Decorative Image

e have seen that the first Madonnas were painted against a background either of solid gold, or of cherub figures, and that the latter style of setting was continued in the early pictures of the enthroned Madonna. The effect was to idealize the subject, and carry it into the region of the heavenly. This was the germinal idea which grew into the "Madonna in Gloria."

The glory was originally a sort of nimbus of a larger order, surrounding the entire figure, instead of merely the head. It was oval in shape, like the almond or mandorla.

A picture of this class is the famous Madonna della Stella, of Fra Angelico. It is in a beautiful Gothic tabernacle, which is the sole ornament of a cell in San Marco, Florence. At every step in these sacred precincts, we meet some reminder of the Angelic Brother. How the gray walls blossomed, under his brush, into forms and colors of eternal beauty! After seeing the larger wall-paintings in corridors and refectory, this little gem seems to epitomize his choicest gifts. A rich frame, fit setting for the jewel, encloses an outer circle of adoring angels, and within, the central panel contains only the full length figure of the Virgin with her child, against a mandorla formed of golden rays running from centre to circumference. The Madonna is enveloped in a long, dark blue cloak, drawn around her head like a Byzantine veil.

Fra Angelico.—Madonna della Stella. Fra Angelico.—Madonna della Stella.

A single star gleams above her brow, from whichis derived the title of the picture. She holds her child fondly, and he, with responsive affection, nestles against his mother, pressing his little face into her neck. Faithful to the standards of his predecessors, and untouched by the new spirit of naturalism all about him, the monk painter preserves, in his conception, the most sacred traditions of past ages, and yet unites with them an element of love and tenderness which appeals strongly to every human heart.

It is but a step from this earlier form of the Madonna in Gloria to the more modern style of the Madonna in the Sky, where the field of vision is enlarged, and we see the Virgin and child raised above the surface of the earth. In some pictures, her elevation is very slight. There is a curious composition, by Andrea del Sarto (Berlin Gallery), where we are puzzled to know if the Madonna is enthroned or enskied. A flight of steps in the centre leads up as if to a throne, but above these the Virgin sits in a niche, on a bank of clouds.

In Correggio's Madonna of St. Sebastian, in the Dresden Gallery, the Virgin seems to be descending from heaven to earth with her babe, and the surrounding clouds and cherubs rest literally upon the heads of the saints who are honored by the vision.

In other pictures the dividing line between earth and heaven is much more strongly marked. We have a landscape below, then a stratum of intervening air, and, in the upper sky, the Madonna with her child. The lower part of the picture is occupied by a company of saints, to whom the heavenly vision is vouchsafed; or, in rare cases, by cherubs.

Umbrian School.—Glorification of the Virgin. Umbrian School.—Glorification of the Virgin.

The Virgin appears in a cloud of cherub heads, or accompanied by a few child-angels. There are a few pictures in which her mother, St. Anne, sits with her. Adoring seraphs sometimes attend, one on each side, or even sainted personages. All these variations are exemplified in the pictures which we are to consider.

The first has come down to us from the hand of some unknown Umbrian painter. In the National Gallery, London, where it now hangs, it was once attributed to Lo Spagna, but is now entered in the catalogue as nameless. It matters little whether or not we know the name of the master; he could ask no higher tribute to his talent than the universal admiration which his picture commands.

In the foreground of a quiet Umbrian landscape is a marble balcony, on the railing of which sit two captivating little boy choristers. One roguish fellow pipes on a trumpet, while the other, his face tip-tilted to the heavenly vision, makes music on a small guitar. Above, on a cloud, sits the Virgin, with the sweet, mystic smile on her face, so characteristic of Umbrian art. She supports her babe with her right arm, and in her left hand carries a lily stalk. The child, standing on his mother's knee and clinging to her neck, turns his face out with sweet earnestness. In clouds at the side, tiny cherubs bear tapers, while others, floating above, hold a large crown just over her head.

Although we cannot limit this style of picture to any special locality, it appears to have found much favor in the art of Northern Italy. In the Brescian school, Moretto was unusually fond of the subject. His treatment of the theme is somewhat heavy; there is little of the ethereal in his celestial vision, either in the type of womanhood or in the style of arrangement. In defiance of the law of gravitation, he poses his upper figures so as to form a solid pyramid, wide at the base, and tapering abruptly to the apex.