Legends of the Madonna
Part 2 out of 7
but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem." But others say that her
complexion had become black only during her sojourn in Egypt. At all
events, though the blackness of these antique images was supposed to
enhance their sanctity, it has never been imitated in the fine arts,
and it is quite contrary to the description of Nicephorus, which is
the most ancient authority, and that which is followed in the Greek
The proper dress of the Virgin is a close red tunic, with long
sleeves; and over this a blue robe or mantle. In the early
pictures, the colours are pale and delicate. Her head ought to be
veiled. The fathers of the primeval Church, particularly Tertullian,
attach great importance to the decent veil worn by Christian maidens;
and in all the early pictures the Virgin is veiled. The enthroned
Virgin, unveiled, with long tresses falling down on either side,
was an innovation introduced about the end of the fifteenth century;
commencing, I think, with the Milanese, and thence adopted in the
German schools and those of Northern Italy. The German Madonnas of
Albert Durer's time have often magnificent and luxuriant hair, curling
in ringlets, or descending to the waist in rich waves, and always
fair. Dark-haired Madonnas appear first in the Spanish and later
[Footnote 1: In a famous Pieta by Raphael, engraved by Marc Antonio,
the Virgin, standing by the dead form of her Son, has the right arm
apparently bare; in the repetition of the subject it is clothed with
a full sleeve, the impropriety being corrected. The first is, however,
the most perfect and most precious as a work of art.--_Bartsch_, xiv.
In the historical pictures, her dress is very simple; but in those
devotional figures which represent her as queen of heaven, she wears a
splendid crown, sometimes of jewels interwoven with lilies and roses.
The crown is often the sovereign crown of the country in which the
picture is placed: thus, in the Papal States, she often wears the
triple tiara: in Austria, the imperial diadem. Her blue tunic is
richly embroidered with gold and gems, or lined with ermine, or stuff
of various colours, in accordance with a text of Scripture: "The
King's daughter is all glorious within; her clothing is of wrought
gold. She shall be brought unto the King in a vesture of needlework."
(Ps. xlv. 13.) In the Immaculate Conception, and in the Assumption,
her tunic should be plain white, or white spangled with golden stars.
In the subjects relating to the Passion, and after the Crucifixion,
the dress of the Virgin should be violet or gray. These proprieties,
however, are not always attended to.
In the early pictures which represent her as nursing the divine Infant
(the subject called the _Vergine Lattante_), the utmost care is taken
to veil the bust as much as possible. In the Spanish school the most
vigilant censorship was exercised over all sacred pictures, and, with
regard to the figures of the Virgin, the utmost decorum was required.
"What," says Pacheco, "can be more foreign to the respect which we owe
to our Lady the Virgin, than to paint her sitting down with one of her
knees placed over the other, and often with her sacred feet uncovered
and naked? Let thanks be given to the Holy Inquisition, which commands
that this liberty should be corrected." For this reason, perhaps, we
seldom see the feet of the Virgin in Spanish pictures. Carducho
speaks more particularly on the impropriety of painting the Virgin
unshod, "since it is manifest that, our Lady was in the habit of
wearing shoes, as is proved by the much venerated relic of one of them
from her divine feet at Burgos."
[Footnote 1: Or in any of the old pictures till the seventeenth
century "Tandis que Dieu est toujours montre pieds nus, lui qui est
descendu a terre et a pris notre humanite, Marie au contraire est
constamment representee les pieds perdus dans les plis trainants,
nombreux et legers de sa robe virginale; elle, qui est elevee au
dessus de la terre et rapprochee de Dieu par sa purete. Dieu montre
par ses pieds nus qu'il a pris le corps de l'homme; Marie fait
comprendre en les cachant qu'elle participe de la spiritualite de
The Child in her arms is always, in the Greek and early pictures,
clothed in a little tunic, generally white. In the fifteenth century
he first appears partly, and then wholly, undraped. Joseph, as the
earthly _sposo_, wears the saffron-coloured mantle over a gray tunic.
In the later schools of art these significant colours are often
varied, and sometimes wholly dispensed with.
III. DEVOTIONAL AND HISTORICAL REPRESENTATIONS.
In this volume, as in the former ones, I have adhered to the
distinction between the devotional and the historical representations.
I class as devotional, all those which express a dogma merely; all the
enthroned Madonnas, alone or surrounded by significant accessories
or attendant saints; all the Mystical Coronations and Immaculate
Conceptions; all the Holy Families with saints, and those completely
ideal and votive groups, in which the appeal is made to the faith and
piety of the observer. I shall give the characteristic details, in
particular instances, further on.
The altar-pieces in a Roman Catholic church are always either strictly
devotional objects, or it may be, historical subjects (such as the
Nativity) treated in a devotional sense. They are sometimes in several
pieces or compartments. A Diptych is an altar-piece composed of two
divisions or leaves which are united by hinges, and close like a book.
Portable altar-pieces of a small size are generally in this form; and
among the most valuable and curious remains of early religious art are
the Greek and Byzantine Diptychs, sometimes painted, sometimes carved
in ivory. A Triptych is an altar-piece in three parts; the two
outer divisions or wings often closing as shutters over the central
[Footnote 1: Among the "Casts from Ancient Ivory Carvings",
published by the Arundel Society, will be found some interesting and
illustrative examples, particularly Class III. Diptych _b_, Class VII
Diptych _c_ and Triptych _f_, Class IX. Triptych _k_.]
On the outside of the shutters or doors the Annunciation was
generally painted, as the mystery which opened the gates of salvation;
occasionally, also, the portraits of the votaries or donors.
Complete examples of devotional representation occur in the complex
and elaborate altar-pieces and windows of stained glass, which often
comprehend a very significant scheme of theology.. I give here
plans of two of these old altar-pieces, which will assist the reader
in elucidating the meaning of others.
[Footnote 1: Still more important examples occur in the porches and
exterior decoration of the old cathedrals, French and English which
have escaped mutilation. These will be found explained at length in
the Fourth Series of Sacred and Legendary Art.]
The first is the altar-piece in the Rinuccini Chapel in the church
of the Santa Croco of Florence. It is necessary to premise that
the chapel was founded in honour of the Virgin and Mary Magdalene;
while the church is dedicated to the Holy Cross, and belongs to the
The compartments are separated by wood-work most richly carved
and gilt in the Gothic style, with twisted columns, pinnacles, and
scrolls. The subjects are thus distributed.
A. The Virgin and Child enthroned. She has the sun on her breast, the
moon under her feet, the twelve stars over her head, and is attended
by angels bearing the attributes of the cardinal virtues. B. St.
John the Baptist. C. St. Francis. D. St. John Evangelist. E. Mary
Magdalene. 1. The Crucifixion, with the Virgin and St. John. 2, 3, 4,
5. The four Evangelists with their books: half length. 6, 7. St. Peter
and St. Paul: half length. 8, 9, 10, 11. St. Thomas, St. Philip, St.
James, and St. Andrew: half length. PP. The Predella. 12. The Nativity
and Adoration of Magi. 13. St. Francis receives the Stigmata. 14.
Baptism of Christ. 15. The Vision of St. John in Patmos. 16. Mary
Magdalene borne up by angels. Between the altar-piece and the predella
runs the inscription in Gothic letters, AVE DELICISSIMIS VIRGO MARIA,
SUCCURRE NOBIS MATER PIA. MCCCLXXVIII.
The second example is sketched from an altar-piece painted for the
suppressed convent of Santa Chiara, at Venice. It is six feet high,
and eight feet wide, and the ornamental caning in which the subjects
are enclosed particularly splendid and elaborate.
A. The Coronation of the Virgin, treated as a religious mystery, with
choral angels. B. The Nativity of our Lord. C. The Baptism. D. The
Last Supper. E. The Betrayal of Christ. F. The Procession to Calvary,
in which the Virgin is rudely pushed aside by the soldiers. G. The
Crucifixion, as an event: John sustains the Virgin at the foot of the
cross. H. The Resurrection and the _Noli me tangere_. I. Ascension.
1. Half-figure of Christ, with the hand extended in benediction; in
the other hand the Gospel. 2. David. 3. Isaiah. 4, 5, 6, 7. The
four Evangelists standing. 8. 9, 11, 12. Scenes from the Life of St.
Francis and St. Clara. 10. The Descent of the Holy Ghost. 13. The Last
It is to be regretted that so many of these altar-pieces have been
broken up, and the detached parts sold as separate pictures: so that
we may find one compartment of an altar in a church at Rome, and
another hanging in a drawing-room in London; the upper part at Ghent,
the lower half at Paris; one wing at Berlin, another at Florence. But
where they exist as a whole, how solemn, significant, and instructive
the arrangement! It may be read as we read a poem. Compare these with
the groups round the enthroned Virgin in the later altar-pieces,
where the saints elbow each other in attitudes, where mortal men sit
with unseemly familiarity close to personages recognized as divine.
As I have remarked further on, it is one of the most interesting
speculations connected with the study of art, to trace this decline
from reverence to irreverence, from the most rigid formula to the most
fantastic caprice. The gradual disappearance of the personages of the
Old Testament, the increasing importance given to the family of the
Blessed Virgin, the multiplication of legendary subjects, and all the
variety of adventitious, unmeaning, or merely ornamental accessories,
strike us just in proportion as a learned theology replaced the
unreflecting, undoubting piety of an earlier age.
* * * * *
The historical subjects comprise the events from the Life of the
Virgin, when treated in a dramatic form; and all those groups which
exhibit her in her merely domestic relations, occupied by cares for
her divine Child, and surrounded by her parents and kindred, subjects
which assume a pastoral and poetical rather than an historical form.
All these may be divided into Scriptural and Legendary
representations. The Scriptural scenes in which the Virgin Mary is a
chief or important personage, are the Annunciation, the Visitation,
the Nativity, the Purification, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight
into Egypt, the Marriage at Cana, the Procession to Calvary, the
Crucifixion (as related by St. John), and the Descent of the Holy
Ghost. The Traditional and Legendary scenes are those taken from
the apocryphal Scriptures, some of which have existed from the third
century. The Legend of Joachim and Anna, the parents of the Virgin,
with the account of her early life, and her Marriage with Joseph,
down to the Massacre of the Innocents, are taken from the Gospel of
Mary and the Protevangelion. The scenes of the Flight into Egypt,
the Repose on the Journey, and the Sojourn of the Holy Family at
Hieropolis or Matarea, are taken from the Gospel of Infancy. The
various scenes attending the Death and Assumption of the Virgin are
derived from a Greek legendary poem, once attributed to St. John the
Evangelist, but the work, as it is supposed, of a certain Greek, named
Meliton, who lived in the ninth century, and who has merely dressed
up in a more fanciful form ancient traditions of the Church. Many
of these historical scenes have been treated in a devotional style,
expressing not the action, but the event, taken in the light of a
religious mystery; a distinction which I have fully explained in the
following pages, where I have given in detail the legends on which
these scenes are founded, and the religious significance conveyed by
A complete series of the History of the Virgin begins with the
rejection of her father Joachim from the temple, and ends with the
assumption and coronation, including most of the events in the History
of our Lord (as for example, the series painted by Giotto, in the
chapel of the Arena, at Padua); but there are many instances in which
certain important evens relating to the Virgin only, as the principal
person, are treated as a devotional series; and such are generally
found in the chapels and oratories especially dedicated to her. A
beautiful instance is that of the Death of the Virgin, treated in
a succession of scenes, as an event apart, and painted by Taddeo
Barrolo, in the Chapel of the Palazzo Publico, at Siena. This small
chapel was dedicated to the Virgin soon after the terrible plague of
1848 had ceased, as it was believed, by her intercession; so that
this municipal chapel was at once an expression of thanksgiving, and
a memorial of death, of suffering, of bereavement, and of hope in
the resurrection. The frescoes cover one wall of the chapel, and are
arranged in four scenes.
1. Mary is reclining in her last sickness, and around her are the
Apostles, who, according to the beautiful legend, were _miraculously_
assembled to witness her departure. To express this, one of them is
floating in as if borne on the air. St. John kneels at her feet, and
she takes, with an expression exquisitely tender and maternal, his two
hands in hers. This action is peculiar to the Siena school.
[Footnote 1: On each side of the principal door of the Cathedral at
Siena, which is dedicated to "Beata Virgine Assunta," and just within
the entrance, is a magnificent pilaster, of white marble, completely
covered from the base to the capital with the most luxuriant carving,
arabesques, foliage, &c., in an admirable and finished style. On the
bases of these two pilasters are subjects from the Life of the Virgin,
three on each side, and arranged, each subject on one side having its
pendant on the other.
1. The meeting of Joachim and Anna. 2. The Nativity of Mary. 3. Her
sickness and last farewell to the Apostles; bending towards St. John,
she takes his hands in hers with the same tender expression as in
the fresco by Taddeo Bartola. 4. She lies dead on her couch. 5. The
Assumption. 6. The Coronation.
The figures are about a foot in height, delicately carved, full of
that sentiment which is especially Sienese, and treated with a truly
2. She lies extended on her couch, surrounded by the weeping
Apostles, and Christ behind receives the parting soul,--the usual
representation, but treated with the utmost sentiment.
3. She is borne to the grave by the Apostles; in the background, the
walls of the city of Jerusalem. Here the Greek legend of St. Michael
protecting her remains from the sacrilegious Jew is omitted, and a
peculiar sentiment of solemnity pervades the whole scene.
4. The resurrection of the Virgin, when she rises from the tomb
sustained by hovering angels, and is received by Christ.
When I first saw these beautiful frescoes, in 1847, they were in a
very ruined state; they have since been restored in a very good style,
and with a reverent attention to the details and expression.
In general, however, the cycle commences either with the legend of
Joachim and Anna, or with the Nativity of the Virgin, and ends with
the assumption and coronation. A most interesting early example is the
series painted in fresco by Taddeo Gaddi, in the Baroncelli Chapel
at Florence. The subjects are arranged on two walls. The first on the
right hand, and the second, opposite to us as we enter.
1. Joachim is rejected from the Temple.
2. He is consoled by the Angel.
3. The meeting of Joachim and Anna.
4. The Birth of the Virgin.
5. The Presentation of the Virgin. She is here a child of about five
years old; and having ascended five steps (of the fifteen) she turns
as if to bid farewell to her parents and companions, who stand below;
while on the summit the High Priest, Anna the prophetess, and the
maidens of the Temple come forward to receive her.
6. The Marriage to Joseph, and the rage and disappointment of the
The second wall is divided by a large window of the richest stained
glass, on each side of which the subjects are arranged.
7. The Annunciation. This is peculiar. Mary, not throned or standing,
but seated on the ground, with her hands clasped, and an expression
beautiful for devotion and humility, looks upwards to the descending
8. The Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth.
9. The Annunciation to the Shepherds.
10. The Nativity.
11. The Wise Men behold the Star in the Form of a Child.
12. They approach to Worship. Under the window is the altar, no longer
used as such; and behind it a small but beautiful triptych of the
Coronation of the Virgin, by Giotto, containing at least a hundred
heads of saints, angels, &c.; and on the wall opposite is the large
fresco of the Assumption, by Mainardi, in which St. Thomas receives
the girdle, the other Apostles being omitted. This is of much later
date, being painted about 1495.
The series of five subjects in the Rinuccini Chapel (in the sacristy
of the same church) has been generally attributed to Taddeo Gaddi,
but I agree with those who gave it to a different painter of the same
The subjects are thus arranged:--1. The Rejection of Joachim, which
fills the whole arch at the top, and is rather peculiarly treated.
On the right of the altar advances a company of grave-looking Elders,
each with his offering. On the left, a procession of the matrons and
widows "who had been fruitful in Israel," each with her lamb. In the
centre, Joachim, with his lamb in his arms and an affrighted look,
is hurrying down the steps. 2. The Lamentation of Joachim on the
Mountain, and the Meeting of Joachim and Anna. 3. The Birth of the
Virgin. 4. The Presentation in the Temple. 5. The Sposalizio of the
Virgin, with which the series concludes; every event referring to her
divine Son, even the Annunciation, being omitted. On comparing these
frescoes with those in the neighbouring chapel of the Baroncelli, the
difference in _feeling_ will be immediately felt; but they are very
_naive_ and elegant.
About a hundred years later than these two examples we have the
celebrated series painted by Ghirlandajo, in the choir of S. Maria
Novella at Florence. There are three walls. On the principal wall,
facing us as we enter, is the window; and around it the Annunciation
(as a mystery), then the principal saints of the Order to whom the
church belongs,--St. Dominic and St. Peter Martyr, and the protecting
saints of Florence.
On the left hand (i.e. the right as we face the high altar) is the
History of the Virgin; on the opposite side, the History of St. John
the Baptist. The various cycles relating to St. John as patron of
Florence will be fully treated in the last volume of Legendary Art; at
present I shall confine myself to the beautiful set of subjects which
relate the history of the Virgin, and which the engravings of Lasinio
(see the "Ancient Florentine Masters") have rendered well known to
the lovers of art. They cover the whole wall and are thus arranged,
beginning from the lowest on the left hand.
1. Joachim is driven from the Temple.
2. The Birth of the Virgin.
3. The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple.
4. The Marriage of Joseph and Mary.
5. The Adoration of the Magi (this is very much ruined).
6. The Massacre of the Innocents. (This also is much ruined.) Vasari
says it was the finest of all. It is very unusual to make this
terrible and pathetic scene part of the life of the Virgin.
7. In the highest and largest compartment, the Death and Assumption of
Nearly contemporary with this fine series is that by Pinturicchio in
the Church of S. Maria del Popolo, at Rome (in the third chapel on the
right). It is comprised in five lunettes round the ceiling, beginning
with the Birth of the Virgin, and is remarkable for its elegance.
About forty years after this series was completed the people of Siena,
who had always bees remarkable for their devotion to the Virgin,
dedicated to Her honour the beautiful little chapel called the Oratory
of San Bernardino (v. Legends of the Monastic Orders), near the church
of San Francesco, and belonging to the same Order, the Franciscans.
This chapel is an exact parallelogram and the frescoes which cover
the four walls are thus arranged above the wainscot, which rises about
eight feet from the ground.
1. Opposite the door as we enter, the Birth of the Virgin. The usual
visitor to St. Anna is here a grand female figure, in voluminous
drapery. The delight and exultation of those who minister to the
new-born infant are expressed with the most graceful _naivete_. This
beautiful composition should be compared with those of Ghirlandajo
and Andrea del Sarto in the Annunziata at Florence; it yields to
neither as a conception and is wholly different. It is the work of a
Sienese painter little known--Girolamo del Pacchio.
[Footnote 1: This series, painted by Andrea and his scholars and
companions, Franciabigio and Pontormo, is very remarkable as a work of
art, but presents nothing new in regard to the choice and treatment of
2. The Presentation in the Temple, by G.A. Razzi. The principal scene
is placed in the background, and the little Madonna, as she ascends
the steps, is received by the High Priest and Anna the prophetess.
Her father and mother and groups of spectators fill the foreground;
here, too, is a very noble female figure on the right; but the whole
composition is mannered, and wants repose and religious feeling.
3. The Sposalizio, by Beccafumi. The ceremony takes place after the
manner of the Jews, outside the Temple. In a mannered, artificial
4, 5. On one side of the altar, the Angel Gabriel floating in--very
majestic and angelic; on the other side the Virgin Annunziata, with
that attitude and expression so characteristic of the Siena School,
as if shrinking from the apparition. These also are by Girolamo del
Pacchio, and extremely fine.
6. The enthroned Virgin and Child, by Beccafumi. The Virgin is very
fine and majestic; around her throne stand and kneel the guardian
saints of Siena and the Franciscan Order; St. Francis, St. Antony of
Padua, St. Bernardino, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Ansano, St. John
B., St. Louis. (St. Catherine, as patroness of Siena, takes here the
place usually given to St. Clara in the Franciscan pictures.)
7. The Visitation. Very fine and rather peculiar; for here Elizabeth
bends over Mary as welcoming her, while the other inclines her head as
accepting hospitality. By Razzi.
8. The Death of the Virgin. Fourteen figures, among which are four
females lamenting, and St. John bearing the palm. The attitude and
expression of Mary, composed in death, are very fine; and Christ,
instead of standing, as usual, by the couch, with her parting soul in
his arms, comes rushing down from above with arms outspread to receive
9. The Assumption. Mary, attired all in white, rises majestically.
The tomb is seen beneath, out of which grow two tall lilies amid white
roses; the Apostles surround it, and St. Thomas receives the girdle.
This is one of the finest works of Razzi, and one of the purest in
point of sentiment.
10. The Coronation, covering the whole wall which faces the altar, is
by Razzi; it is very peculiar and characteristic. The Virgin, all in
white, and extremely fine, bending gracefully, receives her crown; the
other figures have that vulgarity of expression which belonged to the
artist, and is often so oddly mingled with the sentiment and grandeur
of his school and time. On the right of the principal group stands
St. John B.; on the left, Adam and Eve; and behind the Virgin, her
mother, St. Anna, which is quite peculiar, and the only instance I can
* * * * *
It appears therefore that the Life of the Virgin Mary, whether treated
as a devotional or historical series, forms a kind of pictured drama
in successive scenes; sometimes comprising only six or eight of the
principal events of her individual life, as her birth, dedication,
marriage, death, and assumption: sometimes extending to forty or fifty
subjects, and combining her history with that of her divine Son. I
may now direct the attention of the reader to a few other instances
remarkable for their beauty and celebrity.
Giotto, 1320. In the chapel at Padua styled _la Capella dell' Arena_.
One of the finest and most complete examples extant, combining the
Life of the Virgin with that of her Son. This series is of the highest
value, a number of scenes and situations suggested by the Scriptures
being here either expressed for the first time, or in a form unknown
in the Greek school.
[Footnote 1: _Vide_ Kugler's Handbook, p. 129. He observes, that "the
introduction of the maid-servant spinning, in the story of St. Anna,
oversteps the limits of the higher ecclesiastical style." For an
explanation I must refer to the story as I have given it at p 249.
See, for the distribution of the subjects in this chapel, Lord
Lindsay's "Christian Art," vol. ii. A set of the subjects has since
been published by the Arundel Society.]
Angiolo Gaddi, 1380. The series in the cathedral at Prato. These
comprise the history of the Holy Girdle.
Andrea Orcagna, 1373. The beautiful series of bas-reliefs on the
shrine in Or-San-Michele, at Florence.
Nicolo da Modena, 1450. Perhaps the earliest engraved example:
very remarkable for the elegance of the _motifs_ and the imperfect
execution, engraving on copper being then a new art.
Albert Durer. The beautiful and well-known set of twenty-five
wood-cuts, published in 1510. A perfect example of the German
Bernardino Luini, 1515. A series of frescoes of the highest beauty,
painted for the monastery Della Pace. Unhappily we have only the
fragments which are preserved in the Brera.
The series of bas-reliefs on the outer shrine of the Casa di Loretto,
by Sansovino, and others of the greatest sculptors of the beginning of
the sixteenth century.
The series of bas-reliefs round the choir at Milan: seventeen
* * * * *
We often find the Seven Joys and the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin
treated as a series.
The Seven Joys are, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity,
the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation in the Temple, Christ
found by his Mother, the Assumption and Coronation.
The Seven Sorrows are, the Prophecy of Simeon, the Flight into Egypt,
Christ lost by his Mother, the Betrayal of Christ, the Crucifixion
(with St. John and the Virgin only present), the Deposition from the
Cross, the Ascension when the Virgin is left on earth.
The Seven Joys and Sorrows are frequently found in altar-pieces and
religions prints, arranged in separate compartments, round the Madonna
in the centre. Or they are combined in various groups into one large
composition, as in a famous picture by Hans Hemling, wonderful for the
poetry, expression, and finished execution.
[Footnote 1: Altogether, on a careful consideration of this picture,
I do not consider the title by which it is generally known as
appropriate. It contains man groups which would not enter into the
mystic joys or sorrows; for instance, the Massacre of the Innocents,
Christ at Emmaus, the _Noli me tangere_, and others.]
Another cycle of subjects consists of the fifteen Mysteries of the
The five Joyful Mysteries, are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the
Nativity, the Purification, and Christ found in the Temple.
The five Dolorous or Sorrowful Mysteries are, our Lord in the
Garden of Olives, the Flagellation, Christ crowned with Thorns, the
Procession to Calvary, the Crucifixion.
The five Glorious Mysteries are, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the
Descent of the Holy Ghost, the Assumption, the Coronation.
A series of subjects thus arranged cannot be called strictly
historical, but partakes of the mystical and devotional character.
The purpose being to excite devout meditation, requires a particular
sentiment, frequently distinguished from the merely dramatic and
historical treatment in being accompanied by saints, votaries,
and circumstances purely ideal; as where the Wise Men bring their
offerings, while St. Luke sits in a corner painting the portrait
of the Virgin, and St. Dominick kneels in adoration of the Mystery
(Mabuse, Munich Gal.);--and in a hundred other examples.
IV. TITLES OF THE VIRGIN MARY.
Of the various titles given to the Virgin Mary, and thence to certain
effigies and pictures of her, some appear to me very touching, as
expressive of the wants, the aspirations, the infirmities and sorrows,
which are common to poor suffering humanity, or of those divine
attributes from which they hoped to find aid and consolation. Thus we
Santa Maria "del buon Consilio." Our Lady of good Counsel.
S.M. "del Soccorso." Our Lady of Succour. Our Lady of the Forsaken.
S.M. "del buon Core." Our Lady of good Heart.
S.M. "della Grazia." Our Lady of Grace.
S.M. "di Misericordia." Our Lady of Mercy.
S.M. "Auxilium Afflictorum." Help of the Afflicted.
S.M. "Refugium Peccatorum." Refuge of Sinners.
S.M. "del Pianto," "del Dolore." Our Lady of Lamentation, or Sorrow.
S.M. "Consolatrice," "della Consolazione," or "del Conforte." Our Lady
S.M. "della Speranza." Our Lady of Hope.
Under these and similar titles she is invoked by the afflicted, and
often represented with her ample robe outspread and upheld by angels,
with votaries and suppliants congregated beneath its folds. In Spain,
_Nuestra Senora de la Merced_ is the patroness of the Order of Mercy;
and in this character she often holds in her hand small tablets
bearing the badge of the Order. (Legends of the Monastic Orders, 2d
S.M. "della Liberta," or "Liberatrice," Our Lady of Liberty; and S.M.
"della Catena," Our Lady of Fetters. In this character she is invoked
by prisoners and captives.
S.M. "del Parto," Our Lady of Good Delivery, invoked by women in
[Footnote 1: Dante alludes to her in this character:--
"E per ventura udi 'Dolce Maria!'
Dinanzi a noi chiamar cosi nel pianto
Come fa donna che 'n partorir sia."--_Purg._ c. 20.]
S.M. "del Popolo." Our Lady of the People.
S.M. "della Vittoria." Our Lady of Victory.
S.M. "della Pace." Our Lady of Peace.
S.M. "della Sapienza," Our Lady of Wisdom; and S.M. "della
Perseveranza," Our Lady of Perseverance. (Sometimes placed in
colleges, with a book in her hand, as patroness of students.)
S.M. "della Salute." Our Lady of Health or Salvation. Under this title
pictures and churches have been dedicated after the cessation of a
plague, or any other public calamity.
[Footnote 1: There is also somewhere in France a chapel dedicated to
_Notre Dame de la Haine_.]
Other titles are derived from particular circumstances and
S.M. "del Presepio," Our Lady of the Cradle; generally a Nativity, or
when she is adoring her Child.
S.M. "della Scodella"--with the cup or porringer, where she is taking
water from a fountain; generally a Riposo.
S.M. "dell' Libro," where she holds the Book of Wisdom.
S.M. "della Cintola," Our Lady of the Girdle, where she is either
giving the Girdle to St. Thomas, or where the Child holds it in his
S.M. "della Lettera." Our Lady of the Letter. This is the title given
to Our Lady as protectress of the city of Messina. According to the
Sicilian legend, she honoured the people of Messina by writing a
letter to them, dated from Jerusalem, "in the year of her Son, 42." In
the effigies of the "Madonna della Lettera," she holds this letter in
S.M. "della Rosa." Our Lady of the Rose. A title given to several
pictures, in which the rose, which is consecrated to her, is placed
either in her hand, or in that of the Child.
S.M. "della Stella." Our Lady of the Star. She wears the star as one
of her attributes embroidered on her mantle.
S.M. "del Fiore." Our Lady of the Flower. She has this title
especially as protectress of Florence.
S.M. "della Spina." She holds in her hand the crown of thorns, and
under this title is the protectress of Pisa.
S.M. "del Rosario." Our Lady of the Rosary, with the mystic string of
beads. I do not remember any instance of the Rosary placed in the hand
of the Virgin or the Child till after the battle of Lepanto (1571),
and the institution of the Festival of the Rosary, as an act of
thanksgiving. After this time pictures of the Madonna "del Rosario"
abound, and may generally be found in the Dominican churches. There is
a famous example by Guido in the Bologna Gallery, and a very beautiful
one by Murillo in the Dulwich Gallery.
S.M. "del Carmine." Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She is protectress of
the Order of the Carmelites, and is often represented holding in her
hand small tablets, on which is the effigy of herself with the Child.
S.M. "de Belem." Our Lady of Bethlehem. Under this title she is the
patroness of the Jeronymites, principally in Spain and Portugal.
S.M. "della Neve." Our Lady of the Snow. In Spain, S. Maria la Blanca.
To this legend of the snow the magnificent church of S.M. Maggiore at
Rome is said to owe its origin. A certain Roman patrician, whose name
was John (Giovanni Patricie), being childless, prayed of the Virgin to
direct him how best to bestow his worldly wealth. She appeared to him
in a dream on the night of the fifth of August, 352, and commanded him
to build a church in her honour, on a spot where snow would be found
the next morning. The same vision having appeared to his wife and the
reigning pope, Liberius, they repaired in procession the next morning
to the summit of Mount Esquiline, where, notwithstanding the heat of
the weather, a large patch of ground was miraculously covered with
snow, and on it Liberius traced out with his crosier the plan of the
church. This story has been often represented in art, and is easily
recognized; but it is curious that the two most beautiful pictures
consecrated to the honour of the Madonna della Neve are Spanish and
not Roman, and were painted by Murillo about the time that Philip
IV. of Spain sent rich offerings to the church of S.M. Maggiore, thus
giving a kind of popularity to the legend. The picture represents
the patrician John and his wife asleep, and the Vision of the Virgin
(one of the loveliest ever painted by Murillo) breaking upon them in
splendour through the darkness of the night; while in the dim distance
is seen the Esquiline (or what is meant for it) covered with snow. In
the second picture, John and his wife are kneeling before the pope,
"a grand old ecclesiastic, like one of Titian's pontiffs." These
pictures, after being carried off by the French from the little church
of S.M. la Blanca at Seville, are now in the royal gallery at Madrid.
S. Maria "di Loretto." Our Lady of Loretto. The origin of this title
is the famous legend of the Santa Casa, the house at Nazareth, which
was the birthplace of the Virgin, and the scene of the Annunciation.
During the incursions of the Saracens, the Santa Casa being threatened
with profanation, if not destruction, was taken up by the angels
and conveyed over land and sea till it was set down on the coast of
Dalmatia; but not being safe there, the angels again took it up, and,
bearing it over the Adriatic, set it down in a grove near Loretto. But
certain wicked brigands having disturbed its sacred quietude by strife
and murder, the house again changed its place, and was at length set
down on the spot where it now stands. The date of this miracle is
placed in 1295.
The Madonna di Loretto is usually represented as seated with the
divine Child on the roof of a house, which is sustained at the corners
by four angels, and thus borne over sea and land. From the celebrity
of Loretto as a place of pilgrimage this representation became
popular, and is often found in chapels dedicated to our Lady of
Loretto. Another effigy of our Lady of Loretto is merely a copy of
a very old Greek "Virgin and Child," which is enshrined in the Santa
S.M. "del Pillar," Our Lady of the Pillar, is protectress of
Saragossa. According to the Legend, she descended from heaven standing
on an alabaster pillar, and thus appeared to St. James (Santiago)
when he was preaching the gospel in Spain. The miraculous pillar
is preserved in the cathedral of Saragossa, and the legend appears
frequently in Spanish art. Also in a very interior picture by Nicolo
Poussin, now in the Louvre.
* * * * *
Some celebrated pictures are individually distinguished by titles
derived from some particular object in the composition, as Raphael's
_Madonna de Impannata_, so called from the window in the back
ground being partly shaded with a piece of linen (in the Pitti
Pal., Florence); Correggio's _Vierge au Panier_, so called from the
work-basket which stands beside her (in our Nat Gal.); Murillo's
_Virgen de la Servilleta_, the Virgin of the Napkin, in allusion to
the dinner napkin on which it was painted. Others are denominated
from certain localities, as the _Madonna di Foligno_ (now in the
Vatican); others from the names of families to whom they have
belonged, as _La Madonna della Famiglia Staffa_, at Perugia.
[Footnote 1: There is a beautiful engraving in Stirling's "Annals of
the Artists of Spain."]
* * * * *
Those visions and miracles with which the Virgin Mary favoured many
of the saints, as St. Luke (who was her secretary and painter), St.
Catherine, St. Francis, St. Herman, and others, have already been
related in the former volumes, and need not be repeated here.
With regard to the churches dedicated to the Virgin, I shall not
attempt to enumerate even the most remarkable, as almost every town
in Christian Europe contains one or more bearing her name. The most
ancient of which tradition speaks, was a chapel beyond the Tiber, at
Rome, which is said to have been founded in 217, on the site where S.
Maria _in Trastevere_ now stands. But there are one or two which carry
their pretensions much higher; for the cathedral at Toledo and the
cathedral at Chartres both claim the honour of having been dedicated
to the Virgin while she was yet alive.
[Footnote 1: In England we have 2,120 churches dedicated in her
honour; and one of the largest and most important of the London
parishes bears her name--"St. Marie-la-bonne"]
* * * * *
Brief and inadequate as are these introductory notices, they will, I
hope, facilitate the comprehension of the critical details into which
it has been necessary to enter in the following pages, and lend some
new interest to the subjects described. I have heard the artistic
treatment of the Madonna styled a monotonous theme; and to those who
see only the perpetual iteration of the same groups on the walls of
churches and galleries, varied as they may suppose only by the fancy
of the painter, it may seem so. But beyond the visible forms, there
lies much that is suggestive to a thinking mind--to the lover of Art
a higher significance, a deeper beauty, a more various interest, than
could at first be imagined.
In fact, the greatest mistakes in point of _taste_ arise in general
from not knowing what we ought to demand of the artist, not only in
regard to the subject expressed, but with reference to the times in
which he lived, and his own individuality. An axiom which I have heard
confidently set forth, that a picture is worth nothing unless "he who
runs may read," has inundated the world with frivolous and pedantic
criticism. A picture or any other work of Art, is worth nothing except
in so far as it has emanated from mind, and is addressed to mind. It
should, indeed, be _read_ like a book. Pictures, as it has been well
said, are the books of the unlettered, but then we must at least
understand the language in which they are written. And further,--if,
in the old times, it was a species of idolatry to regard these
beautiful representations as endued with a specific sanctity and
power; so, in these days, it is a sort of atheism to look upon them
reckless of their significance, regardless of the influences through
which they were produced, without acknowledgment of the mind which
called them into being, without reference to the intention of the
artist in his own creation.
* * * * *
SUPPLEMENTARY NOTES TO THE SECOND EDITION.
In the first edition of this work, only a passing allusion was made to
those female effigies, by some styled "_la donna orante_" (the Praying
Woman) and by others supposed to represent Mary the Mother of our
Lord, of which so many examples exist in the Catacombs and in the
sculptured groups on the ancient Christian sarcophagi. I know it has
long been a disputed, or at least an unsettled and doubtful point, as
to whether certain female figures existing on the earliest Christian
monuments were or were not intended to represent the Virgin Mary.
The Protestants, on the one hand, as if still inspired by that
superstition against superstition which led to the violent and vulgar
destruction of so many beautiful works of art, and the Catholics on
the other, jealous to maintain the authenticity of these figures as a
testimony to the ancient worship of the Virgin, both appear to me to
have taken an exaggerated and prejudiced view of a subject which ought
to be considered dispassionately on purely antiquarian and critical
grounds. Having had the opportunity, during a late residence in
Italy, of reconsidering and comparing a great number of these antique
representations, and having heard the opinions of antiquarians,
theologians, and artists, who had given their attention to the
subject, and who occasionally differed from each other as to the
weight of evidence, I have arrived at the conviction, that some of
these effigies represent the Virgin Mary, and others do not. I confess
I do not believe in any authentic representation of the Virgin holding
the Divine Child older than the sixth century, except when introduced
into the groups of the Nativity and the Worship of the Magi. Previous
to the Nestorian controversy, these maternal effigies, as objects of
devotion, were, I still believe, unknown, but I cannot understand
why there should exist among Protestants, so strong a disposition to
discredit every representation of Mary the Mother of our Lord to which
a high antiquity had been assigned by the Roman Catholics. We know
that as early as the second century, not only symbolical figures of
our Lord, but figures of certain personages of holy life, as St. Peter
and St. Paul, Agnes the Roman, and Euphemia the Greek, martyr, did
certainly exist. The critical and historical testimony I have given
elsewhere. (Sacred and Legendary Art.) Why therefore should there not
have existed effigies of the Mother of Christ, of the "Woman highly
blessed," the subject of so many prophecies, and naturally the object
of a tender and just veneration among the early Christians? It seams
to me that nothing could be more likely, and that such representations
ought to have a deep interest for all Christians, no matter of what
denomination--for _all_, in truth, who believe that the Saviour of
the world had a good Mother, His only earthly parent, who brought Him
forth, nurtured and loved Him. That it should be considered a point
of faith with Protestants to treat such memorials with incredulity
and even derision, appears to me most inconsistent and unaccountable,
though I confess that between these simple primitive memorials and the
sumptuous tasteless column and image recently erected at Rome there is
a very wide margin of disputable ground, of which I shall say no more
in this place. But to return to the antique conception of the "Donna
orante" or so-called Virgin Mother, I will mention here only the moat
remarkable examples; for to enter fully into the subject would occupy
a volume in itself.
There is a figure often met with in the Catacombs and on the
sarcophagi of a majestic woman standing with outspread arms (the
ancient attitude of prayer), or holding a book or scroll in her hand.
When this figure stands alone and unaccompanied by any attribute, I
think the signification doubtful: but in the Catacomb of St. Ciriaco
there is a painted figure of a woman, with arms outspread and
sustained on each aide by figures, evidently St. Peter and St. Paul;
on the sarcophagi the same figure frequently occurs; and there are
other examples certainly not later than the third and fourth century.
That these represent Mary the Mother of Christ I have not the least
doubt; I think it has been fully demonstrated that no other Christian
woman could have been so represented, considering the manners and
habits of the Christian community at that period. Then the attitude
and type are precisely similar to those of the ancient Byzantine
Madonnas and the Italian mosaics of Eastern workmanship, proving, as
I think, that there existed a common traditional original for this
figure, the idea of which has been preserved and transmitted in these
Further:--there exist in the Roman museums many fragments of ancient
glass found in the Christian tombs, on which are rudely pictured in
colours figures exactly similar, and having the name MARIA inscribed
above them. On one of these fragments I found the same female figure
between two male figures, with the names inscribed over them, MARIA.
PETRVS. PAVLVS., generally in the rudest and most imperfect style, as
if issuing from some coarse manufacture; but showing that they have
had a common origin with those far superior figures in the Catacombs
and on the sarcophagi, while the inscribed names leave no doubt as to
On the other hand, there are similar fragments of coarse glass found
in the Catacombs--either lamps or small vases, bearing the same female
in the attitude of prayer, and superscribed in rude letters, DULCIS
ANIMA PIE ZESES VIVAS. (ZESES instead of JESUS.) Such may, possibly,
represent, not the Virgin Mary, but the Christian matron or martyr
buried in the tomb; at least, I consider them as doubtful.
The Cavaliere Rossi, whose celebrity as an antiquarian is not merely
Italian, but European, and whose impartiality can hardly be doubted,
told me that a Christian sarcophagus had lately been discovered at
Saint-Maxime, in the south of France, on which there is the same group
of the female figure praying, and over it the name MARIA.
I ought to add, that on one of these sarcophagi, bearing the oft
repeated subject of the good Shepherd feeding His sheep, I found, as
the companion group, a female figure in the act of feeding birds which
are fluttering to her feet. It is not doubted that the good Shepherd
is the symbol of the beneficent Christ; whether the female figure
represent the Virgin-mother, or is to be regarded merely as a general
symbol of female beneficence, placed on a par with that of Christ
(in His human character), I will not pretend to decide. It is equally
touching and beautiful in either significance.
Three examples of these figures occur to me.
The first is from a Christian sarcophagus of early date, and in a good
style of art, probably of the third century--it is a noble figure,
in the attitude of prayer, and separated from the other groups by a
palm-tree on each side--at her feet is a bird (perhaps a dove, the
ancient symbol of the released soul), and scrolls which represent
the gospel. I regard this figure as doubtful; it may possibly be the
effigy of a Christian matron, who was interred in the sarcophagus.
The second example is also from a sarcophagus. It is a figure holding
a scroll of the gospel, and standing between St. Peter and St.
Paul; on each side (in the original) there are groups expressing the
beneficent miracles of our Lord. This figure, I believe, represents
the Virgin Mary.
In the third example, the conspicuous female figure is combined with
the series of groups on each side. She stands with hands outspread, in
the attitude of prayer, between the two apostles, who seem to sustain
her arms. On one side is the miracle of the water changed into wine;
on the other side, Christ healing the woman who touched His garment;
both of perpetual recurrence in these sculptures. Of these groups of
the miracles and actions of Christ on the early Christian sarcophagi,
I shall give a full account in the "History of our Lord, as
illustrated in the fine arts;" at present I confine myself to the
female figure which takes this conspicuous place, while other female
figures are prostrate, or of a diminutive size, to express their
humility or inferiority; and I have no doubt that thus situated it
is intended to represent the woman who was highly honoured as well as
highly blessed--the Mother of our Saviour.
I have come therefore to the conclusion, that while many of these
figures have a certain significance, others are uncertain. Where
the figure is isolated, or placed within a frame or border, like the
memorial busts and effigies on the Pagan sarcophagi, I think it may
be regarded as probably commemorating the Christian martyr or matron
entombed in the sarcophagus; but when there is no division, where the
figure forms part of a continuous series of groups, expressing the
character and miracles of Christ, I believe that it represents His
The BORGHESE CHAPEL, in the church, of St. Maria Maggiore at Rome, was
dedicated to the honour of the Virgin Mary by Paul V. (Borghese), in
1611--the same Pope who in 1615 promulgated the famous Bull relative
to the Immaculate Conception. The scheme of decoration in this
gorgeous chapel is very remarkable, as testifying to the development
which the theological idea of the Virgin, as the Sposa or personified
Church, had attained at this period, and because it is not, as in
other examples, either historical or devotional, but purely doctrinal.
As we enter, the profusion of ornament, the splendour of colour,
marbles, gilding, from the pavement under our feet to the summit of
the lofty dome, are really dazzling. First, and elevated above all,
we have the "Madonna della Concezione," Our Lady of the Immaculate
Conception, in a glory of light, sustained and surrounded by angels,
having the crescent under her feet, according to the approved
treatment. Beneath, round the dome, we read in conspicuous letters
the text from the Revelations:--SIGNUM. MAGNUM. APPARAVlT. IN COELO.
MULIER. AMICTA. SOLE. ET. LUNA. SUB. PEDIBUS. EJUS. ET. IN CAPITE.
EJUS, CORONA. STELLARUM. DUODECIM. (Rev. xii. 1.) Lower down is a
second inscription, expressing the dedication. MARIAE. CHRISTI. MATRI.
SEMPER. VIRGINI. PAULUS. QUINTUS.P.M. The decorations beneath the
cornice consist of eighteen large frescoes, and six statues in marble,
above life size. Beginning with the frescoes, we have the subjects
arranged in the following order:--
1. The four great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel,
in their usual place in the four pendentives of the dome. (v. The
2. Two large frescoes. In the first, the Vision of St. Gregory
Thaumaturgus, and Heretics bitten by Serpents. In the second, St.
John Damascene and St. Ildefonso miraculously rewarded for defending
the Majesty of the Virgin. (Sacred and Legendary Art.)
[Footnote 1: St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Pontus in the third
century, was favoured by a vision of the Trinity, which enabled him to
confute and utterly subdue the Sabellian heretics--the Unitarians of
3. A large fresco, representing the four Doctors of the Church who had
especially written in honour of the Virgin: viz. Ireneus and Cyprian,
Ignatius and Theophilus, grouped two and two.
4. St. Luke, who painted the Virgin, and whose gospel contains the
best account of her.
5. As spiritual conquerors in the name of the Virgin, St. Dominic and
St. Francis, each attended by two companions of his Order.
6. As military conquerors in the name of the Virgin, the Emperor
Heraclius, and Narses, the general against the Arians.
7. A group of three female figures, representing the three famous
saintly princesses who in marriage preserved their virginity,
Pulcheria, Edeltruda (our famous queen Ethelreda), and Cunegunda. (For
the legends of Cunegunda and Ethelreda, see Legends of the Monastic
8. A group of three learned Bishops, who had especially defended the
immaculate purity of the Virgin, St. Cyril, St. Anselm, and St. Denis
9. The miserable ends of those who were opposed to the honour of the
Virgin. 1. The death of Julian the Apostate, very oddly represented;
he lies on an altar, transfixed by an arrow, as a victim; St.
Mercurius in the air. (For this legend see Sacred and Legendary Art.)
2. The death of Leo IV., who destroyed the effigies of the Virgin. 3.
The death of Constantine IV., also a famous iconoclast.
The statues which are placed in niches are--
1, 2. St. Joseph, as the nominal husband, and St. John the Evangelist,
as the nominal son of the Virgin; the latter, also, as prophet and
poet, with reference to the passage in the Revelation, c. xii. 1.
3, 4. Aaron, as priestly ancestor (because his wand blossomed), and
David, as kingly ancestor of the Virgin.
5, 6. St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who was present at the death of
the Virgin, and St. Bernard, who composed the famous "Salve Regina" in
Such is this grand systematic scheme of decoration, which, to those
who regard it cursorily, is merely a sumptuous confusion of colours
and forms, or at best, "a fine example of the Guido school and
Bernino." It is altogether a very complete and magnificent specimen
of the prevalent style of art, and a very comprehensive and suggestive
expression of the prevalent tendency of thought, in the Roman
Catholic Church from the beginning of the seventeenth century. In no
description of this chapel have I ever seen the names and subjects
accurately given: the style of art belongs to the _decadence_, and the
taste being worse than, questionable, the pervading _doctrinal_ idea
has been neglected, or never understood.
Those pictures which represent the Virgin Mary kneeling before the
celestial throne, while the PADRE ETERNO or the MESSIAH extends his
hand or his sceptre towards her, are generally misunderstood. They
do not represent, the Assumption, nor yet the reception of Mary in
Heaven, as is usually supposed; but the election or predestination of
Mary as the immaculate vehicle or tabernacle of human redemption--the
earthly parent of the divine Saviour. I have described such a picture
by Dosso Dossi, and another by Cottignola. A third example may be
cited in a yet more beautiful and celebrated picture by Francia, now
in the Church at San Frediano at Lucca. Above, in the glory of Heaven,
the Virgin kneels before the throne of the Creator; she is clad in
regal attire of purple and crimson and gold; and she bends her fair
crowned head, and folds her hands upon her bosom with an expression
of meek yet dignified resignation--"_Behold the handmaid of the
Lord!_"--accepting, as woman, that highest glory, as mother, that
extremest grief, to which the Divine will, as spoken by the prophets
of old, had called her. Below, on the earth and to the right hand,
stand David and Solomon, as prophets and kingly ancestors: on the left
hand, St. Augustine and St. Anselm in their episcopal robes. (I have
mentioned, with regard to the office in honour of the Immaculate
Conception, that the idea is said to have originated in England. I
should also have added, that Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, was
its strenuous advocate.) Each of these personages holds a scroll. On
that of David the reference is to the 4th and 5th verses of Psalm
xxvii.--"_In the secret of his tabernacle he shall hide me_." On
that of Solomon is the text from his Song, ch. iv. 7. On that of St.
Augustine, a quotation, I presume, from his works, but difficult
to make out; it seems to be, "_In coelo qualis est Pater, talis est
Films; qualis est Filius, talis est Mater_." On that of St. Anselm the
same inscription which is on the picture of Cottignola quoted before,
"_non puto vere esse_." &c., which is, I suppose, taken from his
works. In the centre, St. Anthony of Padua kneels beside the sepulchre
full of lilies and roses; showing the picture to have been painted
for, or under the influence of, the Franciscan Order; and, like other
pictures of the same class, "an attempt to express in a visible form
the idea or promise of the redemption of the human race, as existing
in the Sovereign Eternal Mind before the beginning of the world." This
altar-piece has no date, but appears to have been painted about the
same time as the picture in our National Gallery (No. 179.), which
came from the same church. As a work of art it is most wonderfully
beautiful. The editors of the last excellent edition of Vasari speak
of it with just enthusiasm as "_Opera veramente stupenda in ogni
parte_!" The predella beneath, painted in chiaro-oscuro, is also of
exquisite beauty; and let us hope that we shall never see it separated
from the great subject, like a page or a paragraph torn out of a book
by ignorant and childish collectors.
Although the Nativity of the Virgin Mary is one of the great festivals
of the Roman Catholic Church, I have seldom seen it treated as
a separate subject and an altar-piece. There is, however, a very
remarkable example in the Belle Arti at Siena. It is a triptych
enclosed in a framework elaborately carved and gilt, in the
Gothic style. In the centre compartment, St. Anna lies on a rich
couch covered with crimson drapery; a graceful female presents an
embroidered napkin, others enter, bringing refreshments, as usual.
In front, three attendants minister to the Infant: one of them is in
an attitude of admiration; on the right, Joachim seated, with white
hair and beard, receives the congratulations of a young man who seems
to envy his paternity. In the compartment on the right stand St.
James Major and St. Catherine; on the left, St. Bartholomew and St.
Elizabeth of Hungary (?). This picture is in the hard primitive style
of the fourteenth century, by an unknown painter, who must have lived,
before Giovanni di Paolo, but vividly coloured, exquisitely finished,
and full of sentiment and dramatic feeling.
THE VIRGIN WITHOUT THE CHILD.
1. LA VERGINE GLORIOSA. 2. L'INCORONATA.
3. LA MADONNA DI MISERICORDIA. 4. LA MADRE
DOLOROSA. 5. LA CONCEZIONE.
THE VIRGIN MARY.
_Lat._ 1. Virgo Gloriosa. 2. Virgo Sponsa Dei. 3. Virgo Potens 4.
Virgo Veneranda. 5. Virgo Praedicanda. 6. Virgo Clemens. 7. Virgo
Sapientissima. 8. Sancta Virgo Virginum. _Ital._ La Vergine Gloriosa.
La Gran Vergine delle Vergini. _Fr._ La Grande Vierge.
There are representations of the Virgin, and among them some of the
earliest in existence, which place her before us as an object of
religious veneration, but in which the predominant idea is not that
of her maternity. No doubt it was as the mother of the Saviour Christ
that she was originally venerated; but in the most ancient monuments
of the Christian faith, the sarcophagi, the rude paintings in the
catacombs, and the mosaics executed before the seventh century,
she appears simply as a veiled female figure, not in any respect
characterized. She stands, in a subordinate position, on one side of
Christ; St. Peter or St. John the Baptist on the other.
When the worship of the Virgin came to us from the East, with it came
the Greek type--and for ages we had no other--the Greek classical
type, with something of the Oriental or Egyptian character. When thus
she stands before us without her Son, and the apostles or saints on
each side taking the subordinate position, then we are to regard her
not only as the mother of Christ, but as the second Eve, the mother of
all suffering humanity; THE WOMAN of the primeval prophecy whose issue
was to bruise the head of the Serpent; the Virgin predestined from
the beginning of the world who was to bring forth the Redeemer of the
world; the mystical Spouse of the Canticles; the glorified Bride of
a celestial Bridegroom; the received Type of the Church of Christ,
afflicted on earth, triumphant and crowned in heaven; the most
glorious, most pure, most pious, most clement, most sacred Queen and
Mother, Virgin of Virgins.
The form under which we find this grand and mysterious idea of
glorified womanhood originally embodied, is wonderfully majestic
and simple. A female figure of colossal dimensions, far exceeding
in proportion all the attendant personages and accessories, stands
immediately beneath some figure or emblem representing almighty power:
either it is the omnipotent hand stretched out above her, holding the
crown of immortality; or it is the mystic dove which hovers over her;
or it is the half-form of Christ, in the act of benediction.
She stands with arms raised and extended wide, the ancient attitude of
prayer; or with hands merely stretched forth, expressing admiration,
humility, and devout love. She is attired in an ample tunic of
blue or white, with a white veil over her head, thrown a little
back, and displaying an oval face with regular features, mild,
dignified--sometimes, in the figures of the ruder ages, rather stern
and melancholy, from the inability of the artist to express beauty;
but when least beautiful, and most formal and motionless, always
retaining something of the original conception, and often expressibly
striking and majestic.
The earliest figure of this character to which I can refer is the
mosaic in the oratory of San Venanzio, in the Lateran, the work of
Greek artists under the popes John IV. and Theodorus, both Greeks by
birth, and who presided over the Church from 640 to 649. In the vault
of the tribune, over the altar, we have first, at the summit, a figure
of Christ half-length, with his hand extended in benediction; on each
side, a worshipping angel; below, in the centre, the figure of the
Virgin according to the ancient type, standing with extended arms, in
a violet or rather dark-blue tunic and white veil, with a small cross
pendant on her bosom. On her right hand stands St. Paul, on her left
St. Peter; beyond St. Peter and St. Paul, St. John the Baptist holding
a cross, and St. John the Evangelist holding a book; and beyond these
again, St. Domino and St. Venantius, two martyred saints, who perished
in Dalmatia, and whose relics were brought out of that country by the
founder of the chapel, John IV., himself a Dalmatian by birth. At the
extremities of this group, or rather line of figures, stand the two
popes, John IV. and Theodorus, under whom the chapel was founded and
dedicated. Although this ancient mosaic has been many times restored,
the original composition remains.
Similar, but of later date, is the effigy of the Virgin over the altar
of the archiepiscopal chapel at Ravenna. This mosaic, with others of
Greek work, was brought from the old tribune of the cathedral, when
it was altered and repaired, and the ancient decorations removed or
Another instance, also, at Ravenna, is the basso-relievo in
Greek marble, and evidently of Greek workmanship, which is said
to have existed from the earliest ages, in the church of S.
Maria-in-Porto-Fuori, and is now preserved in the S. Maria-in-Porto,
where I saw it in 1847. It is probably as old as the sixth or seventh
In St. Mark's at Venice, in the grand old basilica at Torcello, in
San Donate at Murano, at Monreale, near Palermo, and in most of the
old churches in the East of Europe, we find similar figures, either
Byzantine in origin, or in imitation of the Byzantine style.
But about the middle of the thirteenth century, and contemporary with
Cimabue, we find the first indication of a departure, even in the
mosaics, from the lifeless, formal type of Byzantine art. The earliest
example of a more animated treatment is, perhaps, the figure in the
apsis of St. John Lateran. (Rome.) In the centre is an immense cross,
emblem of salvation; the four rivers of Paradise (the four Gospels)
flow from its base; and the faithful, figured by the hart and the
sheep, drink from these streams. Below the cross is represented, of
a small size, the New Jerusalem guarded by an archangel. On the right
stands the Virgin, of colossal dimensions. She places one hand on the
head of a diminutive kneeling figure, Pope Nicholas IV., by whom
the mosaic was dedicated about 1290; the other hand, stretched forth,
seems to recommend the votary to the mercy of Christ.
[Footnote 1: For a minute reduction of the whole composition, see
Kugler's Handbook, p. 113.]
Full-length effigies of the Virgin seated on a throne, or glorified as
queen of heaven, or queen of angels, without her divine Infant in her
arms, are exceedingly rare in every age; now and then to be met with
in the early pictures and illuminations, but never, that I know of,
in the later schools of art. A signal example is the fine enthroned
Madonna in the Campo Santo, who receives St. Ranieri when presented
by St. Peter and St. Paul.
On the Dalmatica (or Deacon's robe) preserved in the sacristy of
St. Peter's at Rome (which Lord Lindsay well describes as a perfect
example of the highest style of Byzantine art) (Christian Art, i.
136), the embroidery on the front represents Christ in a golden circle
or glory, robed in white, with the youthful and beardless face, his
eyes looking into yours. He sits on the rainbow; his left hand holds
an open book, inscribed, "Come, ye blessed of my Father!" while
the right is raised in benediction. The Virgin stands on the right
entirely _within_ the glory; "she is sweet in feature and graceful
in attitude, in her long white robe." The Baptist stands on the left
_outside_ the glory.
In pictures representing the glory of heaven, Paradise, or the Last
Judgment, we have this idea constantly repeated--of the Virgin on the
right hand of her Son, but not on the same throne with him, unless it
be a "Coronation," which is a subject apart.
In the great altar-piece of the brothers Van Eyck, the upper part
contains three compartments; in the centre is Christ, wearing the
triple tiara, and carrying the globe, as King, as Priest, as Judge--on
each side, as usual, but in separate compartments, the Virgin and St.
John the Baptist. The Virgin, a noble queenly figure, full of serene
dignity and grace, is seated on a throne, and wears a superb crown,
formed of lilies, roses, and gems, over her long fair hair. She
is reading intently in a book--The Book of Wisdom. She is here the
_Sponsa Dei_, and the _Virgo Sapientissima_, the most wise Virgin.
This is the only example I can recollect of the Virgin seated on the
right hand of her Son in glory, and _holding a book_. In every other
instance she is standing or seated with her hands joined or crossed
over her bosom, and her eyes turned towards him.
[Footnote 1: It is well known that the different parts of this great
work have been dispersed. The three compartments mentioned here are at
Among innumerable examples, I will cite only one, perhaps the most
celebrated of all, and familiar, it may be presumed, to most of my
readers, though perhaps they may not have regarded it with reference
to the character and position given to the Virgin. It is one of the
four great frescoes of the Camera della Segnatura, in the Vatican,
exhibiting the four highest objects of mental culture--Theology,
Poetry, Philosophy, and Jurisprudence. In the first of these,
commonly, but erroneously, called _La Disputa dell' Sacramento_,
Raphael has combined into one great scene the whole system of
theology, as set forth by the Catholic Church; it is a sort of
concordance between heaven and earth--between the celestial and
terrestrial witnesses of the truth. The central group above shows us
the Redeemer of the world, seated with extended arms, having on the
right the Virgin in her usual place, and on the left, also in his
accustomed place, St. John the Baptist; both seated, and nearly on
a level with Christ. The Baptist is here in his character of the
Precursor "sent to bear witness to the light, that through him all
men might believe." (John i. 7.) The Virgin is exhibited, not merely
as the Mother, the Sposa, the Church, but as HEAVENLY WISDOM, for in
this character the Catholic Church has applied to her the magnificent
passage in Proverbs: "The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His
way, before His works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the
beginning, or ever the earth was." "Then I was by Him as one brought
up with Him, and I was daily His delight, rejoicing alway before Him."
(Prov. viii, 12-36, and Eccles. xxiv. 15, 16.)
Nothing can be more beautiful than the serene grace and the mingled
majesty and humility in the figure of the Virgin, and in her
countenance, as she looks up adoring to the Fountain of _all_ light,
_all_ wisdom, and _all_ goodness. Above the principal group, is the
emblematical image of the FATHER; below is the holy Dove, in the act
of descending to the earth.
[Footnote 1: For a detailed description of this fresco, see
Passavant's Raphael, i. 140, and Kugler's Handbook, 2d edit., where a
minute and beautiful reduction of the whole composition will give and
idea of the general design.]
The Virgin alone, separate from her Son, standing or enthroned before
us, simply as the _Virgine Dea_ or _Regina Coeli_, is rarely met with
in modern art, either in sculpture or painting. I will give, however,
one signal example.
In an altar-piece painted by Cosimo Rosselli, for the Serviti at
Florence, she stands alone, and in a majestic attitude, on a raised
pedestal. She holds a book, and looks upward, to the Holy Dove,
hovering over her head; she is here again the _Virgo Sapientiae_.
(Fl. Gal.) On one side is St. John the Evangelist and St. Antonino of
Florence (see Legends of the Monastic Orders); on the other, St. Peter
and St. Philip Benozzi; in front kneel St. Margaret and St. Catherine:
all appear to contemplate with rapturous devotion the vision of the
Madonna. The heads and attitudes in this picture have that character
of elegance which distinguished the Florentine school at this period,
without any of those extravagances and peculiarities into which Piero
often fell; for the man had evidently a touch of madness, and was as
eccentric in his works as in his life and conversation. The order
of the Serviti, for whom he painted this picture, was instituted
in honour of the Virgin, and for her particular service, which will
account for the unusual treatment.
* * * * *
The numerous--often most beautiful--heads and half-length figures
which represent the Virgin alone, looking up with a devout or tender
expression, or with the head declined, and the hands joined in prayer,
or crossed over the bosom with virginal humility and modesty, belong
to this class of representations. In the ancient heads, most of which
are imitations of the old Greek effigies ascribed to St. Luke, there
is often great simplicity and beauty. When she wears the crown over
her veil, or bears a sceptre in her hand, she figures as the queen of
heaven (_Regina Coeli_). When such effigies are attended by adoring
angels, she is the queen of angels (_Regina Angelorum_). When she is
weeping or holding the crown of thorns, she is Our Lady of Sorrow, the
_Mater Dolorosa_. When she is merely veiled, with folded hands, and
in her features all the beauty, maiden purity, and sweetness which the
artist could render, she is simply the Blessed Virgin, the Madonna,
the _Santa Maria Vergine_. Such heads are very rare in the earlier
schools of art, which seldom represented the Virgin without her
Child, but became favourite studies of the later painters, and
were multiplied and varied to infinitude from the beginning of the
seventeenth century. From these every trace of the mystical and solemn
conception of antiquity gradually disappeared; till, for the majestic
ideal of womanhood, we have merely inane prettiness, or rustic, or
even meretricious grace, the borrowed charms of some earthly model.
The Coronation of the Virgin. _Lat._ Coronatio Beatae Mariae Virginis.
_Ital._ Maria coronata dal divin suo Figlio. _Fr._ Le Couronnement de
la Sainte Vierge. _Ger._ Die Kroenung Mariae.
The usual type of the Church triumphant is the CORONATION OF THE
VIRGIN properly so called, Christ in the act of crowning his Mother;
one of the most popular, significant, and beautiful subjects in the
whole range of mediaeval art.
When in a series of subjects from the life of the Virgin, so often
met with in religious prints and in the Roman Catholic churches, we
find her death and her assumption followed by her coronation; when
the bier or sarcophagus and the twelve apostles appear below, while
heaven opens upon us above; then the representation assumes a kind
of dramatic character: it is the last and most glorious event of her
history. The Mother, dying on earth, is received into glory by her Son
who had gone before her, and who thus celebrates the consummation of
his victory and hers.
But when the scene is treated apart as a single subject; when, instead
of the apostles gazing up to heaven, or looking with amazement into
the tomb from which she had risen, we find the lower part of the
composition occupied by votaries, patron saints, or choral angels;
then the subject must be regarded as absolutely devotional and
typical. It is not a scene or an action; it is a great mystery. It
is consecrated to the honour of the Virgin as a type of the spiritual
Church. The Espoused is received into glory and crowned with the crown
of everlasting life, exalted above angels, spirits, and men. In this
sense we must understand the subject when we find it in ecclesiastical
sculpture, over the doors of places of worship, in the decorative
carving of church utensils, in stained glass. In many of the Italian
churches there is a chapel especially dedicated to the Virgin in this
character, called _la Capella dell' Incoronata_; and both in Germany
and Italy it is a frequent subject as an altar-piece.
In all the most ancient examples, it is Christ only who places the
crown on the head of his Mother, seated on the same throne, and placed
at his right hand. Sometimes we have the two figures only; sometimes
the _Padre Eterno_ looks down, and the Holy Spirit in the form of the
dove hovers above or between them. In some later examples the Virgin
is seated between the Father and the Son, both in human form: they
place the crown on her head each holding it with one hand, the Holy
Spirit hovering above. In other representations the Virgin _kneels_ at
the feet of Christ; and he places the crown on her head, while two or
more rejoicing and adoring angels make heavenly music, or all Paradise
opens to the view; and there are examples where not only the choir
of attendant angels, but a vast assembly of patriarchs, saints,
martyrs, fathers of the Church--the whole company of the blessed
spirits--assist at this great ceremony.
I will now give some celebrated examples of the various styles of
There is a group in mosaic, which I believe to be singular in its
kind, where the Virgin is enthroned, with Christ. She is seated at his
right hand, at the same elevation, and altogether as his equal. His
right arm embraces her, and his hand rests on her shoulder. She wears
a gorgeous crown, which her Son has placed on her brow Christ has only
the cruciform nimbus; in his left hand is an open book, on which is
inscribed, "_Veni, Electa mea_" &c. "Come, my chosen one, and I will
place thee upon my throne." The Virgin holds a tablet, on which are
the words "His right hand should be under my head, and his left hand
should embrace me." (Cant. viii. 3.) The omnipotent Hand is stretched
forth in benediction above. Here the Virgin is the type of the Church
triumphant and glorified, having overcome the world; and the solemn
significance of the whole representation is to be found in the Book of
Revelations: "To him that overcometh will I grant _to sit with me in
my throne_, even as I also overcame and am set down with my Father in
his throne." (Rev. iii. 21.)
This mosaic, in which, be it observed, the Virgin is enthroned with
Christ, and _embraced_, not crowned, by him, is, I believe, unique
either as a picture or a church decoration. It is not older than
the twelfth century, is very ill executed, but is curious from the
peculiarity of the treatment. (Rome. S. Maria in Trastevere.)
* * * * *
In the mosaic in the tribune of S. Maria-Maggiore at Rome, perhaps
the earliest example extant of the Coronation, properly so called, the
subject is treated with a grand and solemn simplicity. Christ and the
Virgin, colossal figures, are seated on the same regal throne within
a circular glory. The background is blue studded with golden stars.
He places the crown on her head with his right hand; in the left he
holds an open book, with the usual text, "_Veni, Electa mea, et ponam
te in thronum meum_," &c. She bends slightly forward, and her hands
are lifted in adoration. Above and around the circular glory the
emblematical vine twines in arabesque form; among the branches and
leaves sit peacocks and other birds; the peacock being the old emblem
of immortality, as birds in general are emblems of spirituality. On
each side of the glory are nine adoring angels, representing the nine
choirs of the heavenly hierarchy; beyond these on the right stand St.
Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis; on the left, St. John the Baptist, St.
John the Evangelist, and St. Antony of Padua; all these figures being
very small in proportion to those of Christ and the Virgin. Smaller
still, and quite diminutive in comparison, are the kneeling figures of
Pope Nicholas IV. and Cardinal Giacomo Colonna, under whose auspices
the mosaic was executed by Jacopo della Turrita, a Franciscan friar,
about 1288. In front flows the river Jordan, symbol of baptism and
regeneration; on its shore stands the hart, the emblem of religions
aspiration. Underneath the central group is the inscription,--
MARIA VIRGO ASSUMPTA AD ETHERIUM THALAMUM
IN QUO REX REGUM STELLATO SEDET SOLIO.
The whole of this vast and poetical composition is admirably executed,
and it is the more curious as being, perhaps, one of the earliest
examples of the glorification of St. Francis and St. Antony of Padua
(Monastic Orders), who were canonized about thirty or forty years
The mosaic, by Gaddo Gaddi (Florence, A.D. 1330), over the great door
in the cathedral at Florence, is somewhat different. Christ, while
placing the crown on the head of his Mother with his _left_ hand,
blesses her with his right hand, and he appears to have laid aside
his own crown, which lies near him. The attitude of the Virgin is also
[Footnote 1: In the same cathedral (which is dedicated to the Virgin
Mary) the circular window of the choir opposite to the mosaic exhibits
the Coronation. The design, by Donatello, is eminently fine and
In a small altar-piece by Giotto (Florence, S. Croce), Christ and the
Virgin are seated together on a throne. He places the jewelled crown
on her head with _both_ hands, while she bends forward with her hands
crossed in her lap, and the softest expression in her beautiful face,
as if she as meekly resigned herself to this honour, as heretofore to
the angelic salutation which pronounced her "Blessed:" angels kneel
before the throne with censers and offerings. In another, by Giotto,
Christ wearing a coronet of gems is seated on a throne: the Virgin
_kneels_ before him with hands joined: twenty angels with musical
instruments attend around. In a "Coronation," by Piero Laurati,
the figures of Christ and the Virgin, seated together, resemble in
sentiment and expression those of Giotto. The angels are arranged in
a glory around, and the treatment is wholly typical.
One of the most beautiful and celebrated of the pictures of Angelico
da Fiesole is the "Coronation" now in the Louvre; formerly it stood
over the high altar of the Church of St. Dominick at Fiesole, where
Angelico had been nurtured, and made his profession as monk. The
composition is conceived as a grand regal ceremony, but the beings who
figure in it are touched with a truly celestial grace. The Redeemer,
crowned himself, and wearing the ermine mantle of an earthly monarch,
is seated on a magnificent throne, under a Gothic canopy, to which
there is an ascent of nine steps. He holds the crown, which he is in
the act of placing, with both hands, on the head of the Virgin, who
kneels before him, with features of the softest and most delicate
beauty, and an expression of divine humility. Her face, seen in
profile, is partly shaded by a long transparent veil, flowing over
her ample robe of a delicate crimson, beneath which is a blue tunic.
On each side a choir of lovely angels, clothed from head to foot in
spangled tunics of azure and rose-colour, with shining wings, make
celestial music, while they gaze with looks of joy and adoration
towards the principal group. Lower down on the right of the throne
are eighteen, and on the left twenty-two, of the principal patriarchs,
apostles, saints, and martyrs, among whom the worthies of Angelico's
own community, St. Dominick and St. Peter Martyr, are of course
conspicuous. At the foot of the throne kneel on one side St.
Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Charlemagne, the royal saint; St.
Nicholas; and St. Thomas Aquinas holding a pen (the great literary
saint of the Dominican order, and author of the Office of the Virgin);
on the left we have a group of virgins, St. Agnes, St. Catherine with
her wheel, St. Catherine of Siena, her habit spangled with stars;
St. Cecilia crowned with her roses, and Mary Magdalene, with her
long golden hair. Beneath this great composition runs a border or
predella, in seven compartments, containing in the centre a Pieta, and
on each side three small subjects from the history of St. Dominick,
to whom the church, whence it was taken, is dedicated. The spiritual
beauty of the heads, the delicate tints of the colouring, an ineffable
charm of mingled brightness and repose shed over the whole, give to
this lovely picture an effect like that of a church hymn, sung at
some high festival by voices tuned in harmony--"blest voices, uttering
[Footnote 1: See "Legends of the Monastic Orders," and "Sacred and
Legendary Art," for an account of all these personages.]
In strong contrast with the graceful Italian conception, is the German
"Coronation," now in the Wallerstein collection. (Kensington Pal.)
It is supposed to have been painted for Philip the Good, Duke of
Burgundy, either by Hans Hemling, or a painter not inferior to him.
Here the Virgin is crowned by the Trinity. She kneels, with an air of
majestic humility, and hands meekly folded on her bosom, attired in
simple blue drapery, before a semicircular throne, on which are seated
the Father and the Son, between them, with outspread wings, touching
their mouths, the Holy Dove. The Father a venerable figure, wears the
triple tiara, and holds the sceptre; Christ, with an expression of
suffering, holds in his left hand a crystal cross; and they sustain
between them a crown which they are about to place on the head of the
Virgin. Their golden throne is adorned with gems, and over it is a
glory of seraphim, with hair, faces, and plumage, all of a glowing
red. The lower part of this picture and the compartments on each side
are filled with a vast assemblage of saints, and martyrs, and holy
confessors: conspicuous among them we find the saints most popular
in Flanders and Burgundy--St. Adrian, St. George, St. Sebastian, St.
Maurice, clad in coats of mail and crowned with laurel, with other
kingly and warlike personages; St. Philip, the patron of Philip the
Good; St. Andrew, in whose honour he instituted the order of the
Golden Fleece: and a figure in a blue mantle with a ducal crown, one
of the three kings of Cologne, is supposed to represent Duke Philip
himself. It is, impossible by any description to do justice to this
wonderful picture, as remarkable for its elaborate workmanship, the
mysticism of the conception, the quaint elegance of the details,
and portrait-like reality of the faces, as that of Angelico for its
spiritual, tender, imaginative grace.
There is a "Coronation" by Vivarini (Acad. Venice), which may be
said to comprise in itself a whole system of theology. It is one
vast composition, not divided by compartments. In the centre is a
magnificent carved throne sustained by six pillars, which stand on
a lofty richly ornamented pedestal. On the throne are seated Christ
and the Virgin; he is crowned, and places with both hands a crown on
her head. Between them hovers the celestial Dove, and above them is
seen the Heavenly Father in likeness of "the Ancient of Days," who
paternally lays a hand on the shoulder of each. Around his head and
over the throne, are the nine choirs of angels, in separate groups.
First and nearest, hover the glowing seraphim and cherubim, winged,
but otherwise formless. Above these, the Thrones, holding the globe
of sovereignty; to the right, the Dominations, Virtues, and Powers; to
the left, the Princedoms, Archangels, and Angels. Below these, on each
side of the throne, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament,
holding each a scroll. Below these the apostles on twelve thrones, six
on each side, each holding the Gospel. Below these, on each side, the
saints and martyrs. Below these, again, the virgins and holy women.
Under the throne, in the space formed by the pillars, is seen a
group of beautiful children (not angels), representing, I think, the
martyred Innocents. They bear the instruments of Christ's passion--the
cross, nails, spear, crown of thorns, &c. On the step below the
pedestal, and immediately in front, are seated the Evangelists and
doctors of the Church; on the right St. Matthew and St. Luke, and
behind them St. Ambrose and St. Augustine; on the left St. Mark and
St. John, and behind them St. Jerome and St. Gregory. (See "Sacred and
Legendary Art") Every part of this curious picture is painted with the
utmost care and delicacy: the children are exquisite, and the heads,
of which there are at least seventy without counting the angels, are
finished like miniatures.
This simple, and altogether typical representation of the Virgin
crowned by the Trinity in human form, is in a French carving of the
fifteenth century, and though ill drawn, there is considerable naivete
in the treatment. The Eternal Father wears, as is usual, the triple
tiara, the Son has the cross and the crown of thorns, and the Holy
Ghost is distinguished by the dove on his hand. All three sustain the
crown over the head of the kneeling Virgin, whose train is supported
by two angels.
In a bas-relief over a door of the cathedral at Treves, the subject is
very simply treated; both Christ and the Virgin are standing, which
is unusual, and behind each is an angel, also standing and holding a
Where not more than five or six saints are introduced as attendants
and accessories, they are usually the patron saints of the locality or
community, which may be readily distinguished. Thus,
1. In a "Coronation" by Sandro Botticelli, we find below, St. John the
Evangelist, St. Augustine, St. John Gualberto, St. Bernardo Cardinale.
It was painted for the Vallombrosian monks. (Fl. Gal.)
2. In a very fine example by Ghirlandajo, St. Dominick and St. Peter
Martyr are conspicuous: painted, of course, for the Dominicans.
3. In another, by Pinturicchio, St. Francis is a principal figure,
with St. Bonaventura and St. Louis of Toulouse; painted for the
Franciscans, or at least for a Franciscan pope, Sixtus IV. (Rome,
4. In another, by Guido, the treatment differs from the early style.
The coronation above is small and seen as a vision; the saints below,
St. Bernard and St. Catherine, are life-size. It was painted for a
community of Bernardines, the monks of Monte Oliveto. (Bologna, Gal.)
5. In a beautiful little altar-piece by Lorenzo di Credi, the
Virgin is kneeling above, while Christ, seated, places the crown on
her head. A glory of red seraphim surround the two figures. Below are
the famous patron saints of Central Italy, St. Nicholas of Bari and
St. Julian of Rimini, St. Barbara and St. Christina. The St. Francis
and St. Antony, in the predella, show it to have been painted for a
Franciscan church or chapel, probably for the same church at Cestello
for which Lorenzo painted the St. Julian and St. Nicholas now in the
[Footnote 1: Once in the collection of Mr. Rogers; _v_. "Sacred and
The "Coronation of the Virgin" by Annibale Carracci is in a spirit
altogether different, magnificently studied. On high, upon a lofty
throne which extends across the whole picture from side to side, the
Virgin, a noble majestic creature, in the true Carracci style, is
seated in the midst as the principal figure, her hands folded on her
bosom. On the right hand sits the Father, on the left the Son; they
hold a heavenly crown surmounted by stars above her head. The locality
is the Empyreum. The audience consists of angels only, who circle
within circle, filling the whole space, and melting into an abyss of
light, chant hymns of rejoicing and touch celestial instruments of
music. This picture shows how deeply Annibale Carracci had studied
Correggio, in the magical chiaro-oscuro, and the lofty but somewhat
mannered grace of the figures.
[Footnote 1: This was also in the collection of Mr. Rogers.]
One of the latest examples I can point to is also one of the most
simple and grand in conception. (Madrid Gal.) It is that by Velasquez,
the finest perhaps of the very few devotional subjects painted by
him. We have here the three figures only, as large as life, filling
the region of glory, without angels, witnesses, or accessories of any
kind, except the small cherubim beneath; and the symmetrical treatment
gives to the whole a sort of sublime effect. But the heads have the
air of portraits: Christ has a dark, earnest, altogether Spanish
physiognomy; the Virgin has dark hair; and the _Padre Eterno_, with
a long beard, has a bald head,--a gross fault in taste and propriety;
because, though the loose beard and flowing white hair may serve to
typify the "Ancient of Days," baldness expresses not merely age, but
the infirmity of age.
Rubens, also, painted a "Coronation" with all his own lavish
magnificence of style for the Jesuits at Brussels. After the time
of Velasquez and Rubens, the "Immaculate Conception" superseded the
* * * * *
To enter further into the endless variations of this charming and
complex subject would lead us through all the schools of art from
Giotto to Guido. I have said enough to render it intelligible
and interesting, and must content myself with one or two closing
1. The dress of the Virgin in a "Coronation" is generally splendid,
too like the coronation robes of an earthly queen,--it is a "raiment
of needlework,"--"a vesture of gold wrought about with divers
colours"--generally blue, crimson, and white, adorned with gold, gems,
and even ermine. In the "Coronation" by Filippo Lippi, at Spoleto, she
wears a white robe embroidered with golden suns. In a beautiful little
"Coronation" in the Wallerstein collection (Kensington Pal.) she wears
a white robe embroidered with suns and moons, the former red with
golden rays, the latter blue with coloured rays,--perhaps in allusion
to the text so often applied in reference to her, "a woman clothed
with the _sun_," &c. (Rev. xii. 1, or Cant. vi. 10.)
2. In the set of cartoons for the tapestries of the Sistine Chapel
(Kugler's Handbook, ii. 394), as originally prepared by Raphael,
we have the foundation, the heaven-bestowed powers, the trials and
sufferings of the early Church, exhibited in the calling of St. Peter,
the conversion of St. Paul, the acts and miracles of the apostles, the
martyrdom of St. Stephen; and the series closed with the Coronation
of the Virgin, placed over the altar, as typical of the final triumph
of the Church, the completion and fulfilment of all the promises made
to man, set forth in the exaltation and union of the mortal with the
immortal, when the human Mother and her divine Son are reunited and
seated on the same throne. Raphael placed on one side of the celestial
group, St. John the Baptist, representing sanctification through the
rite of baptism; and on the other, St. Jerome, the general symbol of
sanctification through faith and repentance. The cartoon of this grand
symbolical composition, in which all the figures were colossal, is
unhappily lost; the tapestry is missing from the Vatican collection;
two old engravings, however, exist, from which some idea may be formed
of the original group. (Passavant's Rafael, ii. 258.)
3. It will be interesting to remember that the earliest existing
impression taken from an engraved metal plate, is a "Coronation of the
Virgin." Maso Finiguerra, a skilful goldsmith and worker in niello,
living at Florence in 1434, was employed to execute a pix (the small
casket in which the consecrated wafer of the sacrament is deposited),
and he decorated it with a representation of the Coronation in
presence of saints and angels, in all about thirty figures, minutely
and exquisitely engraved on the silver face. Whether Finiguerra was
the first worker in niello to whom it occurred to fill up the lines
cut in the silver with a black fluid, and then by laying on it a piece
of damp paper, and forcibly rubbing it, take off the fac-simile of his
design and try its effect before the final process,--this we can not
ascertain; we only know that the impression of his "Coronation" is
the earliest specimen known to exist, and gave rise to the practice
of cutting designs on plates of copper (instead of silver), for the
purpose of multiplying impressions of them. The pix finished by Maso
in 1452 is now in the Florence Gallery in the "Salle des Bronzes." The
invaluable print, first of its species, exists in the National Library
at Paris. There is a very exact fac-simile of it in Otley's "History
of Engraving," Christ and the Virgin are here seated together on
a lofty architectural throne: her hands are crossed on her bosom,
and she bends her meek veiled head to receive the crown, which her
Son, who wears a triple tiara, places on her brow. The saints most
conspicuous are St. John the Baptist, patron of Florence and of the
church for which the pix was executed, and a female saint, I believe
St. Reparata, both standing; kneeling in front are St. Cosmo and St.
Damian, the patrons of the Medici family, then paramount at Florence.
(Sacred and Legendary Art.)
4. In an illuminated "Office of the Virgin," I found a version of
this subject which must be rare, and probably confined to miniatures.
Christ is seated on a throne and the Virgin kneels before him; he
bends forwards, and tenderly takes her clasped hands in both his own.
An empty throne is at the right hand of Christ, over which hovers
an angel bearing a crown. This is the moment which _precedes_
the Coronation, as the group already described in the S.
Maria-in-Trastevere exhibits the moment which _follows_ the
5. Finally, we must bear in mind that those effigies in which the
Madonna is holding her Child, while angels place a crown upon her
head, do not represent THE CORONATION properly so called, but merely
the Virgin honoured as Mother of Christ and Queen of Heaven (_Mater
Christi, Regina Coeli_); and that those representations of the
Coronation which conclude a series of the life of the Virgin, and
surmount her death-bed or her tomb, are historical and dramatic rather
than devotional and typical. Of this historical treatment there are
beautiful examples from Cimabue down to Raphael, which will be noticed
hereafter in their proper place.
THE VIRGIN OF MERCY.
Our Lady of Succour. _Ital._ La Madonna di Misericordia. _Fr._ Notre
Dame de Misericorde. _Ger._ Maria Mutter des Erbarmens. _Sp._ Nuestra
Senora de Grazia.
When once the Virgin had been exalted and glorified in the celestial
paradise, the next and the most natural result was, that she should be
regarded as being in heaven the most powerful of intercessors, and on
earth a most benign and ever-present protectress. In the mediaeval idea
of Christ, there was often something stern; the Lamb of God who died
for the sins of the world, is also the inexorable Judge of the quick
and the dead. When he shows his wounds, it is as if a vindictive
feeling was supposed to exist; as if he were called upon to remember
in judgment the agonies and the degradation to which he had been
exposed below for the sake of wicked ungrateful men. In a Greek "Day
of Judgment," cited by Didron, Moses holds up a scroll, on which is
written, "Behold Him whom ye crucified," while the Jews are dragged
into everlasting fire. Everywhere is the sentiment of vengeance;
Christ himself is less a judge than an avenger. Not so the Virgin;
she is represented as all mercy, sympathy, and benignity. In some of
the old pictures of the Day of Judgment, she is seated by the side
of Christ, on an equality with him, and often in an attitude of
deprecation, as if adjuring him, to relent: or her eyes are turned on
the redeemed souls, and she looks away from the condemned as if unable
to endure the sight of their doom. In other pictures she is lower than
Christ, but always on his right hand, and generally seated; while St.
John the Baptist, who is usually placed opposite to her on the left
of Christ, invariably stands or kneels. Instead of the Baptist, it is
sometimes, but rarely, John the Evangelist, who is the pendant of the
In the Greek representations of the Last Judgment, a river of fire
flows from under the throne of Christ to devour and burn up the
wicked. In western art the idea is less formidable,--Christ is
not at once judge and executioner; but the sentiment is always
sufficiently terrible; "the angels and all the powers of heaven
tremble before him." In the midst of these terrors, the Virgin,
whether kneeling, or seated, or standing, always appears as a gentle
mediator, a, supplicant for mercy. In the "Day of Judgment," as
represented in the "Hortus Deliciarum,"  we read inscribed under
her figure the words "_Maria, Filio suo pro Ecclesia supplicat_."
In a very fine picture by Martin Schoen (Schleissheim Gal.), it is
the Father, who, with a sword and three javelins in his hand, sits
as the avenging judge; near him Christ; while the Virgin stands in
the foreground, looking up to her Son with an expression of tender
supplication, and interceding, as it appears, for the sinners kneeling
round her, and whose imploring looks are directed to _her_. In the
well-known fresco by Andrea Ortagna (Pisa, Campo Santo), Christ and
the Virgin sit throned above, each in a separate aureole, but equally
glorified. Christ, pointing with one hand to the wound in his side,
raises the other in a threatening attitude, and his attention is
directed to the wicked, whom he hurls into perdition. The Virgin,
with one hand pressed to her bosom, looks to him with an air of
supplication. Both figures are regally attired, and wear radiant
crowns; and the twelve apostles attend them, seated on each side.
[Footnote 1: Didron, "Iconographie Chretienne;" and in the mosaic of
the Last Judgment, executed by Byzantine artists, in the cathedral at
[Footnote 2: A celebrated illuminated MS. (date about 1159 to 1175),
preserved in the Library at Strasburg.]
* * * * *
In the centre group of Michael Angelo's "Last Judgment," we have the
same leading _motif_, but treated in a very different feeling. Christ
stands before us in figure and mien like a half-naked athlete; his
left hand rejects, his right hand threatens, and his whole attitude
is as utterly devoid of dignity as of grace. I have often wondered
as I have looked at this grand and celebrated work, what could be
Michael Angelo's idea of Christ. He who was so good, so religious,
so pure-minded, and so high-minded, was deficient in humility and
sympathy; if his morals escaped, his imagination was corrupted by the
profane and pagan influences of his time. His conception of Christ is
here most unchristian, and his conception of the Virgin is not much
better. She is grand in form, but the expression is too passive.
She looks down and seems to shrink; but the significance of the
attitude,--the hand pressed to the maternal bosom,--given to her by
the old painters, is lost.
In a "Last Judgment" by Rubens, painted for the Jesuits of Brussels
(Brussels; Musee), the Virgin extends her robe over the world, as if
to shield mankind from the wrath of her Son; pointing, at the same
time, significantly to her bosom, whence He derived his earthly life.
The daring bad taste, and the dramatic power of this representation,
are characteristic alike of the painter, the time, and the community
for which the picture was painted.
* * * * *
More beautiful and more acceptable to our feelings are those graceful
representations of the Virgin as dispenser of mercy on earth; as
protectress and patroness either of all Christendom, or of some
particular locality, country, or community. In such pictures she
stands with outstretched arms, crowned with a diadem, or in some
instances simply veiled, her ample robe, extended on each side, is
held up by angels, while under its protecting folds are gathered
worshippers and votaries of all ranks and ages--men, women,
children,--kings, nobles, ecclesiastics,--the poor, the lame, the
sick. Or if the picture be less universal in its significance,
dedicated perhaps by some religious order or charitable brotherhood,
we see beneath her robe an assemblage of monks and nuns, or a troop of
young orphans or redeemed prisoners. Such a representation is styled a
In a picture by Fra Filippo Lippi (Berlin Gal.), the Madonna of Mercy
extends her protecting mantle over thirty-five kneeling figures,
the faces like portraits, none elevated or beautiful, but the whole
picture as an example of the subject most striking.
A very beautiful and singular representation of the Virgin of Mercy
without the Child, I found in the collection of Herr v. Quandt, of
Dresden. She stands with hands folded over her bosom, and wrapped in
ample white drapery, without ornament of any kind; over her head, a
veil of transparent gauze of a brown colour, such as, from various
portraits of the time, appears to have been then a fashion. The
expression of the face is tender and contemplative, almost sad; and
the whole figure, which is life-size, is inexpressibly refined and
dignified. The following inscription is on the dark background to the
right of the Virgin:--
BEATAE MARIAE VIRGINIS
MENS. AUGUST. MDXXXIII.
This beautiful picture was brought from Brescia to Vienna by a
picture-dealer, and purchased by Herr v. Quandt. It was painted by
Moretto of Brescia, of whom Lanzi truly says that his sacred subjects
express _la compunzione, la pieta, la carita istessa_; and this
picture is an instance. But by whom dedicated, for what especial
mercy, or in what church, I could not ascertain.
[Footnote 1: I possess a charming drawing of the head by Fraulein
Louise Seidler of Weimar, whose feeling for early religious art is
shown in her own works, as well as in the beautiful copies she has
made of others.]
* * * * *
It is seldom that the Madonna di Misericordia appears without the
Child in her arms; her maternity is supposed to be one element in her
sympathy with suffering humanity. I will add, however, to the examples
already given, one very celebrated instance.
The picture entitled the "Misericordia di Lucca" is famous in the
history of art. (Lucca. S. Romano.) It is the most important work
of Fra Bartolomeo, and is dated 1515, two years before his death.
The Virgin, a grand and beautiful figure, stands alone on a raised
platform, with her arms extended, and looking up to heaven. The ample
folds of her robe are held open by two angels. Beneath and round her
feet are various groups in attitudes of supplication, who look up to
her, as she looks up to heaven. On one side the donor of the picture
is presented by St. Dominick. Above, in a glory, is the figure of
Christ surrounded by angels, and seeming to bend towards his mother.
The expression in the heads, the dignified beneficence of the Virgin,
the dramatic feeling in the groups, particularly the women and
children, justify the fame of this picture as one of the greatest of
the productions of mind.
[Footnote 1: According to the account in Murray's "Handbook,"
this picture was dedicated by the noble family of Montecanini, and
represents the Virgin interceding for the Lucchesi during the wars
with Florence. But I confess I am doubtful of this interpretation, and
rather think it refers to the pestilence, which, about 1512, desolated
the whole of the north of Italy. Wilkie, who saw this picture in 1825,
speaks of the workmanship with the enthusiasm of a workman.]
* * * * *
There is yet another version of this subject, which deserves notice
from the fantastic grace of the conception. As in early Christian Art,
our Saviour was frequently portrayed as the Good Shepherd, so, among
the later Spanish fancies, we find his Mother represented as the
Divine Shepherdess. In a picture painted by Alonzo Miguel de Tobar
(Madrid Gal. 226), about the beginning of the eighteenth century,
we find the Virgin Mary seated under a tree, in guise of an Arcadian
pastorella, wearing a broad-brimmed hat, encircled by a glory, a crook
in her hand, while she feeds her flock with the mystical roses. The
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