Part 6 out of 7
We are told that on descending from the mountains, they came down
upon a beautiful plain enamelled with flowers, watered by murmuring
streams, and shaded by fruit trees. In such a lovely landscape have
the painters delighted to place some of the scenes of the Flight into
Egypt. On another occasion, they entered a thick forest, a wilderness
of trees, in which they must have lost their way, had they not been
guided by an angel. Here we encounter a legend which has hitherto
escaped, because, indeed, it defied, the art of the painter. As the
Holy Family entered this forest, all the trees bowed themselves down
in reverence to the Infant God; only the aspen, in her exceeding pride
and arrogance, refused to acknowledge him, and stood upright. Then the
Infant Christ pronounced a curse against her, as he afterwards cursed
the barren fig tree; and at the sound of his words the aspen began to
tremble through all her leaves, and has not ceased to tremble even to
We know from Josephus the historian, that about this time Palestine
was infested by bands of robbers. There is an ancient tradition, that
when the Holy Family travelling through hidden paths and solitary
defiles, had passed Jerusalem, and were descending into the plains of
Syria, they encountered certain thieves who fell upon them; and one
of them would have maltreated and plundered them, but his comrade
interfered, and said, "Suffer them, I beseech thee, to go in peace,
and I will give thee forty groats, and likewise my girdle;" which
offer being accepted, the merciful robber led the Holy Travellers
to his stronghold on the rock, and gave them lodging for the night.
(Gospel of Infancy, ch. viii.) And Mary said to him, "The Lord God
will receive thee to his right hand, and grant thee pardon of thy
sins!" And it was so: for in after times these two thieves were
crucified with Christ, one on the right hand, and one on the left;
and the merciful thief went with the Saviour into Paradise.
The scene of this encounter with the robbers, near Ramla, is still
pointed out to travellers, and still in evil repute as the haunt of
banditti. The crusaders visited the spot as a place of pilgrimage;
and the Abbe Orsini considers the first part of the story as
authenticated; but the legend concerning the good thief he admits
to be doubtful. (Vie de la Ste. Vierge.)
As an artistic subject this scene has been seldom treated. I have seen
two pictures which represent it. One is a fresco by Giovanni di San
Giovanni, which, having been cut from the wail of some suppressed
convent, is now in the academy at Florence. The other is a composition
One of the most popular legends concerning the Flight into Egypt is
that of the palm or date tree, which at the command of Jesus bowed
down its branches to shade and refresh his mother; hence, in the scene
of the Flight, a palm tree became a usual accessory. In a picture by
Antonello Mellone, the Child stretches out his little hand and lays
hold of the branch: sometimes the branch is bent down by angel hands.
Sozomenes relates, that when the Holy Family reached the term of
their journey, and approached the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, a tree
which grew before the gates of the city, and was regarded with great
veneration as the seat of a god, bowed down its branches at the
approach of the Infant Christ. Likewise it is related (not in legends
merely, but by grave religious authorities) that all the idols of the
Egyptians fell with their faces to the earth. I have seen pictures of
the Flight into Egypt, in which broken idols lie by the wayside.
* * * * *
In the course of the journey the Holy Travellers had to cross rivers
and lakes; hence the later painters, to vary the subject, represented
them as embarking in a boat, sometimes steered by an angel. The first,
as I have reason to believe, who ventured on this innovation, was
Annibale Caracci. In a picture by Poussin, the Holy Family are about
to embark. In a picture by Giordano, an angel with one knee bent,
assists Mary to enter the boat. In a pretty little picture by Teniers,
the Holy Family and the ass are seen in a boat crossing a ferry by
moonlight; sometimes they are crossing a bridge.
I must notice here a little picture by Adrian Vander Werff, in which
the Virgin, carrying her Child, holds by the hand the old decrepit
Joseph, who is helping her, or rather is helped by her, to pass a
torrent on some stepping-stones. This is quite contrary to the feeling
of the old authorities, which represent Joseph as the vigilant and
capable guardian of the Mother and her Child: but it appears to have
here a rather particular and touching significance; it was painted by
Vander Werff for his daughter in his old age, and intended to express
her filial duty and his paternal care.
The most beautiful Flight into Egypt I have ever seen, is a
composition by Gaudenzio Ferrari. The Virgin is seated and sustained
on the ass with a quite peculiar elegance. The Infant, standing on her
knee, seems to point out the way; an angel leads the ass, and Joseph
follows with the staff and wallet. In the background the palm tree
inclines its branches. (At Varallo, in the church of the Minorites.)
Claude has introduced the Flight of the Holy Family as a landscape
group into nine different pictures.
THE REPOSE OF THE HOLY FAMILY.
_Ital._ Il Riposo. _Fr._ Le Repos de la Sainte Famille. _Ger._ Die
Ruhe in AEgypten.
The subject generally styled a "Riposo" is one of the most graceful
and most attractive in the whole range of Christian art. It is not,
however, an ancient subject, for I cannot recall an instance earlier
than the sixteenth century; it had in its accessories that romantic
and pastoral character which recommended it to the Venetians and to
the landscape-painters of the seventeenth century, and among these we
must look for the most successful and beautiful examples.
I must begin by observing that it is a subject not only easily
mistaken by those who have studied pictures; but perpetually
misconceived and misrepresented by the painters themselves. Some
pictures which erroneously bear this title, were never intended to
do so. Others, intended to represent the scene, are disfigured
and perplexed by mistakes arising either from the ignorance or the
carelessness of the artist.
We must bear in mind that the Riposo, properly so called, is not
merely the Holy Family seated in a landscape; it is an episode of
the Flight into Egypt, and is either the rest on the journey, or at
the close of the journey; quite different scenes, though all go by
the same name. It is not an ideal religious group, but a reality, a
possible and actual scene; and it is clear that the painter, if he
thought at all, and did not merely set himself to fabricate a pretty
composition, was restricted within the limits of the actual and
possible, at least according to the histories and traditions of the
time. Some of the accessories introduced would stamp the intention at
once; as the date tree, and Joseph gathering dates; the ass feeding in
the distance; the wallet and pilgrim's staff laid beside Joseph; the
fallen idols; the Virgin scooping water from a fountain; for all these
are incidents which properly belong to the Riposo.
It is nowhere recorded; either in Scripture or in the legendary
stories, that Mary and Joseph in their flight were accompanied by
Elizabeth and the little St. John; therefore, where either of these
are introduced, the subject is not properly a _Riposo_, whatever the
intention of the painter may have been: the personages ought to be
restricted to the Virgin, her Infant, and St. Joseph, with attendant
angels. An old woman is sometimes introduced, the same who is
traditionally supposed to have accompanied them in their flight. If
this old woman be manifestly St. Anna or St. Elizabeth, then it is not
a _Riposo_, but merely a _Holy Family_.
It is related that the Holy Family finally rested, after their long
journey, in the village of Matarea, beyond the city of Hermopolis (or
Heliopolis), and took up their residence in a grove of sycamores, a
circumstance which gave the sycamore tree a sort of religions interest
in early Christian times. The crusaders imported it into Europe; and
poor Mary Stuart may have had this idea, or this feeling when she
brought from France, and planted in her garden, the first sycamores
which grew in Scotland.
Near to this village of Matarea, a fountain miraculously sprung up
for the refreshment of the Holy Family. It still exists, as we
are informed by travellers, and is still styled by the Arabs, "The
Fountain of Mary." This fountain is frequently represented, as in
the well-known Riposo by Correggio, where the Virgin is dipping a bowl
into the gushing stream, hence called the "Madonna _della Scodella_"
(Parma): in another by Baroccio (Grosvenor Gal.), and another by
Domenichino (Louvre, 491).
[Footnote 1: The site of this fountain is about four miles N.E. of
In this fountain, says another legend, Mary washed the linen of the
Child. There are several pictures which represent the Virgin washing
linen in a fountain; for example, one by Lucio Massari, where, in a
charming landscape, the little Christ takes the linen out of a basket,
and Joseph hangs it on a line to dry. (Florence Gal.)
The ministry of the angels is here not only allowable, but beautifully
appropriate; and never has it been more felicitously and more
gracefully expressed than in a little composition by Lucas Cranach,
where the Virgin and her Child repose under a tree, while the angels
dance in a circle round them. The cause of the Flight--the Massacre
of the Innocents--is figuratively expressed by two winged boys, who,
seated on a bough of the tree, are seen robbing a nest, and wringing
the necks of the nestlings, while the parent-birds scream and flutter
over their heads: in point of taste, this significant allegory had
been better omitted; it spoils the harmony of composition. There
is another similar group, quite as graceful, by David Hopfer.
Vandyck seems to have had both in his memory when he designed the
very beautiful Riposo so often copied and engraved (Coll. of Lord
Ashburton); here the Virgin is seated under a tree, in an open
landscape, and holds her divine Child; Joseph, behind, seems asleep;
in front of the Virgin, eight lovely angels dance in a round, while
others, seated in the sky, make heavenly music.
In another singular and charming Riposo by Lucas Cranach, the Virgin
and Child are seated under a tree; to the left of the group is a
fountain, where a number of little angels appear to be washing linen;
to the right, Joseph approaches leading the ass, and in the act of
reverently removing his cap.
There is a Riposo by Albert Durer which I cannot pass over. It is
touched with all that homely domestic feeling, and at the same time
all that fertility of fancy, which are so characteristic of that
extraordinary man. We are told that when Joseph took up his residence
at Matarea in Egypt, he provided for his wife and Child by exercising
his trade as a carpenter. In this composition he appears in the
foreground dressed as an artisan with an apron on, and with an axe in
his hand is shaping a plank of wood. Mary sits on one side spinning
with her distaff, and watching her Infant slumbering in its cradle.
Around this domestic group we have a crowd of ministering angels; some
of these little winged spirits are assisting Joseph, sweeping up the
chips and gathering them into baskets; others are merely "sporting at
their own sweet will." Several more dignified-looking angels, having
the air of guardian spirits, stand or kneel round the cradle, bending
over it with folded hands.
[Footnote 1: In the famous set of wood cuts of the Life of the Virgin
In a Riposo by Titian, the Infant lies on a pillow on the ground, and
the Virgin is kneeling before him, while Joseph leans on his pilgrim's
staff, to which is suspended a wallet. In another, two angels,
kneeling, offer fruits in a basket; in the distance, a little angel
waters the ass at a stream. (All these are engraved.)
The angels, according to the legend, not only ministered to the Holy
Family, but pitched a tent nightly, in which they were sheltered.
Poussin, in an exquisite picture, has represented the Virgin and Child
reposing under a curtain suspended from the branches of a tree and
partly sustained by angels, while others, kneeling, offer fruit.
Poussin is the only painter who has attempted to express the locality.
In one of his pictures the Holy Family reposes on the steps of an
Egyptian temple; a sphinx and a pyramid are visible in the background.
In another Riposo by the same master, an Ethiopian boy presents fruits
to the Infant Christ. Joseph is frequently asleep, which is hardly
consonant with the spirit of the older legends. It is, however, a
beautiful idea to make the Child and Joseph both reposing, while the
Virgin Mother, with eyes upraised to heaven, wakes and watches, as
in a picture by Mola (Louvre, 269); but a yet more beautiful idea to
represent the Virgin and Joseph sunk in sleep, while the divine Infant
lying in his mother's arms wakes and watches for both, with his little
hands joined in prayer, and his eyes fixed on the hovering angels or
the opening skies above.
In a Riposo by Rembrandt, the Holy Family rest by night, and are
illuminated only by a lantern suspended on the bough of a tree, the
whole group having much the air of a gypsy encampment. But one of
Rembrandt's imitators has in his own way improved on this fancy; the
Virgin sleeps on a bank with the Child on her bosom; Joseph, who looks
extremely like an old tinker, is doubling his fist at the ass, which
has opened its mouth to bray.
* * * * *
Before quitting the subject of the Riposo, I must mention a very
pretty and poetical legend, which I have met with in one picture only;
a description of it may, however, lead to the recognition of others.
There is, in the collection of Lord Shrewsbury, at Alton Towers, a
Riposo attributed to Giorgione, remarkable equally for the beauty and
the singularity of the treatment. The Holy Family are seated in the
midst of a wild but rich landscape, quite in the Venetian style;
Joseph is asleep; the two children are playing with a lamb. The
Virgin, seated holds a book, and turns round, with an expression of
surprise and alarm, to a female figure who stands on the right. This
woman has a dark physiognomy, ample flowing drapery of red and white,
a white turban twisted round her head, and stretches out her hand with
the air of a sibyl. The explanation of this striking group I found
in an old ballad-legend. Every one who has studied the moral as well
as the technical character of the various schools of art, must have
remarked how often the Venetians (and Giorgione more especially)
painted groups from the popular fictions and ballads of the time; and
it has often been regretted that many of these pictures are becoming
unintelligible to us from our having lost the key to them, in losing
all trace of the fugitive poems or tales which suggested them.
The religious ballad I allude to must have been popular in the
sixteenth century; it exists in the Provencal dialect, in German,
and in Italian; and, like the wild ballad of St. John Chrysostom, it
probably came in some form or other from the East. The theme is, in
all these versions, substantially the same. The Virgin, on her arrival
in Egypt, is encountered by a gypsy (Zingara or Zingarella), who
crosses the Child's palm after the gypsy manner, and foretells all the
wonderful and terrible things which, as the Redeemer of mankind, he
was destined to perform and endure on earth.
An Italian version which lies before me is entitled, _Canzonetta
nuova, sopra la Madonna, quando si parto in Egitto col Bambino Gesu
e San Giuseppe_, "A new Ballad of our Lady, when she fled into Egypt
with the Child Jesus and St. Joseph."
It begins with a conversation between the Virgin, who has just arrived
from her long journey, and the gypsy-woman, who thus salutes her:--
Dio ti salvi, bella Signora,
E ti dia buona ventura.
Ben venuto, vecchiarello,
Con questo bambino bello!
Ben trovata, sorella mia,
La sua grazia Dio ti dia.
Ti perdoni i tuoi peccati
L' infinita sua bontade.
Siete stanchi e meschini,
Credo, poveri pellegrini
Che cercate d' alloggiare.
Vuoi, Signora, scavalcare?
Voi che siete, sorella mia,
Tutta piena di cortesia,
Dio vi renda la carita
Per l'infinita sua bonta.
Noi veniam da Nazaretta,
Siamo senza alcun ricetto,
Arrivati all' strania
Stanchi e lassi dalla via!
God save thee, fair Lady, and give thee good luck
Welcome, good old man, with this thy fair Child!
Well met, sister mine! God give thee grace, and of
his infinite mercy forgive thee thy sins!
Ye are tired and drooping, poor pilgrims, as I think,
seeking a night's lodging. Lady, wilt thou choose to alight?
O sister mine! full of courtesy, God of his infinite goodness
reward thee for thy charity. We are come from
Nazareth, and we are without a place to lay our heads,
arrived in a strange land, all tired and weary with the way!
The Zingarella then offers them a resting-place, and straw and fodder
for the ass, which being accepted, she asks leave to tell their
fortune, but begins by recounting, in about thirty stanzas, all the
past history of the Virgin pilgrim; she then asks to see the Child--
Ora tu, Signora mia.
Che sei piena di cortesia,
Mostramelo per favore
Lo tuo Figlio Redentore!
And now, O Lady mine, that art full of courtesy, grant
me to look upon thy Son, the Redeemer!
The Virgin takes him from the arms of Joseph--
Datemi, o caro sposo,
Lo mio Figlio grazioso!
Quando il vide sta meschina
Zingarella, che indovina!
Give me, dear husband, my lovely boy, that this poor
gypsy, who is a prophetess, may look upon him.
The gypsy responds with becoming admiration and humility, praises
the beauty of the Child, and then proceeds to examine his palm: which
having done, she breaks forth into a prophecy of all the awful future,
tells how he would be baptized, and tempted, scourged, and finally
hung upon a cross--
Questo Figlio accarezzato
Tu lo vedrai ammazzato
Sopra d'una dura croce,
Figlio bello! Figlio dolce!
but consoles the disconsolate Mother, doomed to honour for the sake of
Sei arrivata a tanti onori
Per noi altri Peccatori!
and ends by begging an alms--
Non ti vo' piu infastidire,
Bella Signora; so chi hai a fare.
Dona la limosinella
A sta povera Zingarella
true repentance and eternal life.
Vo' una vera contrizione
Per la tua intercezione,
Accio st' alma dopo morte
Tragga alle celesti porte!
And so the story ends.
There can be no doubt, I think, that we have here the original theme
of Giorgione's picture, and perhaps of others.
In the Provencal ballad, there are three gypsies, men, not women,
introduced, who tell the fortune of the Virgin and Joseph, as well
as that of the Child, and end by begging alms "to wet their thirsty
throats." Of this version there is a very spirited and characteristic
translation by Mr. Kenyon, under the title of "a Gypsy Carol."
[Footnote 1: A Day at Tivoli, with other Verses, by John Kenyon, p.
THE RETURN FROM EGYPT.
According to some authorities, the Holy Family sojourned in Egypt
during a period of seven years, but others assert that they returned
to Judea at the end of two years.
In general the painters have expressed the Return from Egypt by
exhibiting Jesus as no longer an infant sustained in his mother's
arms, but as a boy walking at her side. In a picture by Francesco
Vanni, he is a boy about two or three years old, and carries a little
basket full of carpenter's tools. The occasion of the Flight and
Return is indicated by three or four of the martyred Innocents, who
are lying on the ground. In a picture by Domenico Feti two of the
Innocents are lying dead on the roadside. In a very graceful, animated
picture by Rubens, Mary and Joseph lead the young Christ between them,
and the Virgin wears a large straw hat.
THE LIFE OF THE VIRGIN MARY FROM THE SOJOURN IN EGYPT TO THE
CRUCIFIXION OF OUR LORD.
1. THE HOLY FAMILY. 2. THE VIRGIN SEEKS HER SON. 3. THE DEATH OF
JOSEPH. 4. THE MARRIAGE AT CANA. 5. "LO SPASIMO." 6. THE CRUCIFIXION.
7. THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS. 8. THE ENTOMBMENT.
THE HOLY FAMILY.
When the Holy Family under divine protection, had returned safely from
their sojourn in Egypt, they were about to repair to Bethlehem; but
Joseph hearing that Archelaus "did reign in Judea in the room of his
father Herod, he was afraid to go thither; and being warned of God
in a dream, he turned aside into Galilee," and came to the city of
Nazareth, which was the native place and home of the Virgin Mary.
Here Joseph dwelt, following in peace his trade of a carpenter, and
bringing up his reputed Son to the same craft: and here Mary nurtured
her divine Child; "and he grew and waxed strong in spirit, and the
grace of God was upon him." No other event is recorded until Jesus had
reached his twelfth, year.
* * * * *
This, then, is the proper place to introduce some notice of those
representations of the domestic life of the Virgin and the infancy
of the Saviour, which, in all their endless variety, pass under the
general title of THE HOLY FAMILY--the beautiful title of a beautiful
subject, addressed in the loveliest and most familiar form at once to
the piety and the affections of the beholder.
These groups, so numerous, and of such perpetual recurrence, that they
alone form a large proportion of the contents of picture galleries
and the ornaments of churches, are, after all, a modern innovation in
sacred art. What may be called the _domestic_ treatment of the history
of the Virgin cannot be traced farther back than the middle of the
fifteenth century. It is, indeed, common to class all those pictures
as Holy Families which include any of the relatives of Christ grouped
with the Mother and her Child; but I must here recapitulate and
insist upon the distinction to be drawn between the _domestic_ and
the _devotional_ treatment of the subject; a distinction I have been
careful to keep in view throughout the whole range of sacred art,
and which, in this particular subject, depends on a difference in
sentiment and intention, more easily felt than set down in words. It
is, I must repeat, a _devotional_ group where the sacred personages
are placed in direct relation to the worshippers, and where their
supernatural character is paramount to every other. It is a _domestic_
or an _historical_ group, a Holy Family properly so called, when the
personages are placed in direct relation to each other by some link
of action or sentiment, which expresses the family connection between
them, or by some action which has a dramatic rather than a religious
significance. The Italians draw this distinction in the title "_Sacra
Conversazione_" given to the first-named subject, and that of "_Sacra
Famiglia_" given to the last. For instance, if the Virgin, watching
her sleeping Child, puts her finger on her lip to silence the little
St. John; there is here no relation between the spectator and the
persons represented, except that of unbidden sympathy: it is a
family group; a domestic scene. But if St. John, looking out of the
picture, points to the Infant, "Behold the Lamb of God!" then the
whole representation changes its significance; St. John assumes the
character of precursor, and we, the spectators, are directly addressed
and called upon to acknowledge the "Son of God, the Saviour of
If St. Joseph, kneeling, presents flowers to the Infant Christ, while
Mary looks on tenderly (as in a group by Raphael), it is an act of
homage which expresses the mutual relation of the three personages; it
is a Holy Family: whereas, in the picture by Murillo, in our National
Gallery, where Joseph and Mary present the young Redeemer to the
homage of the spectator, while the form of the PADRE ETERNO, and
the Holy Spirit, with attendant angels, are floating above, we have
a devotional group, a "_Sacra Conversazione_:"--it is, in fact a
material representation of the Trinity; and the introduction of Joseph
into such immediate propinquity with the personages acknowledged
as divine is one of the characteristics of the later schools of
theological art. It could not possibly have occurred before the end
of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The introduction of persons who could not have been contemporary, as
St. Francis or St. Catherine, renders the group ideal and devotional.
On the other hand, as I have already observed, the introduction of
attendant angels does not place the subject out of the domain of the
actual; for the painters literally rendered what in the Scripture text
is distinctly set down and literally interpreted, "He shall give his
angels charge concerning thee." Wherever lived and moved the Infant
Godhead, angels were always _supposed_ to be present; therefore it lay
within the province of an art addressed especially to our senses, to
place them bodily before us, and to give to these heavenly attendants
a visible shape and bearing worthy of their blessed ministry.
The devotional groups, of which I have already treated most fully,
even while placed by the accessories quite beyond the range of actual
life, have been too often vulgarized and formalized by a trivial or
merely conventional treatment. In these really domestic scenes,
where the painter sought unreproved his models in simple nature, and
trusted for his effect to what was holiest and most immutable in our
common humanity, he must have been a bungler indeed if he did not
succeed in touching some responsive chord of sympathy in the bosom of
the observer. This is, perhaps, the secret of the universal, and, in
general, deserved popularity of these Holy Families.
[Footnote 1: See the "Mater Amabilis" and the "Pastoral Madonnas," p.
The simplest form of the family group is confined to two figures,
and expresses merely the relation between the Mother and the Child.
The _motif_ is precisely the same as in the formal, goddess-like,
enthroned Madonnas of the antique time; but here quite otherwise
worked out, and appealing to other sympathies. In the first instance,
the intention was to assert the contested pretensions of the human
mother to divine honours; here it was rather to assert the humanity of
her divine Son; and we have before us, in the simplest form, the first
and holiest of all the social relations.
The primal instinct, as the first duty, of the mother, is the
nourishment of the life she has given. A very common subject,
therefore, is Mary in the act of feeding her Child from her bosom. I
have already observed that, when first adopted, this was a theological
theme; an answer, _in form_, to the challenge of the Nestorians,
"Shall we call him _God_, who hath sucked his mother's breast?" Then,
and for at least 500 years afterwards, the simple maternal action
involved a religious dogma, and was the visible exponent of a
controverted article of faith. All such controversy had long ceased,
and certainly there was no thought of insisting on a point of
theology in the minds of those secular painters of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, who have set forth the representation with such
an affectionate and delicate grace; nor yet in the minds of those who
converted the lovely group into a moral lesson. For example, we find
in the works of Jeremy Taylor (one of the lights of our Protestant
Church) a long homily "Of nursing children, in imitation of the
blessed Virgin Mother;" and prints and pictures of the Virgin thus
occupied often bear significant titles and inscriptions of the same
import; such as "Le premier devoir d'une mere," &c.
I do not find this _motif_ in any known picture by Raphael: but in
one of his designs, engraved by Marc Antonio, it is represented with
characteristic grace and delicacy.
Goethe describes with delight a picture by Correggio, in which the
attention of the Child seems divided between the bosom of his mother,
and some fruit offered by an angel. He calls this subject "The Weaning
of the Infant Christ." Correggio, if not the very first, is certainly
among the first of the Italians who treated this _motif_ in the simple
domestic style. Others of the Lombard school followed him; and I know
not a more exquisite example than the maternal group by Solario, now
in the Louvre, styled _La Vierge a l'Oreiller verd_, from the colour
of the pillow on which the Child is lying. The subject is frequent in
the contemporary German and Flemish schools of the sixteenth century.
In the next century, there are charming examples by the Bologna
painters and the _Naturalisti_, Spanish, Italian, and Flemish. I would
particularly point to one by Agostino Caracci (Parma), and to another
by Vandyck (that engraved by Bartolozzi), as examples of elegance;
while in the numerous specimens by Rubens we have merely his own
wife and son, painted with all that coarse vigorous life, and homely
affectionate expression, which his own strong domestic feelings could
We have in other pictures the relation between the Mother and Child
expressed and varied in a thousand ways; as where she contemplates him
fondly--kisses him, pressing his cheeks to hers; or they sport with a
rose, or an apple, or a bird; or he presents it to his mother; these
originally mystical emblems being converted into playthings. In
another sketch she is amusing him by tinkling a bell:--the bell,
which has a religious significance, is here a plaything. One or more
attendant angels may vary the group, without taking it out of the
sphere of reality. In a quaint but charming picture in the Wallerstein
Collection, an angel is sporting with the Child at his mother's
feet--is literally his playfellow; and in a picture by Cambiaso, Mary,
assisted by an angel, is teaching her Child to walk.
* * * * *
To represent in the great enthroned Madonnas, the Infant Saviour of
the world asleep, has always appeared to me a solecism: whereas in
the domestic subject the Infant slumbering on his mother's knee, or
cradled in her arms, or on her bosom, or rocked by angels, is a most
charming subject. Sometimes angels are seen preparing his bed, or
looking on while he sleeps, with folded hands and overshadowing wings.
Sometimes Marry hangs over his pillow; "pondering in her heart"
the wondrous destinies of her Child. A poetess of our own time has
given us an interpretation worthy of the most beautiful of these
representations, in the address of the Virgin Mary to the Child
Jesus,--"Sleep, sleep, mine Holy One!"
"And are thou come for saving, baby-browed
And speechless Being? art thou come for saving?
The palm that grows beside our door is bowed
By treadings of the low wind from the south,
A restless shadow through the chamber waving,
Upon its bough a bird sings in the sun.
But thou, with that close slumber on thy mouth,
Dost seem of wind and sun already weary,
Art come for saving, O my weary One?
"Perchance this sleep that shutteth out the dreary
Earth-sounds and motions, opens on thy soul
High dreams on fire with God;
High songs that make the pathways where they roll
More bright than stars do theirs; and visions new
Of thine eternal nature's old abode.
Suffer this mother's kiss,
Best thing that earthly is,
To glide the music and the glory through,
Nor narrow in thy dream the broad upliftings
Of any seraph wing.
Thus, noiseless, thus!--Sleep, sleep, my dreaming One."
[Footnote 1: Poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, vol. ii. p. 174.]
Such high imaginings might be suggested by the group of Michael
Angelo,--his famous "Silenzio:" but very different certainly are the
thoughts and associations conveyed by some of the very lovely, but at
the same time familiar and commonplace, groups of peasant-mothers and
sleeping babies--the countless productions of the later schools--even
while the simplicity and truth of the natural sentiment go straight to
I remember reading a little Italian hymn composed for a choir of nuns,
and addressed to the sleeping Christ, in which he is prayed to awake
or if he will not, they threaten to pull him by his golden curls until
they rouse him to listen!
* * * * *
I have seen a graceful print which represents Jesus as a child
standing at his mother's knee, while she feeds him from a plate or cap
held by an angel; underneath is the text, "_Butter and honey shall he
eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and choose the good_" And
in a print of the same period, the mother suspends her needlework
to contemplate the Child, who, standing at her side, looks down
compassionately on two little birds, which flutter their wings and
open their beaks expectingly; underneath is the test, "Are not two
sparrows sold for a farthing?"
Mary employed in needlework, while her cradled Infant slumbers at her
side, is a beautiful subject. Rossini, in his _Storia della Pittura_,
publishes a group, representing the Virgin mending or making a little
coat, while Jesus, seated at her feet, without his coat, is playing
with a bird; two angels are hovering above. It appears to me that
there is here some uncertainty as regards both the subject and the
master. In the time of Giottino, to whom Rossini attributes the
picture, the domestic treatment of the Madonna and Child was unknown.
If it be really by him, I should suppose it to represent Hannah and
her son Samuel.
* * * * *
All these, and other varieties of action and sentiment connecting the
Mother and her Child, are frequently accompanied by accessory figures,
forming, in their combination, what is properly a Holy Family. The
personages introduced, singly or together, are the young St. John,
Joseph, Anna, Joachim, Elizabeth, and Zacharias.
The group of three figures most commonly met with, is that of the
Mother and Child, with St. John. One of the earliest examples of the
domestic treatment of this group is a quaint picture by Botticelli,
in which Mary, bending down, holds forth the Child to be caressed by
St. John,--very dry in colour and faulty in drawing, but beautiful
for the sentiment. (Florence, Pitti Pal.) Perhaps the most perfect
example which could be cited from the whole range of art, is
Raphael's "Madonna del Cardellino" (Florence Gal.); another is his
"Belle Jardiniere" (Louvre, 375); another, in which the figures are
half-length, is his "Madonna del Giglio" (Lord Garvagh's Coll.). As
I have already observed, where the Infant Christ takes the cross from
St. John, or presents it to him, or where St. John points to him as
the Redeemer, or is represented, not as a child, but as a youth or a
man, the composition assumes a devotional significance.
The subject of the Sleeping Christ is beautifully varied by the
introduction of St. John; as where Mary lifts the veil and shows her
Child to the little St. John, kneeling with folded hands: Raphael's
well-known "Vierge a la Diademe" is an instance replete with grace and
expression. Sometimes Mary, putting her finger to her lip, exhorts
St. John to silence, as in a famous and oft-repeated subject by
Annibale Caracci, of which there is a lovely example at Windsor. Such
a group is called in Italian, _Il Silenzio_, and in French _le Sommeil
[Footnote 1: Louvre, 376. It is also styled _la Vierge au Linge_]
* * * * *
Another group of three figures consists of the Mother, the Child, and
St. Joseph as foster-father. This group, so commonly met with in the
later schools of art, dates from the end of the fifteenth century.
Gerson, an ecclesiastic distinguished at the Council of Constance for
his learning and eloquence, had written a poem of three thousand lines
in praise of St. Joseph, setting him up as the Christian, example
of every virtue; and this poem, after the invention of printing, was
published and widely disseminated. Sixtus IV. instituted a festival
in honour of the "Husband of the Virgin," which, as a novelty
and harmonizing with the tone of popular feeling, was everywhere
acceptable. As a natural consequence, the churches and chapels were
filled with pictures, which represented the Mother and her Child,
with Joseph standing or seated by, in an attitude of religious
contemplation or affectionate sympathy; sometimes leaning on his
stick, or with his tools lying beside him; and always in the old
pictures habited in his appropriate colours, the saffron-coloured robe
over the gray or green tunic.
In the Madonna and Child, as a strictly devotional subject, the
introduction of Joseph rather complicates the idea; but in the
domestic Holy Family his presence is natural and necessary. It is
seldom that he is associated with the action, where there is one;
but of this also there are some beautiful examples.
* * * * *
1. In a well-known composition by Raphael (Grosvenor Gal.), the mother
withdraws the covering from the Child, who seems to have that moment
awaked, and, stretching out his little arms, smiles in her face:
Joseph looks on tenderly and thoughtfully.
2. In another group by Raphael (Bridgewater Gal.), the Infant is
seated on the mother's knee, and sustained by part of her veil;
Joseph, kneeling, offers flowers to his divine foster-Son, who eagerly
stretches out his little hand to take them.
In many pictures, Joseph is seen presenting cherries; as in the
celebrated _Vierge aux Cerises_ of Annibale Caracci. (Louvre.) The
allusion is to a quaint old legend, often introduced in the religious
ballads and dramatic mysteries of the time. It is related, that before
the birth of our Saviour, the Virgin Mary wished to taste of certain
cherries which hung upon a tree high above her head; she requested
Joseph to procure them for her, and he reaching to pluck them, the
branch bowed down to his hand.
3. There is a lovely pastoral composition by Titian, in which Mary
is seated under some trees, with Joseph leaning on his staff, and the
Infant Christ standing between them: the little St. John approaches
with his lap full of cherries; and in the background a woman is seen
gathering cherries. This picture is called a Ripose; but the presence
of St. John, and the cherry tree instead of the date tree, point out a
different signification. Angels presenting cherries on a plate is also
a frequent circumstance, derived from the same legend.
4. In a charming picture by Garofalo, Joseph is caressing the Child,
while Mary--a rather full figure, calm, matronly, and dignified, as is
usual with Garofalo--sits by, holding a book in her hand, from which
she has just raised her eyes. (Windsor Gal.)
5. In a family group by Murillo, Joseph, standing, holds the Infant
pressed to his bosom; while Mary, seated near a cradle, holds out her
arms to take it from him: a carpenter's bench is seen behind.
6. A celebrated picture by Rembrandt, known as _le Menage du
Menuisier_, exhibits a rustic interior; the Virgin is seated with the
volume of the Scriptures open on her knees--she turns, and lifting
the coverlid of the cradle, contemplates the Infant asleep: in the
background Joseph is seen at his work; while angels hover above,
keeping watch over the Holy Family. Exquisite for the homely
natural sentiment, and the depth of the colour and chiaro-oscuro.
7. Many who read these pages will remember the pretty little picture
by Annibale Caracci, known as "le Raboteur." It represents Joseph
planing a board, while Jesus, a lovely boy about six or seven years
old, stands by, watching the progress of his work. Mary is seated on
one side plying her needle. The great fault of this picture is the
subordinate and utterly commonplace character given to the Virgin
Mother: otherwise it is a very suggestive and dramatic subject, and
one which might be usefully engraved in a cheap form for distribution.
[Footnote 1: In the Coll. of the Earl of Suffolk, at Charlton.]
* * * * *
Sometimes, in a Holy Family of three figures, the third figure is
neither St. John nor St. Joseph, but St. Anna. Now, according to
some early authorities, both Joachim and Anna died either before the
marriage of Mary and Joseph, or at least before the return from Egypt.
Such, however, was the popularity of these family groups, and the
desire to give them all possible variety, that the ancient version of
the story was overruled by the prevailing taste, and St. Anna became
an important personage. One of the earliest groups in which the mother
of the Virgin is introduced as a third personage, is a celebrated,
but to my taste not a pleasing, composition, by Lionardo da Vinci,
in which St. Anna is seated on a sort of chair, and the Virgin on her
knees bends down towards the Infant Christ, who is sporting with a
lamb. (Louvre, 481.)
In a Holy Family of four figures, we have frequently the Virgin, the
Child, and the infant St. John, with St. Joseph standing by. Raphael's
Madonna del Passeggio is an example. In a picture by Palma Vecchio,
St. John presents a lamb, while St. Joseph kneels before the Infant
Christ, who, seated on his mother's knee, extends his arms to his
foster-father. Nicole Poussin was fond of this group, and has repeated
it at least ten times with variations.
But the most frequent group of four figures consists of the Virgin and
Child, with St. John and his mother, St. Elizabeth--the two mothers
and the two sons. Sometimes the children are sporting together,
or embracing each other, while Mary and Elizabeth look on with a
contemplative tenderness, or seem to converse on the future destinies
of their sons. A very favourite and appropriate action is that of St.
Elizabeth presenting St. John, and teaching him to kneel and fold his
hands, as acknowledging in his little cousin the Infant Saviour. We
have then, in beautiful contrast, the aged coifed head of Elizabeth,
with its matronly and earnest expression; the youthful bloom and soft
virginal dignity of Mary; and the different character of the boys, the
fair complexion and delicate proportions of the Infant Christ, and
the more robust and brown-complexioned John. A great painter will be
careful to express these distinctions, not by the exterior character
only, but will so combine the personages, that the action represented
shall display the superior dignity of Christ and his mother.
FIVE OR SIX FIGURES.
The addition of Joseph as a fifth figure, completes the domestic
group. The introduction of the aged Zacharias renders, however, yet
more full and complete, the circle of human life and human affection.
We have then, infancy, youth, maturity, and age,--difference of sex
and various degrees of relationship, combined into one harmonious
whole; and in the midst, the divinity of innocence, the Child-God,
the brightness of a spiritual power, connecting our softest earthly
affections with our highest heavenward aspirations.
[Footnote 1: The inscription under a Holy Family in which the children
are caressing each other is sometimes _Delicae meae esse cum filiis
hominum_ (Prov. viii. 31, "My delights were with the sons of men").]
* * * * *
A Holy Family of more than six figures (the angels not included) is
very unusual. But there are examples of groups combining all those
personages mentioned in the Gospels as being related to Christ,
though the nature and the degree of this supposed relationship has
embarrassed critics and commentators, and is not yet settled.
According to an ancient tradition, Anna, the mother of the Virgin
Mary, was three times married, Joachim being her third husband: the
two others were Cleophas and Salome. By Cleophas she had a daughter,
also called Mary, who was the wife of Alpheus, and the mother
of Thaddeus, James Minor, and Joseph Justus. By Salome she had a
daughter, also Mary, married to Zebedee, and the mother of James Major
and John the Evangelist. This idea that St. Anna was successively the
wife of three husbands, and the mother of three daughters, all of
the name of Mary, has been rejected by later authorities; but in the
beginning of the sixteenth century it was accepted, and to that period
may be referred the pictures, Italian and German, representing a
peculiar version of the Holy Family more properly styled "the Family
of the Virgin Mary."
A picture by Lorenzo di Pavia, painted about 1513, exhibits a very
complete example of this family group. Mary is seated in the centre,
holding in her lap the Infant Christ; near her is St. Joseph. Behind
the Virgin stand St. Anna, and three men, with their names inscribed,
Joachim, Cleophas, and Salome. On the right of the Virgin is Mary the
daughter of Cleophas, Alpheus her husband, and her children Thaddeus,
James Minor, and Joseph Justus. On the left of the Virgin is Mary the
daughter of Salome, her husband Zebedee, and her children James Major
and John the Evangelist.
[Footnote 1: This picture I saw in the Louvre some years ago, but it
is not in the New Catalogue by M. Villot.]
A yet more beautiful example is a picture by Perugino in the Musee
at Marseilles, which I have already cited and described (Sacred and
Legendary Art): here also the relatives of Christ, destined to be
afterwards his apostles and the ministers of his word, are grouped
around him in his infancy. In the centre Mary is seated and holding
the child; St. Anna stands behind, resting her hands affectionately on
the shoulders of the Virgin. In front, at the feet of the Virgin, are
two boys, Joseph and Thaddeus; and near them Mary, the daughter of
Cleophas, holds the hand of her third son James Minor. To the right is
Mary Salome, holding in her arms her son John the Evangelist, and at
her feet is her other son, James Major. Joseph, Zebedee, and other
members of the family, stand around. The same subject I have seen in
illuminated MSS., and in German prints. It is worth remarking that all
these appeared about the same time, between 1505 and 1520, and that
the subject afterwards disappeared; from which I infer that it was
not authorized by the Church; perhaps because the exact degree of
relationship between these young apostles and the Holy Family was
not clearly made out, either by Scripture or tradition.
In a composition by Parmigiano, Christ is standing at his mother's
knee; Elizabeth presents St. John the Baptist; the other little St.
John kneels on a cushion. Behind the Virgin are St. Joachim and St.
Anna; and behind Elizabeth, Zebedee and Mary Salome, the parents of
St. John the Evangelist. In the centre, Joseph looks on with folded
* * * * *
A catalogue _raisonnee_ of the Holy Families painted by distinguished
artists including from two to six figures would fill volumes: I
shall content myself with directing attention to some few examples
remarkable either for their celebrity, their especial beauty, or for
some peculiarity, whether commendable or not, in the significance or
The strictly domestic conception may be said to have begun with
Raphael and Correggio; and they afford the most perfect examples
of the tender and the graceful in sentiment and action, the softest
parental feeling, the loveliest forms of childhood. Of the purely
natural and familiar treatment, which came into fashion in the
seventeenth century, the pictures of Guido, Rubens, and Murillo
afford the most perfect specimens.
1. Raphael. (Louvre, 377.) Mary, a noble queenly creature, is seated,
and bends towards her Child, who is springing from his cradle to meet
her embrace; Elizabeth presents St. John; and Joseph, leaning on his
hand, contemplates the group: two beautiful angels scatter flowers
from above. This is the celebrated picture once supposed to have been
executed expressly for Francis I.; but later researches prove it to
have been painted for Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino.
[Footnote 1: It appears from the correspondence relative to this
picture and the "St. Michael," that both pictures were painted by
order of this Lorenzo de' Medici, the same who is figured in Michael
Angelo's _Pensiero_, and that they were intended as presents to
Francis I. (See Dr. Gaye's _Carteggio_, ii. 146, and also the new
Catalogue of the Louvre by F. Villot.) I have mentioned this Holy
Family not as the finest of Raphael's Madonnas, but because there is
something peculiarly animated and dramatic in the _motif_, considering
the time at which it was painted. It was my intention to have given
here a complete list of Raphael's Holy Families; but this has been
so well done in the last English edition of Kugler's Handbook, that
it has become superfluous as a repetition. The series of minute
and exquisite drawings by Mr. George Scharf, appended to Kugler's
Catalogue, renders it easy to recognize all the groups described in
this and the preceding pages.]
2. Correggio. Mary holds the Child upon her knee, looking down upon
him fondly. Styled, from the introduction of the work-basket, _La
Vierge au Panier_. A finished example of that soft, yet joyful,
maternal feeling for which Correggio was remarkable. (National Gal.
3. Pinturicchio. In a landscape, Mary and Joseph are seated together;
near them are some loaves and a small cask of wine. More in front the
two children, Jesus and St. John, are walking arm in arm; Jesus holds
a book and John a pitcher, as if they were going to a well. (Siena
4. Andrea del Sarto. The Virgin is seated on the ground, and holds the
Child; the young St. John is in the arms of St. Elizabeth, and Joseph
is seen behind. (Louvre, 439.) This picture, another by the same
painter in the National Gallery, a third in the collection of Lord
Lansdowne, and in general all the Holy Families of Andrea, may
be cited as examples of fine execution and mistaken or defective
character. No sentiment, no action, connects the personages either
with each other, or with the spectator.
5. Michael Angelo. The composition, in the Florence Gallery, styled
a Holy Family, appears to me a signal example of all that should be
avoided. It is, as a conception, neither religious nor domestic; in
execution and character exaggerated and offensive, and in colour hard
Another, a bas-relief, in which the Child is shrinking from a
bird held up by St. John, is very grand in the forms: the mistake
in sentiment, as regards the bird, I have pointed out in the
Introduction. (Royal Academy.) A third, in which the Child leans
pensively on a book lying open on his mother's knee, while she looks
out on the spectator, is more properly a _Mater Amabilis_.
There is an extraordinary fresco still preserved in the Casa
Buonarotti at Florence, where it was painted on the wall by Michael
Angelo, and styled a Holy Family, though the exact meaning of the
subject has been often disputed. It appears to me, however, very
clear, and one never before or since attempted by any other artist.
(This fresco is engraved in the _Etruria Pittrice_.) Mary is seated
in the centre; her Child is reclining on the ground between her knees;
and the little St. John holding his cross looks on him steadfastly.
A man coming forward seems to ask of Mary, "Whose son is this?" She
most expressively puts aside Joseph with her hand, and looks up, as
if answering, "Not the son of an earthly, but of a heavenly Father!"
There are five other figures standing behind, and the whole group is
6. Albert Durer. The Holy Family seated under a tree; the Infant is
about to spring from the knee of his mother into the outstretched arms
of St. Anna; Joseph is seen behind with his hat in his hand; and to
the left sits the aged Joachim contemplating the group.
7. Mary appears to have just risen from her chair, the Child bends
from her arms, and a young and very little angel, standing on tiptoe,
holds up to him a flower--other flowers in his lap:--a beautiful old
8. Giulio Romano. (_La Madonna del Bacino_.) (Dresden Gal.) The Child
stands in a basin, and the young St. John pours water upon him from
a vase, while Mary washes him. St. Elizabeth stands by, holding
a napkin; St. Joseph, behind, is looking on. Notwithstanding the
homeliness of the action, there is here a religious and mysterious
significance, prefiguring the Baptism.
9. N. Poussin. Mary, assisted by angels, washes and dresses her Child.
(Gal. of Mr. Hope.)
10. V. Salimbeni.--An Interior. Mary and Joseph are occupied by the
Child. Elizabeth is spinning. More in front St. John is carrying two
puppies in the lappet of his coat, and the dog is leaping up to him.
(Florence, Pitti Pal.) This is one out of many instances in which
the painter, anxious to vary the oft-repeated subject, and no longer
restrained by refined taste or religious veneration, has fallen into
a most offensive impropriety.
11. Ippolito Andreasi. Mary, seated, holds the Infant Christ between
her knees; Elizabeth leans over the back of her chair; Joseph leans on
his staff behind the Virgin; the little St. John and an angel present
grapes, while four other angels are gathering and bringing them.
A branch of vine, loaded with grapes, is lying in the foreground.
Christ looks like a young Bacchus; and there is something mannered and
fantastic in the execution. (Louvre, 38.) With this domestic scene is
blended a strictly religious symbol, "_I am the vine_."
12. Murilio. Mary is in the act of swaddling her Child (Luke ii, 7),
while two angels, standing near him, solace the divine Infant with
heavenly music. (Madrid Gal.)
13. Rubens. Mary, seated on the ground, holds the Child with a
charming maternal expression, a little from her, gazing on him with
rapturous earnestness, while he looks up with responsive tenderness in
her face. His right hand rests on a cross presented by St. John, who
is presented by St. Elizabeth. Wonderful for the intensely natural and
domestic expression, and the beauty of the execution. (Florence, Pitti
14. D. Hopfer. Within the porch of a building, Mary is seated on one
side, reading intently. St. Anna, on the other side, holds out her
arms to the Child, who is sitting on the ground between them; an angel
looks in at the open door behind. (Bartsch., viii. 483.)
15. Rembrandt. (_Le Menage du Menuisier_.) A rustic interior. Mary,
seated in the centre, is suckling her Child. St. Anna, a fat Flemish
grandame, has been reading the volume of the Scriptures, and bends
forward in order to remove the covering and look in the Infant's face.
A cradle is near. Joseph is seen at work in the background. (Louvre.)
16. Le Brun. (_The Benedicite_.) Mary, the Child, and Joseph, are
seated at a frugal repast. Joseph is in the act of reverently saying
grace, which gives to the picture the title by which it is known.
[Footnote 1: Louvre, Ecole Francaise 57. There is a celebrated
engraving by Edelinck.]
* * * * *
It is distinctly related that Joseph brought up his foster-Son as a
carpenter, and that Jesus exercised the craft of his reputed father.
In the Church pictures, we do not often meet with this touching
and familiar aspect of the life of our Saviour. But in the small
decorative pictures painted for the rich ecclesiastics, and for
private oratories, and in the cheap prints which were prepared for
distribution among the people, and became especially popular during
the religious reaction of the seventeenth century, we find this
homely version of the subject perpetually, and often most pleasingly,
exhibited. The greatest and wisest Being who ever trod the earth was
thus represented, in the eyes of the poor artificer, as ennobling
and sanctifying labour and toil; and the quiet domestic duties
and affections were here elevated, and hallowed, by religious
associations, and adorned by all the graces of Art. Even where
the artistic treatment was not first-rate, was not such as the
painters--priests and poets as well as painters--of the fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries would have lent to such themes,--still if the
sentiment and significance were but intelligible to those especially
addressed, the purpose was accomplished, and the effect must have been
I have before me an example in a set of twelve prints, executed in the
Netherlands, exhibiting a sort of history of the childhood of Christ,
and his training under the eye of his mother. It is entitled _Jesu
Christi Del Domini Salvatoris nostri Infantia_, "The Infancy of our
Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ;" and the title-page is surrounded
by a border composed of musical instruments, spinning-wheels,
distaffs, and other implements, of female industry, intermixed with
all kinds of mason's and carpenter's tools. To each print is appended
a descriptive Latin verse; Latin being chosen, I suppose, because the
publication was intended for distribution in different countries, and
especially foreign missions, and to be explained by the priests to the
1. The figure of Christ is seen in a glory surrounded by cherubim, &c.
2. The Virgin is seated on the hill of Sion. The Infant in her lap,
with outspread arms, looks up to a choir of angels, and is singing
3. Jesus, slumbering in his cradle, is rocked by two angels, while
Mary sits by, engaged in needlework.
[Footnote 1: The Latin stanza beneath, is remarkable for its elegance,
and because it has been translated by Coleridge, who mentions that he
found the print and the verse under it in a little inn in Germany.
Dormi, Jesu, mater ridet,
Quae tam dulcem somnum videt,
Dormi, Jesu, blandule!
Si non dormis mater plorat,
Inter fila cantans orat,
Blande, veni, somnule!
Sleep, sweet babe! my cares beguiling,
Mother sits beside thee smiling,
Sleep, my darling, tenderly!
If thou sleep not, mother mourneth,
Singing as her wheel she turneth"
Come, soft slumber, balmily!"]
4. The interior of a carpenter's shop. Joseph is plying his work,
while Joachim stands near him. The Virgin is measuring linen, and St.
Anna looks on. Two angels are at play with the Infant Christ, who is
5. While Mary is preparing the family meal, and watching a pot which
is boiling on the fire, Joseph is seen behind chopping wood: more
in front, Jesus is sweeping together the chips, and two angels are
gathering them up.
6. Mary is reeling off a skein of thread; Joseph is squaring a plank;
Jesus is picking up the chips, assisted by two angels.
7. Mary is seated at her spinning-wheel; Joseph, assisted by Jesus, is
sawing through a large beam; two angels looking on.
8. Mary is spinning with a distaff; behind, Joseph is sawing a beam,
on which Jesus is standing above; and two angels are lifting a plank.
9. Joseph is seen building up the framework of a house, assisted by an
angel; Jesus is boring a hole with a large gimlet: an angel helps him;
Mary is winding thread.
10. Joseph is busy roofing in the house; Jesus, assisted by the
angels, is carrying a beam of wood up a ladder; below, in front, Mary
is carding wool or flax.
11. Joseph is building a boat, assisted by Jesus, who has a hammer
and chisel in his hand: two angels help him. The Virgin is knitting
a stocking; and the new-built house is seen in the background.
12. Joseph is erecting a fence round a garden; Jesus, assisted by
the angels, is fastening the palings together; while Mary is weaving
garlands of roses.
Justin Martyr mentions, as a tradition of his time, that Jesus
assisted his foster-father in making yokes and ploughs. In
Holland, where these prints were published, the substitution of
the boat-building seems very natural. St. Bonaventura, the great
Franciscan theologian, and a high authority in all that relates to
the life and character of Mary, not only described her as a pattern
of female industry, but alludes particularly to the legend of the
distaff, and mentions a tradition, that, when in Egypt, the Holy
Family was so reduced by poverty, that Mary begged from door to door
the fine flax which she afterwards spun into a garment for her Child.
* * * * *
As if to render the circle of maternal duties, and thereby the
maternal example, more complete, there are prints of Mary leading her
Son to school. I have seen one in which he carries his hornbook in
his hand. Such representations, though popular, were condemned by the
highest church authorities as nothing less than heretical. The Abbe
Mery counts among the artistic errors "which endanger the faith
of good Christians," those pictures which represent Mary or Joseph
instructing the Infant Christ; as if all learning, all science,
divine and human, were not his by intuition, and without any earthly
teaching, (v. Theologie des Peintres.) A beautiful Holy Family,
by Schidone, is entitled, "The Infant Christ learning to read"
(Bridgewater Gal.); and we frequently meet with pictures in which the
mother holds a book, while the divine Child, with a serious intent
expression, turns over the leaves, or points to the letters: but I
imagine that these, and similar groups, represent Jesus instructing
Mary and Joseph, as he is recorded to have done. There is also a
very pretty legend, in which he is represented as exciting the
astonishment, of the schoolmaster Zaccheus by his premature wisdom.
On these, and other details respecting the infancy of our Saviour, I
shall have to say much more when treating of the History of Christ.
THE DISPUTE IN THE TEMPLE.
_Ital._ La Disputa nel Tempio. _Fr._ Jesus au milieu des Docteurs.
The subject which we call the Dispute in the Temple, or "Christ
among the Doctors," is a scene of great importance in the life of
the Redeemer (Luke ii. 41, 52). His appearance in the midst of the
doctors, at twelve years old, when he sat "hearing them and asking
them questions, and all who heard him were astonished at his
understanding and his answers," has been interpreted as the first
manifestation of his high character as teacher of men, as one come
to throw a new light on the prophecies,--
"For trailing clouds of glory had he come
From heaven, which was his home;"
and also as instructing as that those who are to become teachers of
men ought, when young, to listen to the voice of age and experience;
and that those who have grown old may learn lessons of wisdom
from childish innocence. Such is the historical and scriptural
representation. But in the life of the Virgin, the whole scene changes
its signification. It is no longer the wisdom of the Son, it is the
sorrow of the Mother which is the principal theme. In their journey
home from Jerusalem, Jesus has disappeared; he who was the light of
her eyes, whose precious existence had been so often threatened, has
left her care, and gone, she knows not whither. "No fancy can imagine
the doubts, the apprehensions, the possibilities of mischief, the
tremblings of heart, which the holy Virgin-mother feels thronging in
her bosom. For three days she seeks him in doubt and anguish." (Jeremy
Taylor's "Life of Christ.") At length he is found seated in the temple
in the midst of the learned doctors, "hearing them, and asking them
questions." And she said unto him, "Son, why hast thou thus dealt with
us? behold, I and thy father have sought thee sorrowing." And he said
unto them, "How is it that ye sought me? Wise ye not that I must be
about my Father's business?"
Now there are two ways of representing this scene. In all the earlier
pictures it is chiefly with reference to the Virgin Mother: it is one
of the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary. The Child Jesus sits in the
temple, teaching with hand uplifted; the doctors round him turn over
the leaves of their great books, searching the law and the prophets.
Some look up at the young inspired Teacher--he who was above the law,
yet came to obey the law and fulfil the prophecies--with amazement.
Conspicuous in front, stand Mary and Joseph, and she is in act to
address to him the tender reproach, "I and thy father have sought
thee sorrowing." In the early examples she is a principal figure, but
in later pictures she is seen entering in the background; and where
the scene relates only to the life of Christ, the figures of Joseph
and Mary are omitted altogether, and the Child teacher becomes the
central, or at least the chief, personage in the group.
In a picture by Giovanni da Udine, the subject is taken out of the
region of the actual, and treated altogether as a mystery. In the
centre sits the young Redeemer, his hand raised, and surrounded by
several of the Jewish doctors; while in front stand the four fathers
of the Church, who flourished in the interval between the fourth and
sixth centuries after Christ; and these, holding their books, point to
Jesus, or look to him, as to the source of their wisdom;--a beautiful
and poetical version of the true significance of the story, which
the critics of the last century would call a chronological mistake.
But those representations which come under our especial consideration
at present, are such as represent the moment in which Mary appears
before her Son. The earliest instance of this treatment is a group by
Giotto. Dante cites the deportment of the Virgin on this occasion, and
her mild reproach, "_con atto dolce di madre_," as a signal lesson of
gentleness and forbearance. (Purgatorio, c. xv.) It is as if he had
transferred the picture of Giotto into his Vision; for it is as a
picture, not an action, that it is introduced. Another, by Simon
Memmi, in the Roscoe Collection at Liverpool, is conceived in a
similar spirit. In a picture by Garofalo, Mary does not reproach her
Son, but stands listening to him with her hands folded on her bosom.
In a large and fine composition by Pinturicchio, the doctors throw
down their books before him, while the Virgin and Joseph are entering
on one side. The subject is conspicuous in Albert Durer's Life of
the Virgin, where Jesus is seated on high, as one having authority,
teaching from a chair like that of a professor in a university, and
surrounded by the old bearded doctors; and Mary stands before her Son
in an attitude of expostulation.
After the restoration of Jesus to his parents, they conducted him
home; "but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart." The return
to Nazareth, Jesus walking humbly between Joseph and Mary, was painted
by Rubens for the Jesuit College at Antwerp, as a lesson to youth.
Underneath is the text, "And he was subject unto them."
[Footnote 1: It has been called by mistake "The Return from Egypt"]
THE DEATH OF JOSEPH.
_Ital._ La Morte di San Giuseppe. _Fr._ La Mort de St. Joseph _Ger._
Between the journey to Jerusalem and the public appearance of Jesus,
chronologers place the death of Joseph, but the exact date is not
ascertained: some place it in the eighteenth year of the life of our
Saviour, and others in his twenty-seventh year, when, as they assert,
Joseph was one hundred and eleven years old.
I have already observed, that the enthusiasm for the character of
Joseph, and his popularity as a saint and patron of power, date from
the fifteenth century; and late in the sixteenth century I find, for
the first time, the death of Joseph treated as a separate subject. It
appears that the supposed anniversary of his death (July 20) had long
been regarded in the East as a solemn festival, and that it was the
custom to read publicly, on this occasion, some homily relating to his
life and death. The very curious Arabian work, entitled "The History
of Joseph the Carpenter," is supposed to be one of these ancient
homilies, and, in its original form, as old as the fourth century.
Here the death of Joseph is described with great detail, and with many
solemn and pathetic circumstances; and the whole history is put into
the mouth of Jesus, who is supposed to recite it to his disciples:
he describes the pious end of Joseph; he speaks of himself as being
present, and acknowledged by the dying man as "Redeemer and Messiah,"
and he proceeds to record the grief of Mary:--
"And my mother, the Virgin, arose, and she came nigh to me and said,
'O my beloved Son now must the good old man die!' and I answered and
said unto her, 'O my most dear mother, needs must all created beings
die; and death will have his rights, even over thee, beloved mother;
but death to him and to thee is no death, only the passage to eternal
life; and this body I have derived from thee shall also undergo
[Footnote 1: The Arabic MS. in the library at Paris is of the year
1299, and the Coptic version as old as 1367. Extracts from these
were become current in the legends of the West, about the fifteenth
century.--See the "Neu Testamentlichen Apokryphen," edited in German
by Dr. K.F. Borberg.]
And they sat, the Son and the mother, beside Joseph; and Jesus held
his hand, and watched the last breath of life trembling on his lips;
and Mary touched his feet, and they were cold; and the daughters and
the sons of Joseph wept and sobbed around in their grief; and then
Jesus adds tenderly, "I, and my mother Mary, we wept with them."
Then follows a truly Oriental scene, of the evil angels rising up with
Death, and rejoicing in his power over the saint, while Jesus rebukes
them; and at his prayer God sends down Michael, prince of the angelic
host, and Gabriel, the herald of light, to take possession of the
departing spirit, enfold it in a robe of brightness thereby to
preserve it from the "dark angels," and carry it up into heaven.
This legend of the death of Joseph was, in many forms, popular in
the sixteenth century; hence arose the custom of invoking him as
Intercessor to obtain a blessed and peaceful end, so that he became,
in some sort, the patron saint of death-beds; and it is at this time
we find the first representations of the death of Joseph, afterwards
a popular subject in the churches and convents of the Augustine canons
and Carmelite friars, who had chosen him for their patron saint; and
also in family chapels consecrated to the memory or the repose of the
The finest example I have seen, is by Carlo Maratti, in the Vienna
Gallery. St. Joseph is on a couch; Christ is seated near him; and the
Virgin stands by with folded hands, in a sad, contemplative attitude.
* * * * *
I am not aware that the Virgin has ever been introduced into any
representation of the temptation or the baptism of our Saviour. These
subjects, so important and so picturesque, are reserved till we enter
upon the History of Christ.
THE MARRIAGE AT CANA IN GALILEE.
_Ital._ Le Nozze di Cana. _Fr._ Les Noces de Cana. _Ger._ Die Hochzeit
After his temptation and baptism, the first manifestation of the
divine mission and miraculous power of Jesus was at the wedding
feast at Cana in Galilee; and those who had devoted themselves to the
especial glorification of the Virgin Mother did not forget that it was
at her request this first miracle was accomplished:--that out of her
tender and sympathetic commiseration for the apparent want, arose
her appeal to him,--not, indeed, as requiring anything from him, but,
looking to him with habitual dependence on his goodness and power. She
simply said, "They have no wine!" He replied, "Woman, what have I to
do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come." The term _woman_, thus used,
sounds harsh to us; but in the original is a term of respect. Nor did
Jesus intend any denial to the mother, whom he regarded with dutiful
and pious reverence:--it was merely an intimation that he was not
yet entered into the period of miraculous power. He anticipated
it, however, for her sake, and because of her request. Such is the
view taken of this beautiful and dramatic incident by the early
theologians; and in the same spirit it has been interpreted by the
The Marriage at Cana appears very seldom in the ancient
representations taken from the Gospel. All the monkish institutions
then prevalent discredited marriage; and it is clear that this
distinct consecration of the rite by the presence of the Saviour and
his mother did not find favour with the early patrons of art.
There is an old Greek tradition, that the Marriage at Cana was that
of John the Evangelist. In the thirteenth century, when the passionate
enthusiasm for Mary Magdalene was at its height, it was a popular
article of belief, that the Marriage which Jesus graced with his
presence was that of John the Evangelist and Mary Magdalene; and
that immediately after the wedding feast, St. John and Mary, devoting
themselves to an austere and chaste religious life, followed Christ,
and ministered to him.
As a scene in the life of Christ, the Marriage at Cana, is of course
introduced incidentally; but even here, such were the monastic
principles and prejudices, that I find it difficult to point out any
very early example. In the "Manual of Greek Art," published by Didron,
the rules for the representation are thus laid down:--"A table;
around it Scribes and Pharisees; one holds up a cup of wine, and
seems astonished. In the midst, the bride and bridegroom are seated
together. The bridegroom is to have 'grey hair and a round beard
(_cheveux gris et barbe arrondie_); both are to be crowned with
flowers; behind them, a servitor. Christ, the Virgin, and Joseph are
to be on one side, and on the other are six jars: the attendants are
in the act of filling them with water from leathern buckets."
The introduction of Joseph is quite peculiar to Greek art; and the
more curious, that in the list of Greek subjects there is not one from
his life, nor in which he is a conspicuous figure. On the other hand,
the astonished "ruler of the feast" (the _Architriclino_), so dramatic
and so necessary to the comprehension of the scene, is scarcely ever
omitted. The apostles whom we may imagine to be present, are Peter,
Andrew, James, and John.
* * * * *
As a separate subject, the Marriage at Cana first became popular in
the Venetian school, and thence extended to the Lombard and German
schools of the same period--that is, about the beginning of the
The most beautiful representation I have ever seen is a fresco,
by Luini, in the church of San Maurizio, at Milan. It belongs to a
convent of nuns; and I imagine, from its introduction there, that it
had a mystic signification, and referred to a divine _Sposalizio_.
In this sense, the treatment is perfect. There are just the number
of figures necessary to tell the story, and no more. It is the bride
who is here the conspicuous figure, seated in the centre, arrayed in
spotless white, and represented as a nun about to make her profession;
for this is evidently the intended signification. The bridegroom is at
her side, and near to the spectator. Christ, and the Virgin are seated
together, and appear to be conversing. A man presents a cup of wine.
Including guests and attendants, there are only twelve figures.
The only fault of this exquisite and graceful composition, is the
introduction of a cat and dog in front: we feel that they ought to
have been omitted, as giving occasion for irreverent witticisms.
[Footnote 1: This beautiful fresco, which is seldom seen, being behind
the altar, was in a very ruined condition when I saw it last in 1855.]
In contrast with this picture, and as a gorgeous specimen of the
Venetian style of treatment, we may turn to the "Marriage at Cana" in
the Louvre, originally painted to cover one side of the refectory of
the convent of _San Giorgio Maggiore_ at Venice, whence it was carried
off by the French in 1796. This immense picture is about thirty-six
feet in length, and about twenty feet in height, and contains more
than a hundred figures above life-size. In the centre Christ is
seated, and beside him the Virgin Mother. Both heads are merely
commonplace, and probably portraits, like those of the other
personages at the extremity of the table. On the left are seated the
bride and bridegroom. In the foreground a company of musicians are
performing a concert; behind the table is a balustrade, where are
seen numerous servants occupied in cutting up the viands and serving
dishes, with attendants and spectators. The chief action to be
represented, the astonishing miracle performed by him at whose command
"the fountain blushed into wine," is here quite a secondary matter;
and the value of the picture lies in its magnitude and variety as
a composition, and the portraits of the historical characters and
remarkable personages introduced,--Francis I., his queen Eleanora of
Austria, Charles V. and others. In the group of musicians in front we
recognize Titian and Tintoretto, old Bassano, and Paolo himself.
The Marriage at Cana, as a refectory subject, had been unknown till
this time: it became popular, and Paolo afterwards repeated it several
times. The most beautiful of all, to my feeling, is that in the
Dresden Gallery, where the "ruler of the feast," holding up the glass
of wine with admiration, seems to exclaim, "Thou hast kept the good
wine until now." In another, which is at Milan, the Virgin turns round
to the attendant, and desires him to obey her Son;--"Whatsoever he
saith unto you, do it!"
As the Marriage at Cana belongs, as a subject, rather to the history
of Christ, than to that of the Virgin his mother, I shall not enter
into it further here, but proceed.
* * * * *
After the marriage at Cana in Galilee, which may be regarded as the
commencement of the miraculous mission of our Lord, we do not hear
anything of his mother, the Virgin, till the time approached when he
was to close his ministry by his death. She is not once referred to
by name in the Gospels until the scene of the Crucifixion. We are
indeed given to understand, that in the journeys of our Saviour, and
particularly when he went up from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the women
followed and ministered to him (Matt. xxvii. 55, Luke, viii. 2): and
those who have written the life of the Virgin for the edification of
the people, and those who have translated it into the various forms
of art, have taken it for granted that SHE, his mother, could not have
been absent or indifferent where others attended with affection and
zeal: but I do not remember any scene in which she is an actor, or
even a conspicuous figure.
Among the carvings on the stalls at Amiens, there is one which
represents the passage (Matt. xii. 46.) wherein our Saviour, preaching
in Judea, is told that his mother and his brethren stand without.
"But he answering, said to him that told him, 'Who is my mother?
and who are my brethren?' And he stretched forth his hand toward
his disciples, and said, 'Behold my mother and my brethren!'" The
composition exhibits on one side Jesus standing and teaching his
disciples; while on the other, through an open door, we perceive the
Virgin and two or three others. This representation is very rare. The
date of these stalls is the sixteenth century; and such a group in a
series of the life of the Virgin could not, I think, have occurred
in the fifteenth. It would have been quite inconsistent with all the
religious tendencies of that time, to exhibit Christ as preaching
_within_, while his "divine and most glorious" Mother was standing
The theologians of the middle ages insist on the close and mystical
relation which they assure us existed between Christ and his mother:
however far separated, there was constant communion between them; and
wherever he might be--in whatever acts of love, or mercy, or benign
wisdom occupied for the good of man--_there_ was also his mother,
present with him in the spirit. I think we can trace the impress
of this mysticism in some of the productions of the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries. For example, among the frescoes by Angelico da
Fiesole in the cloisters of St. Mark, at Florence, there is one of
the Transfiguration, where the Saviour stands glorified with arms
outspread--a simple and sublime conception,--and on each side, half
figures of Moses and Elias: lower down appear the Virgin and St.
Dominick. There is also in the same series a fresco of the Last Supper
as the Eucharist, in which the Virgin is kneeling, glorified, on one
side of the picture, and appears as a partaker of the rite. Such a
version of either subject must be regarded as wholly mystical and
exceptional, and I am not acquainted with any other instance.
"O what avails me now that honour high,
To have conceived of God, and that salute,
'Hail highly favoured among woman blest!
While I to sorrows am no less advanced,
And fears as eminent, above the lot
Of other women by the birth I bore."
--"This is my favoured lot,
My exaltation to afflictions high."
In the Passion of our Lord, taken in connection with the life of the
Virgin Mother, there are three scenes in which she is associated with
the action as an important, if not a principal, personage.
We are told in the Gospel of St. John (chap. xvii), that Christ took a
solemn farewell of his disciples: it is therefore supposed that he did
not go up to his death without taking leave of his Mother,--without
preparing her for that grievous agony by all the comfort that his
tender and celestial pity and superior nature could bestow. This
parting of Christ and his Mother before the Crucifixion is a modern
subject. I am not acquainted with any example previous to the
beginning of the sixteenth century. The earliest I have met with is by
Albert Durer, in the series of the life of the Virgin, but there are
probably examples more ancient, or at least contemporary. In Albert
Durer's composition, Mary is sinking to the earth, as if overcome with
affliction, and is sustained in the arms of two women; she looks up
with folded hands and streaming eyes to her Son who stands before her;
he, with one hand extended, looks down upon her compassionately, and
seems to give her his last benediction. I remember another instance,
by Paul Veronese, full of that natural affectionate sentiment which
belonged to the Venetian school. (Florence Gal.) In a very beautiful
picture by Carotto of Verona, Jesus _kneels_ before his Mother, and
receives her benediction before he departs: this must be regarded
as an impropriety, a mistake in point of sentiment, considering the
peculiar relation between the two personages; but it is a striking
instance of the popular notions of the time respecting the high
dignity of the Virgin Mother. I have not seen it repeated.
[Footnote 1: Verona, San Bernardino. It is worth remarking, with
regard to this picture, that the Intendant of the Convent rebuked
the artist, declaring that he had made the Saviour show _too little_
reverence for his Mother, seeing that he knelt to her on one knee
only.--See the anecdote in _Vasari_, vol. i. p. 651. Fl. Edit. 1838.]
* * * * *
It appears from the Gospel histories, that the women who had attended
upon Christ during his ministry failed not in their truth and their
love to the last. In the various circumstances of the Passion of
our Lord, where the Virgin Mother figures as an important personage,
certain of these women are represented as always near her, and
sustaining her with a tender and respectful sympathy. Three are
mentioned by name,--Mary Magdalene; Mary the wife of Cleophas;
and Mary, the mother of James and John. Martha, the sister of Mary
Magdalene, is also included, as I infer from her name, which in
several instances is inscribed in the nimbus encircling her head. I
have in another place given the story of Martha, and the legends
which in the fourteenth century converted her into a very important
character in sacred art, (First Series of Sacred and Legendary Art.)
These women, therefore, form, with the Virgin, the group of _five_
female figures which are generally included in the scriptural scenes
from the Life of Christ.
Of course, these incidents, and more especially the "Procession to
Calvary," and the "Crucifixion," belong to another series of subjects,
which I shall have to treat hereafter in the History of our Lord;
but they are also included in a series of the Rosary, as two of the
mystical SORROWS; and under this point of view I must draw attention
to the peculiar treatment of the Virgin in some remarkable examples,
which will serve as a guide to others.
* * * * *
The Procession to Calvary (_Il Portamento della Croce_) followed a
path leading from the gate of Jerusalem to Mount Calvary, which has
been kept in remembrance and sanctified as the _Via Dolorosa_, and
there is a certain spot near the summit of the hill, where, according
to a very ancient tradition, the Virgin Mother, and the women her
companions, placed themselves to witness the sorrowful procession;
where the Mother, beholding her divine Son dragged along, all bleeding
from the scourge, and sinking under his cross, in her extreme agony
sank, fainting, to the earth. This incident gave rise to one of the
mournful festivals of the Passion Week, under the title, in French,
of _Notre Dame du Spasme_ or _de la Pamoison_; in Italian _La Madonna
dello Spasimo_, or _Il Pianto di Maria_; and this is the title given
to some of those representations in which the affliction of Mary is a
prominent part of the tragic interest of the scene. She is sometimes
sinking to the earth, sustained by the women or by St. John; sometimes
she stands with clasped hands, mute and motionless with excess of
anguish; sometimes she stretches out her arms to her Son, as Jesus,
sinking under the weight of his cross, turns his benign eyes upon her,
and the others who follow him: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for
This is the moment chosen by Raphael in that sublime composition
celebrated under the title "_Lo Spasimo di Sicilia_" (Madrid Gal.);
so called because it was originally painted for the high altar of the
church of the Sicilian Olivetans at Palermo, dedicated to the _Madonna
dello Spasimo_. It was thence removed, by order of Philip IV. of
Spain, early in the seventeenth century, and is now placed in the
gallery at Madrid. Here the group of the five women forms an important
part of the picture, occupying the foreground on the right. The
expression in the face of the Mother, stretching forth her arms to
her Son with a look of appealing agony, has always been cited as one
of the great examples of Raphael's tragic power. It is well known
that in this composition the attitude of Christ was suggested by the
contemporary engraving of Martin Schoen; but the prominence given to
the group of women, the dramatic propriety and pathetic grace in the
action of each, and the consummate skill shown in the arrangement
of the whole, belong only to Raphael. In Martin Schoen's vivid
composition, the Virgin, and the women her companions, are seen far
off in the background, crouching in the "hollow way" between two
cliffs, from which spot, according to the old tradition, they beheld
the sad procession. We have quite a contrary arrangement in an early
composition by Lucas van Leyden. The procession to Calvary is seen
moving along in the far distance, while the foreground is occupied by
two figures only, Mary in a trance of anguish sustained by the weeping
[Footnote 1: The veneration at all times entertained for this picture
was probably enhanced by a remarkable fact in its history. Raphael
painted it towards the close of the year 1517, and when finished, it
was embarked at the port of Ostia, to be consigned to Palermo. A storm
came on, the vessel foundered at sea, and all was lost except the case
containing this picture, which was floated by the currents into the
Bay of Genoa; and, on being landed, the wondrous masterpiece of art
was taken out unhurt. The Genoese at first refused to give it up,
insisting that it had been preserved and floated to their shores by
the miraculous interposition of the blessed Virgin herself; and it
required a positive mandate from the Pope before they would restore
it to the Olivetan fathers.--See _Passavant's Rafael_, i. 292.]
In a very fine "Portamento del Croce," by Gaudenzio Ferrari, one of
the soldiers or executioners, in repulsing the sorrowful mother,
lifts up a stick as if to strike her;--a gratuitous act of ferocity,
which shocks at once the taste and the feelings, and, without adding
anything to the pathos of the situation, detracts from the religious
dignity of the theme. It is like the soldier kicking our Saviour,
which I remember to have seen in a version of the subject by a much
later painter, Daniele Crespi.
Murillo represents Christ as fainting under the weight of the cross,
while the Virgin sits on the ground by the way-side, gazing on
him with fixed eyes and folded hands, and a look of unutterable
[Footnote 1: This picture, remarkable for the intense expression, was
in the collection of Lord Orford, and sold in June, 1856.]
* * * * *
The Ecce Homo, by Correggio, in our National Gallery, is treated in
a very peculiar manner with reference to the Virgin, and is, in fact,
another version of _Lo Spasimo_, the fourth of her ineffable sorrows.
Here Christ, as exhibited to the people by Pilate, is placed in the
distance, and is in all respects the least important part of the
picture, of which we have the real subject in the far more prominent
figure of the Virgin in the foreground. At sight of the agony and
degradation of her Son, she closes her eyes, and is on the point
of swooning. The pathos of expression in the half-unconscious face
and helpless, almost lifeless hands, which seem to seek support, is
"Verum stabas, optima Mater, juxta crucem Filli tui, non solum
corpore, sed mentis constatia."
This great subject belongs more particularly to the Life of Christ. It
is, I observe, always omitted in a series of the Life of the Virgin,
unless it be the Rosary, in which the "Vigil of the Virgin by the
Cross" is the fifth and greatest of the Seven Sorrows.
We cannot fail to remark, that whether the Crucifixion be treated as a
mystery or as an event, Mary is always an important figure.
In the former case she stands alone on the right of the cross, and St.
John on the left. She looks up with an expression of mingled grief
and faith, or bows her head upon her clasped hands in resignation. In
such a position she is the idealized Mater Dolorosa, the Daughter of
Jerusalem, the personified Church mourning for the great Sacrifice;
and this view of the subject I have already discussed at length.
[Footnote 1: It has been a question with the learned whether the
Virgin Mary, with St. John, ought not to stand on the left of the
cross, in allusion to Psalm cxlii. (always interpreted as prophetic
of the Passion of Christ) ver. 4: "_I looked on my right hand, and be
held, but there was none who would know me._"]
On the other hand, when the Crucifixion is treated as a great
historical event, as a living scene acted before our eyes, then the
position and sentiment given to the Virgin are altogether different,
but equally fixed by the traditions of art. That she was present, and
near at hand, we must presume from the Gospel of St. John, who was an
eye-witness; and most of the theological writers infer that on this
occasion her constancy and sublime faith were even greater than her
grief, and that her heroic fortitude elevated her equally above the
weeping women and the timorous disciples. This is not, however, the
view which the modern painters have taken, and even the most ancient
examples exhibit the maternal grief for a while overcoming the
constancy. She is standing indeed, but in a fainting attitude, as if
about to sink to the earth, and is sustained in the arms of the two
Marys, assisted, sometimes, but not generally, by St. John; Mary
Magdalene is usually embracing the foot of the cross. With very little
variation this is the visual treatment down to the beginning of the
sixteenth century. I do not know who was the first artist who placed
the Mother prostrate on the ground; but it must be regarded as a
fault, and as detracting from the high religious dignity of the
scene. In all the greatest examples, from Cimabue, Giotto, and Pietro
Cavallini, down to Angelico, Masaccio, and Andrea Mantegna, and their
contemporaries, Mary is uniformly standing.
In a Crucifixion by Martin Schoen, the Virgin, partly held up in the
arms of St. John, embraces with fervour the foot of the cross: a very
rare and exceptional treatment, for this is the proper place of Mary
Magdalene. In Albert Durer's composition, she is just in the act of
sinking to the ground in a very natural attitude, as if her limbs had
given way under her. In Tintoretto's celebrated Crucifixion, we have
an example of the Virgin placed on the ground, which if not one of the
earliest, is one of the most striking of the more modern conceptions.
Here the group at the foot of the cross is wonderfully dramatic and
expressive, but certainly the reverse of dignified. Mary lies fainting
on the earth; one arm is sustained by St. John, the other is round the
neck of a woman who leans against the bosom of the Virgin, with eyes
closed, as if lost in grief. Mary Magdalene and another look up to the
crucified Saviour, and more in front a woman kneels wrapped up in a
cloak, and hides her face. (Venice, S. Rocco.)
Zani has noticed the impropriety here, and in other instances, of
exhibiting the "_Grandissima Donna_" as prostrate, and in a state
of insensibility; a style of treatment which, in more ancient times,
would have been inadmissible. The idea embodied by the artist should
be that which Bishop Taylor has _painted_ in words:--"By the cross
stood the holy Virgin Mother, upon whom old Simeon's prophecy was now
verified; for now she felt a sword passing through her very soul.
She stood without clamour and womanish noises sad, silent, and with
a modest grief, deep as the waters of the abyss, but smooth as the
face of a pool; full of love, and patience, and sorrow, and hope!"
To suppose that this noble creature lost all power over her emotions,
lost her consciousness of the "high affliction" she was called to
suffer, is quite unworthy of the grand ideal of womanly perfection
here placed before us. It is clear, however, that in the later
representations, the intense expression of maternal anguish in the
hymn of the Stabat Mater gave the key to the prevailing sentiment.
And as it is sometimes easier to faint than to endure; so it was
easier for certain artists to express the pallor and prostration of
insensibility, than the sublime faith and fortitude which in that
extremest hour of trial conquered even a mother's unutterable woe.
That most affecting moment, in which the dying Saviour recommends his
Mother to the care of the best beloved of his disciples, I have never
seen worthily treated. There are, however, some few Crucifixions in
which I presume the idea to have been indicated; as where the Virgin
stands leaning on St. John, with his sustaining arm reverently round
her, and both looking up to the Saviour, whose dying face is turned
towards them. There is an instance by Albert Durer (the wood-cut
in the "Large Passion"); but the examples are so few as to be
* * * * *
THE DESCENT FROM THE CROSS, and the DEPOSITION, are two separate
themes. In the first, according to the antique formula, the Virgin
should stand; for here, as in the Crucifixion, she must be associated
with the principal action, and not, by the excess of her grief,
disabled from taking her part in it. In the old legend it is said,
that when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrenched out the nails
which fastened the hands of our Lord to the cross, St. John took them
away secretly, that his mother might not see them--"_affin que la
Vierge Marie ne les veit pas, crainte que le coeur ne lui amolist_."
And then, while Nicodemus drew forth the nails which fastened his
feet, Joseph of Arimathea sustained the body, so that the head and
arms of the dead Saviour hung over his shoulder. And the afflicted
Mother, seeing this, arose on her feet and she took the bleeding hands
of her Son, as they hung down, and clasped them in her own, and kissed
him tenderly. And then, indeed, she sank to the earth, because of the
great anguish she suffered, lamenting her Son, whom the cruel Jews had
[Footnote 1: "---- tant qu'il n'y a coeur si dur, ni entendement
d'homme qui n'y deust penser. 'Lasse, mon confort! m'amour et ma joye,
que les Juifz ont faict mourir a grand tort et sans cause pour ce
qu'il leur monstrait leurs faltes et enseignoit leur saulvement! O
felons et mauvais Juifz, ne m'epargnez pas! puisque vous crucifiez
mon enfant crucifiez moy--moy qui suis sa dolente mere, et me tuez
d'aucune mort affin que je meure avec luy!'" v. _The old French
Legend_, "_Vie de Notre-Dame la glorieuse Vierge Marie._"]
The first action described in this legend (the afflicted Mother
embracing the arm of her Son) is precisely that which was adopted by
the Greek masters, and by the early Italians who followed them, Nicolo
Pisano, Cimabue, Giotto, Puccio Capanna, Duccio di Siena, and others
from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. But in later pictures,
the Virgin in the extremity of her grief has sunk to the ground. In an
altar-piece by Cigoli, she is seated on the earth, looking out of the
picture, as if appealing, "Was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow?" while
the crown of thorns lies before her. This is very beautiful; but even
more touching is the group in the famous "Descent from the Cross," the
masterpiece of Daniel di Volterra (Rome, Trinita di Monte): here the
fainting form of the Virgin, extended on the earth, and the dying
anguish in her face, have never been exceeded, and are, in fact, the
chief merit of the picture. In the famous Descent at Antwerp, the
masterpiece of Rubens, Mary stands, and supports the arm of her Son as
he is let down from the cross. This is in accordance with the ancient
version; but her face and figure are the least effective part of this
In a beautiful small composition, a print, attributed to Albert Durer,
there are only three figures. Joseph of Arimathea stands on a ladder,
and detaches from the cross the dead form of the Saviour, who is
received into the arms of his Mother. This is a form of the _Mater
Dolorosa_ which is very uncommon, and must be regarded as exceptional,
and ideal, unless we are to consider it as a study and an incomplete
* * * * *
The DEPOSITION is properly that moment which succeeds the DESCENT from
the Cross; when the dead form of Christ is deposed or laid upon the
ground, resting on the lap of his Mother, and lamented by St. John,
the Magdalene, and others. The ideal and devotional form of this
subject, styled a Pieta, may be intended to represent one of those
festivals of the Passion Week which commemorate the participation of
the holy Virgin Mother in the sufferings of her Son. I have already
spoken at length of this form of the Mater Dolorosa; the historical
version of the same subject is what we have now to consider, but only
so far as regards the figure of the Virgin.
[Footnote 1: "C'est ce que l'on a juge a propos d'appeler _La
Compassion_ de la Vierge, autrement _Notre Dame de Pitie_."--Vide
_Baillet_, "Les Fetes Mobiles."]
In a Deposition thus dramatically treated, there are always from four
to six or eight figures. The principal group consists of the dead
Saviour and his Mother. She generally holds him embraced, or bends
over him contemplating his dead face, or lays her cheek to his with
an expression of unutterable grief and love: in the antique conception
she is generally fainting; the insensibility, the sinking of the whole
frame through grief, which in the Crucifixion is misplaced, both in
regard to the religious feeling and the old tradition, is here quite
proper. Thus she appears in the genuine Greek and Greco-Italian
productions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, as well as in
the two finest examples that could be cited in more modern times.
[Footnote 1: The reason given is curious:--"_Perche quando Gesu pareva
tormentato essendo vivo, il dolore si partiva fra la santissima madre
e lui; ma quando poi egli era morto, tutto il dolore rimaneva per la
1. In an exquisite composition by Raphael, usually styled a Pieta,
but properly a Deposition, there are six figures: the extended form
of Christ; the Virgin swooning in the arms of Mary Salome and Mary
Cleophas; Mary Magdalene sustains the feet of Christ, while her sister
Martha raises the veil of the Virgin, as if to give her air; St. John
stands by with clasped hands; and Joseph of Arimathea looks on the
sorrowing group with mingled grief and pity.
[Footnote 1: This wonderful drawing (there is no _finished_ picture)
was in the collection of Count Fries, and then belonged to Sir T.
Lawrence. There is a good engraving by Agricola.]
2. Another, an admirable and celebrated composition by Annibale
Caracci, known as the Four Marys, omits Martha and St. John. The
attention of Mary Magdalene is fixed on the dead Saviour; the other
two Marys are occupied by the fainting Mother. (Castle Howard.) On
comparing this with Raphael's conception, we find more of common
nature, quite as much pathos, but in the forms less of that pure
poetic grace, which softens at once, and heightens the tragic effect.
Besides Joseph of Arimathea, we have sometimes Nicodemus; as in the
very fine Deposition by Perugino, and in one, not loss fine, by Albert
Durer. In a Deposition by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Lazarus, whom Jesus
raised from the dead, stands near his sister Martha.
In a picture by Vandyke, the Mother closes the eyes of the dead
Redeemer: in a picture by Rubens, she removes a thorn from his wounded
brow:--both natural and dramatic incidents very characteristic of
these dramatic painters.
There are some fine examples of this subject in the old German school.
In spite of ungraceful forms, quaint modern costumes, and worse
absurdities, we often find _motifs_, unknown in the Italian school,
most profoundly felt, though not always happily expressed, I remember
several instances in which the Madonna does not sustain her Son; but
kneeling on one side, and, with clasped hands, she gazes on him with
a look, partly of devotion, partly of resignation; both the devotion
and the resignation predominating over the maternal grief. I have
been asked, "why no painter has ever yet represented the Great Mother
as raising her hands in thankfulness that her Son _had_ drank the
cup--_had_ finished the work appointed for him on earth?" This would
have been worthy of the religions significance of the moment; and I
recommend the theme to the consideration of artists.
[Footnote 1: In the most modern Deposition I have seen (one of
infinite beauty, and new in arrangement, by Paul Delaroche), the
Virgin, kneeling at some distance, and a little above, contemplates
her dead Son. The expression and attitude are those of intense
anguish, and _only_ anguish. It is the bereaved Mother; it is a
craving desolation, which is in the highest degree human and tragic;
but it is not the truly religious conception.]
* * * * *
The entombment follows, and when treated as a strictly historical
scene, the Virgin Mother is always introduced, though here as a less
conspicuous figure, and one less important to the action. Either
she swoons, which is the ancient Greek conception; or she follows,
with streaming eyes and clasped hands, the pious disciples who bear
the dead form of her Son, as in Raphael's wonderful picture in the
Borghese Palace, and Titian's, hardly less beautiful, in the Louvre,
where the compassionate Magdalene sustains her veiled and weeping
figure;--or she stands by, looking on disconsolate, while the beloved
Son is laid in the tomb.
* * * * *
All these fine and important themes belong properly to a series of
the History of Christ. In a series of the Life of the Virgin, the
incidents of the Passion of our Lord are generally omitted; whereas,
in the cycle of subjects styled the ROSARY, the Bearing of the Cross,
the Crucifixion, and the Deposition, are included in the fourth and
fifth of the "Sorrowful Mysteries." I shall have much more to say on
these subjects when treating of the artistic representations from
the History of Christ. I will only add here, that their frequency as
_separate_ subjects, and the preeminence given to the figure of the
Virgin as the mother of Pity, are very suggestive and affecting when
we come to consider their _intention_ as well as their significance.
For, in the first place, they were in most instances the votive
offerings of those who had lost the being most dear to them, and
thus appealed so the divine compassion of her who had felt that sword