Decorative Image

n every true home the mother is queen, enthroned in the hearts of her loving children. There is, therefore, a beautiful double significance, which we should always have in mind, in looking at the Madonna enthroned. According to the theological conception of the period in which it was first produced, the picture stands for the Virgin Mother as Queen of Heaven. Understood typically, it represents the exaltation of motherhood.

In the history of art development, the enthroned Madonna begins where the portrait Madonna ends. We may date it from the thirteenth century, when Cimabue, of Florence, and Guido, of Siena, produced their famous pictures. Similar types had previously appeared in the mosaic decorations of churches, but now, for the first time, they were worthily set forth in panel pictures.

The story of Cimabue's Madonna is one of the oft-told tales we like to hear repeated. How on a certain day, about 1270, Charles of Anjou was passing through Florence; how he honored the studio of Cimabue by a visit; how the Madonna was then first uncovered; how the people shouted so joyously that the street was thereafter named the Borgo dei Allegri; and how the great picture was finally borne in triumphal procession to the church of Santa Maria Novella,—all these are the scenes in the pretty drama. The late Sir Frederick Leighton has preserved for future centuries this story, already six hundred years old, in a charming pageant picture: "Cimabue's Madonna carried through the streets of Florence." This was the first work ever exhibited by the English artist, and was an important step in the career which ended in the presidency of the Royal Academy.

Cimabue's Madonna still hangs in Santa Maria Novella, over the altar of the Ruccellai chapel, and thither many a pilgrim takes his way to honor the memory of the father of modern painting. The throne is a sort of carved armchair, very simple in form, but richly overlaid with gold; the surrounding background is filled with adoring angels. Here sits the Madonna, in stiff solemnity, holding her child on her lap. If we find it hard to admire her beauty, we must note the superiority of the picture to its predecessors.

For the enthroned Madonna in a really attractive and beautiful form, we must pass at once to the period of full art development. In the interval, many variations upon the theme have been invented. The throne may be of any size, shape, or material; the composition may consist of any number of figures. The Madonna, seated or standing, is now the centre of an assembly of personages symmetrically grouped about her. There is little or no unity of action among them; each one is an independent figure. The guard of honor may be composed of saints, as in Montagna's Madonna, of the Brera, Milan; or again it is a company of angels, as in the Berlin Madonna, attributed to Botticelli, similar to which is the picture by Ghirlandajo in the Uffizi Gallery. Where saints are represented, each one is marked by some special emblem, the identification of which makes, in itself, an interesting study. St. Peter's key, St. Paul's sword, St. Catherine's wheel, and St. Barbara's tower soon become familiar symbols to those fond of this kind of lore.

Among the idealized presences about the Virgin's throne may sometimes be seen the prosaic figure of the donor, whose munificence has made the picture possible. This is well illustrated in the famous Madonna of Victory in the Louvre, painted in commemoration of the Battle of Fornovo, where Mantegna represents Francesco Gonzaga, commander of the Venetian forces, kneeling at the Virgin's feet.

A charming feature in many enthroned Madonnas is the group of cherubs below,—one, two, or the mystic three. They are not the exclusive possession of any single school of art; Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto of the Florentines, Francia of the Bolognese, and Bellini and Cima of the Venetians were particularly partial to them. The treatment in Northern Italy gives them a more definite purpose in the composition than does that of Florence, for here they are always musicians, playing on all sorts of instruments,—the violin, the mandolin, or the pipe.

Perugino.—Madonna and Saints. (Detail.) Perugino.—Madonna and Saints. (Detail.)

Bartolommeo was specially successful in the subject of the enthroned Madonna, having fine gifts of composition united with profound religious earnestness. The great picture in the Pitti gallery at Florence may serve as a typical example. Andrea del Sarto's chef-d'œuvre—the Madonna di San Francesco (Uffizi)—may also be assigned to this class, although the arrangement is entirely novel. The Virgin, holding the babe in her arms, stands on a sort of pedestal, carved at the corners with a design of harpies, from which the picture is often known as the Madonna of the Harpies. The pedestal throne is also seen in two of Correggio's Dresden pictures, but here the Virgin is seated, with the child on her lap. An exceedingly simple throne Madonna is that of Luini, in the Brera at Milan, where the Virgin sits on a plain coping not at all high.