.

In a print by Rembrandt, he has emulated, in picturesque and poetical
treatment, his famous Vision of Jacob, in the Dulwich Gallery. The
angel (always supposed to be Gabriel) appears in a burst of radiance
through the black wintry midnight, surrounded by a multitude of the
heavenly host. The shepherds fall prostrate, as men amazed and "sore
afraid;" the cattle flee different ways in terror (Luke ii. 9.) I do
not say that this is the most elevated way of expressing the scene;
but, as an example of characteristic style, it is perfect.


_Ital._ L' Adorazione del Pastori. _Fr._ L'Adoration des Bergers.
_Ger._ Die Anbetung der Hirten.

The story thus proceeds:--When the angels were gone away into heaven,
the shepherds came with haste, "and found Mary, and Joseph, and the
young Child lying in a manger."

Being come, they present their pastoral offerings--a lamb, or doves,
or fruits (but these, considering the season, are misplaced); they
take off their hats with reverence, and worship in rustic fashion.
In Raphael's composition, the shepherds, as we might expect from him,
look as if they had lived in Arcadia. In some of the later Italian
pictures, they pipe and sing. It is the well-known custom in Italy
for the shepherds of the Campagna, and of Calabria, to pipe before the
Madonna and Child at Christmas time; and these _Piffereri_, with their
sheepskin jackets, ragged hats, bagpipes, and tabors, were evidently
the models reproduced in some of the finest pictures of the Bolognese
school; for instance, in the famous Nativity by Annibale Caracci,
where a picturesque figure in the corner is blowing into the bagpipes
with might and main. In the Venetian pictures of the Nativity, the
shepherds are accompanied by their women, their sheep, and even their
dogs. According to an old legend, Simon and Jude, afterwards apostles,
were among these shepherds.

When the angels scatter flowers, as in compositions by Raphael and
Ludovico Caracci, we must suppose that they were not gathered on
earth, but in heaven.

The Infant is sometimes asleep:--so Milton sings--

"But see the Virgin blest
Hath laid her Babe to rest!"

In a drawing by Raphael, the Child slumbers, and Joseph raises the
coverlid, to show him to a shepherd. We have the same idea in several
other instances. In a graceful composition by Titian, it is the Virgin
Mother who raises the veil from the face of the sleeping Child.

* * * * *

From the number of figures and accessories, the Nativity thus treated
as an historical subject becomes capable of almost endless variety;
but as it is one not to be mistaken, and has a universal meaning and
interest, I may now leave it to the fancy and discrimination of the


_Ital._ L' Adorazione de' Magi. L' Epifania. _Fr._ L'Adoration des
Rois Mages. _Ger._ Die Anbetung der Weisen aus dem Morgenland. Die
heiligen drei Koenige. Jan. 6.

This, the most extraordinary incident in the early life of our
Saviour, rests on the authority of one evangelist only. It is
related by St. Matthew so briefly, as to present many historical and
philosophical difficulties. I must give some idea of the manner in
which these difficulties were elucidated by the early commentators,
and of the notions which prevailed in the middle ages relative to the
country of the Three Kings, before it will be possible to understand
or to appreciate the subject as it has been set before us in every
style of art, in every form, in every material, from the third century
to the present time.

In the first place, who were these Magi, or these kings, as they are
sometimes styled? "To suppose," says the antique legend, "that they
were called Magi because they were addicted to magic, or exercised
unholy or forbidden arts, would be, heaven save us! a rank heresy."
No! Magi, in the Persian tongue, signifies "wise men." They were,
in their own country, kings or princes, as it is averred by all the
ancient fathers; and we are not to be offended at the assertion,
that they were at once princes and _wise_ men,--"Car a l'usage de ce
temps-la les princes et les rois etoient tres sages!"[1]

[Footnote 1: Quoted literally from the legend in the old French
version of the _Flos Sanctorum_.]

They came from the eastern country, but from what country is not
said; whether from the land of the Arabians, or the Chaldeans, or the
Persians, or the Parthians.

It is written in the Book of Numbers, that when Balaam, the son of
Beor, was called upon to curse the children of Israel, he, by divine
inspiration, uttered a blessing instead of a curse. And he took up
this parable, and said, "I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold
him, but not nigh: there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre
shall rise out of Israel." And the people of that country, though
they were Gentiles, kept this prophecy as a tradition among them, and
waited with faith and hope for its fulfilment. When, therefore, their
princes and wise men beheld a star different in its appearance and
movement from those which they had been accustomed to study (for they
were great astronomers), they at once knew its import, and hastened
to follow its guidance. According to an ancient commentary on St.
Matthew, this star, on its first appearance, had the form of a radiant
child bearing a sceptre or cross. In a fresco by Taddeo Gaddi, it is
thus figured; and this is the only instance I can remember. But to
proceed with our story.

When the eastern sages beheld this wondrous and long-expected star,
they rejoiced greatly; and they arose, and taking leave of their lands
and their vassals, their relations and their friends, set forth on
their long and perilous journey across vast deserts and mountains,
and broad rivers, the star going before them, and arrived at length at
Jerusalem, with a great and splendid train of attendants. Being come
there, they asked at once, "Where is he who is born king of the Jews?"
On hearing this question, King Herod was troubled, and all the city
with him; and he inquired of the chief priests where Christ should
be born. And they said to him, "in Bethlehem of Judea." Then Herod
privately called the wise men, and desired they would go to Bethlehem,
and search for the young child (he was careful not to call him
_King_), saying, "When ye have found him, bring me word, that I may
come and worship him also." So the Magi departed, and the star which
they had seen in the east went before them, until it stood over the
place where the young child was--he who was born King of kings. They
had travelled many a long and weary mile; "and what had they come for
to see?" Instead of a sumptuous palace, a mean and lowly dwelling; in
place of a monarch surrounded by his guards and ministers and all the
terrors of his state, an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid
upon his mother's knee, between the ox and the ass. They had come,
perhaps, from some far-distant savage land, or from some nation
calling itself civilized, where innocence had never been accounted
sacred, where society had as yet taken no heed of the defenceless
woman, no care for the helpless child; where the one was enslaved,
and the other perverted: and here, under the form of womanhood
and childhood, they were called upon to worship the promise of
that brighter future, when peace should inherit the earth, and
righteousness prevail over deceit, and gentleness with wisdom reign
for ever and ever! How must they have been amazed! How must they have
wondered in their souls at such a revelation!--yet such was the faith
of these wise men and excellent kings, that they at once prostrated
themselves, confessing in the glorious Innocent who smiled upon them
from his mother's knee, a greater than themselves--the image of a
truer divinity than they had ever yet acknowledged. And having bowed
themselves down--first, as was most fit, offering _themselves_,--they
made offering of their treasure, as it had been written in ancient
times, "The kings of Tarshish and the isles shall bring presents,
and the kings of Sheba shall offer gifts." And what were these gifts?
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh; by which symbolical oblation they
protested a threefold faith;--by gold, that he was king; by incense,
that he was God; by myrrh, that he was man, and doomed to death. In
return for their gifts, the Saviour bestowed upon them others of more
matchless price. For their gold he gave them charity and spiritual
riches; for their incense, perfect faith; and for their myrrh, perfect
truth and meekness: and the Virgin, his mother, also bestowed on them
a precious gift and memorial, namely, one of those linen bands in
which she had wrapped the Saviour, for which they thanked her with
great humility, and laid it up amongst their treasures. When they had
performed their devotions and made their offerings, being warned in a
dream to avoid Herod, they turned back again to their own dominions;
and the star which had formerly guided them to the west, now went
before them towards the east, and led them safely home. When they were
arrived there, they laid down their earthly state; and in emulation of
the poverty and humility in which they had found the Lord of all power
and might, they distributed their goods and possessions to the poor,
and went about in mean attire, preaching to their people the new king
of heaven and earth, the CHILD-KING, the Prince of Peace. We are not
told what was the success of their mission; neither is it anywhere
recorded, that from that time forth, every child, as it sat on
its mother's knee, was, even for the sake of that Prince of Peace,
regarded as sacred--as the heir of a divine nature--as one whose tiny
limbs enfolded a spirit which was to expand into the man, the king,
the God. Such a result was, perhaps, reserved for other times, when
the whole mission of that divine Child should be better understood
than it was then, or is _now_. But there is an ancient oriental
tradition, that about forty years later, when St. Thomas the apostle
travelled into the Indies, he found these Wise Men there, and did
administer to them the rite of baptism; and that afterwards, in
carrying the light of truth into the far East, they fell among
barbarous Gentiles, and were put to death; thus each of them receiving
in return for the earthly crowns they had cast at the feet of the
Saviour, the heavenly crown of martyrdom and of everlasting life.

Their remains, long afterwards discovered, were brought to
Constantinople by the Empress Helena; thence in the time of the first
Crusade they were transported to Milan, whence they were carried off
by the Emperor Barbarossa, and deposited in the cathedral at Cologne,
where they remain to this day, laid in a shrine of gold and gems; and
have performed divers great and glorious miracles.

* * * * *

Such, in few words, is the church legend of the Magi of the East,
the "three Kings of Cologne," as founded on the mysterious Gospel
incident. Statesmen and philosophers, not less than ecclesiastics,
have, as yet, missed the whole sense and large interpretation of the
mythic as well as the scriptural story; but well have the artists
availed themselves of its picturesque capabilities! In their hands
it has gradually expanded from a mere symbol into a scene of the
most dramatic and varied effect and the most gorgeous splendour. As a
subject it is one of the most ancient in the whole range of Christian
art. Taken in the early religions sense, it signified the calling
of the Gentiles; and as such we find it carved in bas-relief on
the Christian sarcophagi of the third and fourth centuries, and
represented with extreme simplicity. The Virgin mother is seated on a
chair, and holds the Infant upright on her knee. The Wise Men, always
three in number, and all alike, approach in attitudes of adoration.
In some instances they wear Phrygian caps, and their camels' heads
are seen behind them, serving to express the land whence they came,
the land of the East, as well as their long journey; as on one of the
sarcophagi in the Christian Museum of the Vatican. The star in these
antique sculptures is generally omitted; but in one or two instances
it stands immediately over the chair of the Virgin. On a sarcophagus
near the entrance of the tomb of Galla Placidia, at Ravenna, they are
thus represented.

The mosaic in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Rome, is somewhat
later in date than these sarcophagi (A.D. 440), and the representation
is very peculiar and interesting. Here the Child is seated alone on a
kind of square pedestal, with his hand raised in benediction; behind
the throne stand two figures, supposed to be the Virgin and Joseph; on
each side, two angels. The kings approach, dressed as Roman warriors,
with helmets on their heads.

In the mosaic in the church of Sant' Appollinare-Novo, at Ravenna
(A.D. 534), the Virgin receives them seated on a throne, attended
by the archangels; they approach, wearing crowns on their heads,
and bending in attitudes of reverence: all three figures are exactly
alike, and rather less in proportion than the divine group.

* * * * *

Immediately on the revival of art we find the Adoration of the Kings
treated in the Byzantine style, with few accessories. Very soon,
however, in the early Florentine school, the artists began to avail
themselves of that picturesque variety of groups of which the story

In the legends of the fourteenth century, the kings had become
distinct personages, under the names of Caspar (or Jasper), Melchior,
and Balthasar: the first being always a very aged man, with a long
white beard; the second, a middle-aged man; the third is young, and
frequently he is a Moor or Negro, to express the King of Ethiopia
or Nubia, and also to indicate that when the Gentiles were called
to salvation, all the continents and races of the earth, of whatever
complexion, were included. The difference of ages is indicated in
the Greek formula; but the difference of complexion is a modern
innovation, and more frequently found in the German than in the
Italian schools. In the old legend of the Three Kings, as inserted in
Wright's "Chester Mysteries," Jasper, or Caspar, is King of Tarsus,
the land of merchants; he makes the offering of gold. Melchior, the
King of Arabia and Nubia, offers frankincense; and Balthasar, King of
Saba,--"the land of spices and all manner of precious gums,"--offers

[Footnote 1: The names of the Three Kings appear for the first time in
a piece of rude sculpture over the door of Sant' Andrea at Pistoia, to
which is assigned the date 1166. (_Vide_ D'Agincourt, _Scultura_, pl.

It is very usual to find, in the Adoration of the Magi, the angelic
announcement to the shepherds introduced into the background; or, more
poetically, the Magi approaching on one side, and the shepherds on the
other. The intention is then to express a double signification; it is
at once the manifestation to the Jews, and the manifestation to the

The attitude of the Child varies. In the best pictures he raises his
little hand in benediction. The objection that he was then only an
infant of a few days old is futile: for he was from his birth the
CHRIST. It is also in accordance with the beautiful and significant
legend which describes him as dispensing to the old wise men the
spiritual blessings of love, meekness, and perfect faith, in return
for their gifts and their homage. It appears to me bad taste,
verging on profanity, to represent him plunging his little hand into
the coffer of gold, or eagerly grasping one of the gold pieces.
Neither should he be wrapped up in swaddling clothes, nor in any
way a subordinate figure in the group; for it is the Epiphany, the
Manifestation of a divine humanity to Jews and Gentiles, which is
to be expressed; and there is meaning as well as beauty in those
compositions which represent the Virgin at lifting a veil and showing
him to the Wise Man.

The kingly character of the adorers, which became in the thirteenth
century a point of faith, is expressed by giving them all the
paraphernalia and pomp of royalty according to the customs of the
time in which the artist lived. They are followed by a vast train
of attendants, guards, pages, grooms, falconers with hawks; and, in
a picture by Gaudenzio Ferrari, we have the court-dwarf, and, in a
picture by Titian, the court-fool, both indispensable appendages of
royal state in those times. The Kings themselves wear embroidered
robes, crowns, and glittering weapons, and are booted and spurred as
if just alighted from a long journey; even on one of the sarcophagi
they are seen in spurs.

The early Florentine and Venetian painters profited by the commercial
relations of their countries with the Levant, and introduced all kinds
of outlandish and oriental accessories to express the far country
from which the strangers had arrived; thus we have among the presents,
apes, peacocks, pheasants, and parrots. The traditions of the crusades
also came in aid, and hence we have, the plumed and jewelled turbans,
the armlets and the scymitars, and, in the later pictures, even
umbrellas and elephants. I remember, in an old Italian print of this
subject, a pair of hunting leopards or _chetas_.

It is a question whether Joseph was present--whether he _ought_ to
have been present: in one of the early legends, it is asserted that
he hid himself and would not appear, out of his great humility, and
because it should not be supposed that he arrogated any relationship
to the divine Child. But this version of the scene is quite
inconsistent with the extreme veneration afterwards paid to Joseph;
and in later times, that is, from the fifteenth century, he is seldom
omitted. Sometimes he is seen behind the chair of the Virgin, leaning
on his stick, and contemplating the scene with a quiet admiration.
Sometimes he receives the gifts offered to the Child, acting the part
of a treasurer or chamberlain. In a picture by Angelico one of the
Magi grasps his hand as if in congratulation. In a composition by
Parmigiano one of the Magi embraces him.

It was not uncommon for pious votaries to have themselves painted
in likeness of one of the adoring Kings. In a picture by Sandro
Botticelli, Cosmo de' Medici is thus introduced; and in a large and
beautifully arranged composition by Leonardo da Vinci, which unhappily
remains as a sketch only, the three Medici of that time, Cosmo,
Lorenzo, and Giuliano, are figured as the three Kings. (Both these
pictures are in the Florence Gal.)

A very remarkable altar-piece, by Jean Van Eyck, represents the
worship of the Magi. In the centre, Mary and her Child are seated
within a ruined temple; the eldest of the three Kings kneeling, does
homage by kissing the hand of the Child: it is the portrait of Philip
the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The second, prostrate behind him with a
golden beaker in his hand, is supposed to be one of the great officers
of his household. The third King exhibits the characteristic portrait
of Charles the Bold; there is no expression of humility or devotion
either in his countenance or attitude; he stands upright, with a lofty
disdainful air, as if he were yet unresolved whether he would kneel
or not. On the right of the Virgin, a little in the foreground, stands
Joseph in a plain red dress, holding his hat in his hand, and looking
with as air of simple astonishment at his magnificent guests. All the
accessories in this picture, the gold and silver vessels, the dresses
of the three Kings sparking with jewels and pearls, the velvets,
silks, and costly furs, are painted with the most exquisite finish and
delicacy, and exhibit to us the riches of the court of Burgundy, in
which Van Eyck then resided. (Munich Gal, 45.)

In Raphael's composition, the worshippers wear the classical, not the
oriental costume; but an elephant with a monkey on his back is seen
in the distance, which at once reminds us of the far East. (Rome,

Ghirlandajo frequently painted the Adoration of the Magi, and shows
in his management of the accessories much taste and symmetry. In one
of his compositions, the shed forms a canopy in the centre; two of
the Kings kneel in front. The country of the Ethiopian King is not
expressed by making him of a black complexion, but by giving him
a Negro page, who is in the act of removing his master's crown.
(Florence, Pitti Pal.)

A very complete example of artificial and elaborate composition may be
found in the drawing by Baldassare Peruzzi in our National Gallery.
It contains at least fifty figures; in the centre, a magnificent
architectural design; and wonderful studies of perspective to the
right and left, in the long lines of receding groups. On the whole,
it is a most skilful piece of work; but to my taste much like a
theatrical decoration,--pompous without being animated.

A beautiful composition by Francia I must not pass over.[1] Here, to
the left of the picture, the Virgin is seated on the steps of a ruined
temple, against which grows a fig-tree, which, though it be December,
is in full leaf. Joseph kneels at her side, and behind her are two
Arcadian shepherds, with the ox and the ass. The Virgin, who has
a charming air of modesty and sweetness, presents her Child to the
adoration of the Wise Men: the first of these kneels with joined
hands; the second, also kneeling, is about to present a golden vase;
the Negro King, standing, has taken off his cap, and holds a censer
in his hand; and the divine infant raises his hand in benediction.
Behind the Kings are three figures on foot, one a beautiful youth in
an attitude of adoration. Beyond these are five or six figures on
horseback, and a long train upon horses and camels is seen approaching
in the background. The landscape is very beautiful and cheerful: the
whole picture much in the style of Francia's master, Lorenzo Costa. I
should at the first glance have supposed it to be his, but the head of
the Virgin is unmistakably Francia.

[Footnote 1: Dresden Gal. Arnold, the well-known print-seller at
Dresden, has lately published a very beautiful and finished engraving
of this fine picture; the more valuable, because engravings after
Francia are very rare.]

There are instances of this subject idealized into a mystery; for
example, in a picture by Palma Vecchio (Milan, Brera), St. Helena
stands behind the Virgin, in allusion to the legend which connects
her with the history of the Kings. In a picture by Garofalo, the star
shining above is attended by angels bearing the instruments of the
Passion, while St. Bartholomew, holding his skin, stands near the
Virgin and Child: it was painted for the abbey of St. Bartholomew, at

Among the German examples, the picture by Albert Durer, in the tribune
of the Florence Gallery; and that of Mabuse, in the collection of Lord
Carlisle, are perhaps the most perfect of their kind.

In the last-named picture the Virgin, seated, in a plain dark-blue
mantle, with the German physiognomy, but large browed, and with a very
serious, sweet expression, holds the Child. The eldest of the Kings,
as usual, offers a vase of gold, out of which Christ has taken a
piece, which be holds in his hand. The name of the King, JASPER, is
inscribed on the vase; a younger King behind holds a cup. The black
Ethiopian king, Balthasar, is conspicuous on the left; he stands,
crowned and arrayed in gorgeous drapery, and, as if more fully to mark
the equality of the races--at least in spiritual privileges--his train
is borne by a white page. An exquisite landscape is seen through the
arch behind, and the shepherds are approaching in the middle distance.
On the whole, this is one of the most splendid pictures of the early
Flemish school I have ever seen; for variety of character, glow of
colour, and finished execution, quite unsurpassed.

In a very rich composition by Lucas van Leyden, Herod is seen in the
background, standing in the balcony of his palace, and pointing out
the scene to his attendants.

As we might easily imagine, the ornamental painters of the Venetian
and Flemish schools delighted in this subject, which allowed them full
scope for their gorgeous colouring, and all their scenic and dramatic
power. Here Paul Veronese revelled unreproved in Asiatic magnificence:
here his brocaded robes and jewelled diadems harmonized with his
subject; and his grand, old, bearded, Venetian senators figured,
not unsuitably, as Eastern Kings. Here Rubens lavished his ermine
and crimson draperies, his vases, and ewers, and censers of flaming
gold;--here poured over his canvas the wealth "of Ormuz and of Ind."
Of fifteen pictures of this subject, which he painted at different
times, the finest undoubtedly is that in the Madrid Gallery. Another,
also very fine, is in the collection of the Marquis of Westminster.
In both these, the Virgin, contrary to all former precedent, is
not seated, but _standing_, as she holds up her Child for worship.
Afterwards we find the same position of the Virgin in pictures by
Vandyck, Poussin, and other painters of the seventeenth century. It is
quite an innovation on the old religious arrangement; but in the utter
absence of all religious feeling, the mere arrangement of the figures,
except in an artistic point of view, is of little consequence.

As a scene of oriental pomp, heightened by mysterious shadows and
flashing lights, I know nothing equal to the Rembrandt in the
Queen's Gallery; the procession of attendants seen emerging from the
background through the transparent gloom is quite awful; but in this
miraculous picture, the lovely Virgin Mother is metamorphosed into a
coarse Dutch _vrow_, and the divine Child looks like a changeling imp.

In chapels dedicated to the Nativity or the Epiphany, we frequently
find the journey of the Wise Men painted round the walls. They
are seen mounted on horseback, or on camels, with a long train of
attendants, here ascending a mountain, there crossing a river; here
winding through a defile, there emerging from a forest; while the
miraculous star shines above, pointing out the way. Sometimes we have
the approach of the Wise Men on one side of the chapel, and their
return to their own country on the other. On their homeward journey
they are, in some few instances, embarking in a ship: this occurs in
a fresco by Lorenzo Costa, and in a bas-relief in the cathedral of
Amiens. The allusion is to a curious legend mentioned by Arnobius the
Younger, in his commentary on the Psalms (fifth century). He says,
in reference to the 48th Psalm, that when Herod found that the three
Kings had escaped from him "in ships of Tarsus," in his wrath he
burned all the vessels in the port.

There is a beautiful fresco of the journey of the Magi in the Riccardi
Chapel at Florence, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli for the old Cosmo de'

"The Baptism of the Magi by St. Thomas," is one of the compartments
of the Life of the Virgin, painted by Taddeo Gaddi, in the Baroncelli
Chapel at Florence, and this is the only instance I can refer to.

* * * * *

Before I quit this subject--one of the most interesting in the whole
range of art--I must mention a picture by Giorgione in the Belvedere
Gallery, well known as one of the few undoubted productions of that
rare and fascinating painter, and often referred to because of its
beauty. Its signification has hitherto escaped all writers on art, as
far as I am acquainted with them, and has been dismissed as one of his
enigmatical allegories. It is called in German, _Die Feldmaesser_ (the
Land Surveyors), and sometimes styled in English the _Geometricians_,
or the _Philosophers_, or the _Astrologers_. It represents a wild,
rocky landscape, in which are three men. The first, very aged, in as
oriental costume, with a long gray beard, stands holding in his hand
an astronomical table; the next, a man in the prime of life, seems
listening to him; the third, a youth, seated and looking upwards,
holds a compass. I have myself no doubt that this beautiful picture
represents the "three wise men of the East," watching on the Chaldean
hills the appearance of the miraculous star, and that the light
breaking in the far horizon, called in the German description the
rising sun, is intended to express the rising of the star of Jacob.[1]
In the sumptuous landscape, and colour, and the picturesque rather
than religious treatment, this picture is quite Venetian. The
interpretation here suggested I leave to the consideration of the
observer; and without allowing myself to be tempted on to further
illustration, will only add, in conclusion, that I do not remember
any Spanish picture of this subject remarkable either for beauty or

[Footnote 1: There is also a print by Giulio Bonasoni, which appears
to represent the wise men watching for the star. (_Bartsch_, xv.

[Footnote 2: In the last edition of the Vienna Catalogue, this picture
has received its proper title.]


_Ital._ La Purificazione della B. Vergine. _Ger._ Die Darbringung im
Tempel. Die Beschneidung Christi.

After the birth of her Son, Mary was careful to fulfil all the
ceremonies of the Mosaic law. As a first-born son, he was to be
redeemed by the offering of five shekels, or a pair of young pigeons
(in memory of the first-born of Egypt). But previously, being born
of the children of Abraham, the infant Christ was submitted to the
sanguinary rite which sealed the covenant of Abraham, and received
the name of JESUS--"that name before which every knee was to bow,
which was to be set above the powers of magic, the mighty rites
of sorcerers, the secrets of Memphis, the drugs of Thessaly, the
silent and mysterious murmurs of the wise Chaldees, and the spells
of Zoroaster; that name which we should engrave on our hearts, and
pronounce with our most harmonious accents, and rest our faith on, and
place our hopes in, and love with the overflowing of charity, joy, and
adoration." (v. Bishop Taylor's Life of Christ.)

The circumcision and the naming of Christ have many times been painted
to express the first of the sorrows of the Virgin, being the first of
the pangs which her Son was to suffer on earth. But the Presentation
in the Temple has been selected with better taste for the same
purpose; and the prophecy of Simeon, "Yea, a sword shall pierce
through thy own soul also," becomes the first of the Seven Sorrows.
It is an undecided point whether the Adoration of the Magi took
place thirteen days, or one year and thirteen days after the birth of
Christ. In a series of subjects artistically arranged, the Epiphany
always precedes, in order of time, that scene in the temple which
is sometimes styled the Purification, sometimes the Presentation and
sometimes the _Nunc Dimitis_. They are three distinct incidents; but,
as far as I can judge, neither the painters themselves, nor those who
have named pictures, have been careful to discriminate between them.
On a careful examination of various compositions, some of special
celebrity, which are styled, in a general way, the Presentation in
the Temple, it will appear, I think, that the idea uppermost in the
painter's mind has been to represent the prophecy of Simeon.

No doubt, in later times, the whole scene, as a subject of art, was
considered in reference chiefly to the Virgin, and the intention was
to express the first of her Seven Sorrows. But in ancient art, and
especially in Greek art, the character of Simeon assumed a singular
significance and importance, which so long as modern art was
influenced by the traditional Byzantine types, modified, in some
degree, the arrangement and sentiment of this favourite subject.

It is related that when Ptolemy Philadelphus about 260 years before
Christ, resolved to have the Hebrew Scriptures translated into
Greek, for the purpose of placing them in his far-famed library,
he despatched messengers to Eleazar, the High Priest of the Jews,
requiring him to send scribes and interpreters learned in the Jewish
law to his court at Alexandria. Thereupon Eleazar selected six of
the most learned Rabbis from each of the twelve tribes of Israel,
seventy-two persons in all, and sent them to Egypt, in obedience to
the commands of King Ptolemy, and among these was Simeon, a priest,
and a man full of learning. And it fell to the lot of Simeon to
translate the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he came to that
verse where it is written, "Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear
a son," he began to misdoubt, in his own mind, how this could be
possible; and, after long meditation, fearing to give scandal and
offence to the Greeks, he rendered the Hebrew word _Virgin_ by a Greek
word which signifies merely a _young woman_; but when he had written
it down, behold an angel effaced it, and substituted the right word.
Thereupon he wrote it again and again; and the same thing happened
three times; and he remained astonished and confounded. And while he
wondered what this should mean, a ray of divine light penetrated his
soul; it was revealed to him that the miracle which, in his human
wisdom he had presumed to doubt, was not only possible, but that he,
Simeon, "should not see death till he had seen the Lord's Christ."
Therefore he tarried on earth, by the divine will, for nearly three
centuries, till that which he had disbelieved had come to pass. He was
led by the Spirit to the temple on the very day when Mary came there
to present her Son, and to make her offering, and immediately, taking
the Child in his arms, he exclaimed, "Lord, _now_ lettest thou thy
servant depart in peace, according to thy word." And of the Virgin
Mother, also, he prophesied sad and glorious things.

Anna the Prophetess, who was standing by, also testified to the
presence of the theocratic King: but she did not take him in her arms,
as did Simeon. (Luke ii. 82.) Hence, she was early regarded as a
type of the synagogue, which prophesied great things of the Messiah,
but, nevertheless, did not embrace him when he appeared, as did the

That these curious legends relative to Simeon and Anna, and their
symbolical interpretation, were well known to the old painters, there
can be no doubt; and both were perhaps in the mind of Bishop Taylor
when he wrote his eloquent chapter on the Presentation. "There be
some," he says, "who wear the name of Christ on their heads, to make
a show to the world; and there be some who have it always in their
mouths; and there be some who carry Christ on their shoulders, as
if he were a burthen too heavy to bear; and there be some--who is
me!--who trample him under their feet, but _he_ is the true Christian
who, _like Simeon_, embraces Christ, and takes him to his heart."

Now, it seems to me that it is distinctly the acknowledgment of
Christ by Simeon,--that is, Christ received by the Gentiles,--which
is intended to be placed before us in the very early pictures of the
Presentation, or the _Nunc dimittis_, as it is always styled in Greek
art. The appearance of an attendant, bearing the two turtle-doves,
shows it to be also the so-called Purification of the Virgin. In
an antique formal Greek version we have the Presentation exactly
according to the pattern described by Didron. The great gold censer is
there; the cupola, at top; Joseph carrying the two young pigeons, and
Anna behind Simeon.

* * * * *

In a celebrated composition by Fra Bartolomeo, there is the same
disposition of the personages, but an additional female figure. This
is not Anna, the mother of the Virgin (as I have heard it said), but
probably Mary Salome, who had always attended on the Virgin ever since
the Nativity at Bethlehem.

The subject is treated with exquisite simplicity by Francia; we have
just the same personages as in the rude Greek model, but disposed with
consummate grace. Still, to represent the Child as completely undraped
has been considered as a solecism. He ought to stretch out his hands
to his mother and to look as if he understood the portentous words
which foretold his destiny. Sometimes the imagination is assisted by
the choice of the accessories; thus Fra Bartolomeo has given us, in
the background of his group, Moses holding the _broken_ table of the
old law; and Francia represents in the same manner the sacrifice
of Abraham; for thus did Mary bring her Son as an offering. In many
pictures Simeon raises his eyes to heaven in gratitude; but those
painters who wished to express the presence of the Divinity in the
person of Christ, made Simeon looking at the Child, and addressing
_him_ as "Lord."


_Ital._ La Fuga in Egitto. _Fr._ La Fuite de la Sainte Famille en
Egypte. _Ger._ Die Flucht nach AEgypten.

The wrath of Herod against the Magi of the East who had escaped from
his power, enhanced by his fears of the divine and kingly Infant,
occasioned the massacre of the Innocents, which led to the flight
of the Holy Family into Egypt. Of the martyred children, in their
character of martyrs, I have already spoken, and of their proper place
in a scheme of ecclesiastical decoration. There is surely something
very pathetic in that feeling which exalted these infant victims into
objects of religious veneration, making them the cherished companions
in heavenly glory of the Saviour for whose sake they were sacrificed
on earth. He had said, "Suffer little children to come unto me;"
and to these were granted the prerogatives of pain, as well as the
privileges of innocence. If, in the day of retribution, they sit at
the feet of the Redeemer, surely they will appeal against us, then and
there;--against us who, in these days, through our reckless neglect,
slay, body and soul, legions of innocents,--poor little unblest
creatures, "martyrs by the pang without the palm,"--yet dare to call
ourselves Christians.

* * * * *

The Massacre of the Innocents, as an event, belongs properly to the
life of Christ: it is not included in a series of the life of the
Virgin, perhaps from a feeling that the contrast between the most
blessed of women and mothers, and those who wept distracted for their
children, was too painful, and did not harmonize with the general
subject. In pictures of the Flight into Egypt, I have seen it
introduced allusively into the background; and in the architectural
decoration of churches dedicated to the Virgin Mother, as Notre Dame
de Chartres, it finds a place, but not often a conspicuous place;[1]
it is rather indicated than represented. I should pass over the
subject altogether, best pleased to be spared the theme, but
that there are some circumstances connected with it which require
elucidation, because we find them introduced incidentally into
pictures of the Flight and the _Riposo_.

[Footnote 1: It is conspicuous and elegantly treated over the door of
the Lorenz Kirche at Nuremberg.]

Thus, it is related that among the children whom Herod was bent on
destroying, was St. John the Baptist; but his mother Elizabeth fled
with him to a desert place, and being pursued by the murderers, "the
rock opened by a miracle, and close upon Elizabeth and her child;"
which means, as we may presume, that they took refuge in a cavern,
and were concealed within it until the danger was over. Zacharias,
refusing to betray his son, was slain "between the temple and the
altar," (Matt, xxiii. 35.) Both these legends are to be met with
in the Greek pictures, and in the miniatures of the thirteenth and
fourteenth centuries.[1]

[Footnote 1: They will be found treated at length in the artistic
subjects connected with St. John the Baptist.]

From the butchery which made so many mothers childless, the divine
Infant and his mother were miraculously saved; for an angel spoke to
Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise, and take the young child and his
mother, and flee into Egypt." This is the second of the four angelic
visions which are recorded of Joseph. It is not a frequent subject
in early art, but is often met with in pictures of the later schools.
Joseph is asleep in his chair, the angel stands before him, and, with
a significant gesture, points forward--"arise and flee!"

There is an exquisite little composition by Titian, called a _Riposo_,
which may possibly represent the preparation for the Flight. Here Mary
is seated under a tree nursing her Infant, while in the background is
a sort of rude stable, in which Joseph is seen saddling the ass, while
the ox is on the outside.

In a composition by Tiarini, we see Joseph holding the Infant, while
Mary, leaning one hand on his shoulder, is about to mount the ass.

In a composition by Poussin, Mary, who has just seated herself on the
ass, takes the Child from the arms of Joseph. Two angels lead the ass,
a third kneels in homage, and two others are seen above with a curtain
to pitch a tent.

* * * * *

I must notice here a tradition that both the ox and the ass who stood
over the manger at Bethlehem, accompanied the Holy Family into Egypt.
In Albert Durer's print, the ox and the ass walk side by side. It is
also related that the Virgin was accompanied by Salome, and Joseph by
three of his sons. This version of the story is generally rejected
by the painters; but in the series by Giotto in the Arena at Padua,
Salome and the three youths attend on Mary and Joseph; and I remember
another instance, a little picture by Lorenzo Monaco, in which Salome,
who had vowed to attend on Christ and his mother as long as she lived,
is seen following the ass, veiled, and supporting her steps with a

But this is a rare exception. The general treatment confines the group
to Joseph, the mother, and the Child. To Joseph was granted, in those
hours of distress and danger, the high privilege of providing for
the safety of the Holy Infant--a circumstance much enlarged upon in
the old legends, and to express this more vividly, he is sometimes
represented in early Greek art as carrying the Child in his arms, or
on his shoulder, while Mary follows on the ass. He is so figured
on the sculptured doors of the cathedral of Beneventum, and in the
cathedral of Monreale, both executed by Greek artists.[1] But we are
not to suppose that the Holy Family was left defenceless on the long
journey. The angels who had charge concerning them were sent to guide
them by day, to watch over them by night, to pitch their tent before
them, and to refresh them with celestial fruit and flowers. By the
introduction of these heavenly ministers the group is beautifully

[Footnote 1: 11th century. Also at Citta di Castello; same date.]

Joseph, says the Gospel story, "arose by night;" hence there is both
meaning and propriety in those pictures which represent the Flight
as a night-scene, illuminated by the moon and stars, though I believe
this has been done more to exhibit the painter's mastery over effects
of dubious light, than as a matter of biblical accuracy. Sometimes an
angel goes before, carrying a torch or lantern, to light them on the
way; sometimes it is Joseph who carries the lantern.

In a picture by Nicolo Poussin, Mary walks before, carrying the
Infant; Joseph follows, leading the ass; and an angel guides them.

The journey did not, however, comprise one night only. There is,
indeed, an antique tradition, that space and time were, on this
occasion, miraculously shortened to secure a life of so much
importance; still, we are allowed to believe that the journey extended
over many days and nights; consequently it lay within the choice of
the artist to exhibit the scene of the Flight either by night or by

In many representations of the Flight into Egypt, we find in the
background men sowing or cutting corn. This is in allusion to the
following legend:--

When it was discovered that the Holy Family had fled from Bethlehem,
Herod sent his officers in pursuit of them. And it happened that when
the Holy Family had travelled some distance, they came to a field
where a man was sowing wheat. And the Virgin said to the husbandman,
"If any shall ask you whether we have passed this way, ye shall
answer, 'Such persons passed this way when I was sowing this corn.'"
For the holy Virgin was too wise and too good to save her Son by
instructing the man to tell a falsehood. But behold, a miracle! For
by the power of the Infant Saviour, in the space of a single night,
the seed sprung up into stalk, blade, and ear, fit for the sickle.
And next morning the officers of Herod came up, and inquired of the
husbandman, saying, "Have you seen an old man with a woman and a Child
travelling this way?" And the man, who was reaping his wheat, in great
wonder and admiration, replied "Yes." And they asked again, "How long
is it since?" And he answered. "When I was sowing this wheat." Then
the officers of Herod turned back, and left off pursuing the Holy

A very remarkable example of the introduction of this legend occurs
in a celebrated picture by Hans Hemling (Munich Gal., Cabinet iv. 69),
known as "Die Sieben Freuden Mariae." In the background, on the left,
is the Flight into Egypt; the men cutting and reaping corn, and the
officers of Herod in pursuit of the Holy Family. By those unacquainted
with the old legend, the introduction of the cornfield and reapers
is supposed to be merely a decorative landscape, without any peculiar

* * * * *

In a very beautiful fresco by Pinturicchio, (Rome, St. Onofrio), the
Holy Family are taking their departure from Bethlehem. The city,
with the massacre of the Innocents, is seen in the background. In the
middle distance, the husbandman cutting corn; and nearer, the palm
tree bending down.

* * * * *

It is supposed by commentators that Joseph travelled from Bethlehem
across the hilly country of Judea, taking the road to Joppa, and then
pursuing the way along the coast. Nothing is said in the Gospel of the
events of this long and perilous journey of at least 400 miles, which,
in the natural order of things, must have occupied five or six weeks;
and the legendary traditions are very few. Such as they are, however,
the painters have not failed to take advantage of them.

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