Decorative Image

n proportion to a mother's ideals and ambitions for her child does her love take on a higher and purer aspect. The noblest mother is the most unselfish; she regards her child as a sacred charge, only temporarily committed to her keeping. Her care is to nurture and train him for his part in life; this is the object of her constant endeavor. Thus she comes to look upon him as hers and yet not hers. In one sense he is her very own; in another, he belongs to the universal life which he is to serve. There is no conflict between the two ideas; they are the obverse sides of one great truth. Both must be recognized for a complete understanding of life. What is true of all motherhood finds a supreme illustration in the character of the Virgin Mary. She understood from the first that her son had a great mission to fulfil, that his work had somewhat to do with a mighty kingdom. Never for a moment did she lose sight of these things as she "pondered them in her heart." Her highest joy was to present him to the world for the fulfilment of his calling.

As a subject of art, this phase of the Madonna's character requires a mode of treatment quite unlike that of the Mater Amabilis or the Madre Pia. The attitude and expression of the Virgin are appropriate to her office as the Christ-bearer. Both mother and child, no longer absorbed in each other, direct their glance towards the people to whom he is given for a witness. (Isaiah 55:4.) These may be the spectators looking at the picture, or the saints and votaries filling the composition. The mother's lap is the throne for the child, from which, standing or sitting, he gives his royal blessing.

It will be readily understood that so lofty a theme can not be common in art. In our own day, it has, with the Madre Pia, passed almost entirely out of the range of art subjects; modern painters do not try such heights. Franz Defregger is alone in having made an honest and earnest effort, not without success, to express his conception of the theme. To his Enthroned Madonna at Dölsach, and his less well-known Madonna in Glory, let us pay this passing word of honor.

To approach our subject in the most systematic way, we will go back to the beginnings of Madonna art. Mrs. Jameson tells us that the group of Virgin and Son was, in its first intention, a theological symbol, and not a representation. It was a device set up in the orthodox churches as a definite formalization of a creed. The first Madonnas showed none of the aspects of ordinary motherhood in attitude, gesture, or expression. The theological element in the picture was the first consideration. We may take as a representative case the Virgin Nike-peja (of Victory), supposed to be the same which Eudocia, wife of the Emperor Theodosius II., discovered in her travels in Palestine, and sent to Constantinople, whence it was finally brought to St. Mark's, Venice. The Virgin—a half-length figure—holds the child in front of her, like a doll, as if exhibiting him to the gaze of the worshippers before the altar over which the picture hung. Both faces look directly out at the spectator, with grave and stiff solemnity.

The progress of painting, and the growing love of beauty, at length wrought a change. The time came when art saw the possibility of uniting, with the religious conception of previous centuries, a more natural ideal of motherhood. Thus, while the Madonna continues to be preëminently a witness of her son's greatness, it is not at the sacrifice of motherly tenderness.

In Venetian art-history, Giovanni Bellini stands at the period when the old was just merging into the new. We have already seen how greatly he and his contemporaries differed from the painters of a later time. Taking advantage of all the progressive methods of the day, they did not relinquish the religious spirit of their predecessors, hence their work embodies the best elements of the old and new. As we examine the Bellini Madonnas, one after another, we can not fail to notice how delicately they interpret the relation of the mother to her child.

Loving and gracious as she is, she is not the Mater Amabilis: she is too preoccupied, though not too cold for caresses. Neither is she the Madre Pia, though by no means lacking in humility. Her thoughts are of the future, rather than of the present. True to a mother's instinct, she encircles her child with a protecting arm, but her face is turned, not to his, but to the world. Both are looking steadfastly forward to the great work before them. Their eyes have the far-seeing look of those absorbed in noble dreams. Their faces are full of sweet earnestness, not of the ascetic sort, but joyful, with a calm, tranquil gladness.

This description applies almost equally well to a half-dozen or more of Bellini's Madonnas, in various styles of composition. For the sake of definiteness, we may specify the Madonna between St. Paul and St. George in the Venice Academy. The Virgin is in half-length, against a scarlet curtain, supporting the child, who stands on the coping of a balcony. In technical qualities alone, the picture is a notable one for precision of drawing, breadth of light and shade, and brilliant color. In Christian sentiment it is among the rare treasures of Italian art. The National Gallery and the Brera contain others which are very similar in style and conception.

The three enthroned Madonnas which have already been noticed are not less remarkable for religious significance. There is a peculiar freshness and vivacity in the San Giobbe picture. Both Virgin and child are alert and eager, welcoming the future with smiling and youthful enthusiasm.

Giovanni Bellini.—Madonna between St. George and St. Paul. (Detail.) Giovanni Bellini.—Madonna between St. George and St. Paul. (Detail.)

The Frari Madonna is of a more subdued type, but is not less true to her ideal. The Virgin of San Zaccaria is more thoughtful and reflective, but she holds her child up bravely, that he may give his blessing to mankind.

It will have been noticed that the throne is an especially appropriate setting for the Madonna as Witness. It is one of the functions of royalty that the queen should show the prince to his people. We therefore turn naturally to this class of pictures for examples. To those of Bellini just cited we may add, from the others mentioned in the second chapter, the Madonnas by Cima, by Palma, and by Montagna in Venetian Art; and by Luini and by Botticelli in the Lombard and Florentine schools respectively. Luini's picture is one which readily touches the heart. The Virgin unites the sweetness of fresh, young motherhood with womanly dignity of character. Her smile has nothing of mystery in it; it is simply sweet and winning. The Christ-child is a lovely boy, steadying himself against his mother's breast, and yet with an air of self-reliance. The two understand each other well.

Luini.—Madonna with St. Barbara and St.Anthony. Luini.—Madonna with St. Barbara and St.Anthony.

One could hardly imagine two more dissimilar spirits than Luini and Botticelli. To Luini's Virgin, the consciousness of her son's greatness is a proud honor, accepted seriously, but gladly. To Botticelli, on the other hand, it brings a profound melancholy. This is so marked that at first sight almost every one is repelled by Botticelli, and yields only after long familiarity to the mysterious fascination of the sad-eyed Madonna, who holds her babe almost listlessly, as her head droops with the weight of her sorrow. Her expression is the same whatever her attitude, when she presses her babe to her bosom as the Mater Amabilis (in the Borghese Gallery at Rome, in the Dresden Gallery, and Louvre), or when, as witness to her son's destiny, she holds him forth to be seen of men. It is in this last capacity that her mood is most intelligible. She seems oppressed rather than humbled by her honors; reluctant, rather than glad to assume them; yet, with proud dignity, determined to do her part, though her heart break in the doing. Her nature is too deep to accept the joy without counting the cost, and her vision looks beyond Bethlehem to Calvary. This is well illustrated in the picture of the Berlin Gallery.[6] The queen mother rises with the prince to receive the homage of humanity. The boy, old beyond his years, gravely raises his right hand to bless his people, the other still clinging, with infantile grace, to the dress of his mother. Lovely, rose-crowned angels hold court on either side, bearing lighted tapers in jars of roses.

[6] The Berlin Gallery contains two Enthroned Madonnas attributed to Botticelli. The description here, and on page 40 makes it clear that the reference is to the picture numbered 102. This does not appear in Berenson's list of Botticelli's works, but is treated as authentic by Crowe and Cavalcaselle.

The Madonna of the Pomegranate is another work by Botticelli which belongs in this class of pictures. It is a tondo in the Uffizi, showing the figures in half length. The Virgin, encircled by angels, holds the child half reclining on her lap. Her face is inexpressibly sad, and the child shares her mood, as he raises his little hand to bless the spectator. Two angels bear the Virgin's flowers, roses and lilies; two others hold books. They bend towards the queen as the petals of a rose bend towards the centre, with the serious grace peculiar to Botticelli.

Botticelli.—Madonna of the Pomegranate. Botticelli.—Madonna of the Pomegranate.

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In connection with the peculiar type of melancholy exhibited on the face of Botticelli's Madonna, it will be of interest to refer to the work of Francia. The two artists were, in some points, kindred spirits; both felt the burden of life's mystery and sorrow. Francia, as we have seen, imbibed from the works of Perugino something of the spirit of mysticism common to the Umbrian school. But while there is a certain resemblance between his Madonna and Perugino's, the former has less of sentimentality than the latter, and more real melancholy. Like Botticelli's Virgin, she acts her part half-heartedly, as if the sword had already begun to pierce her heart. Francia's favorite Madonna subjects were of the higher order, the Madre Pia and the Madonna as Witness. In treating the latter, his Christ-child is always in keeping with the mother, a grave little fellow who gives the blessing with almost touching dignity. Enthroned Madonnas illustrating the theme are those of the Hermitage at St. Petersburg, of the Belvedere at Vienna, and the famous Bentivoglio Madonna in S. Jacopo Maggiore at Bologna. The last-named is one of the works which enable us to understand Raphael's high praise of the Bolognese master. It is a noble composition, full of strong religious feeling.

Murillo.—Madonna and Child. Murillo.—Madonna and Child.

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It is a long leap from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries, taking us from a period of genuine religious fervor in art, into an age of artificial imitation. In the midst of the decadence of old ideals and the birth of art methods entirely new, arose one who seemed to be the reincarnation of the old spirit in a form peculiar to his age and race. This was Murillo, the peasant-painter of Spain, than whom was never artist more pious, not even excepting the angelic brother of San Marco. He alone in the seventeenth century kept alive the pure flame of religious fervor, which had burned within the devout Italians of the early school. Through all his pictures of the Virgin and child we can see that the Madonna as the Christ-bearer is the ideal he always has in view. He falls short of it, not through any lack of earnestness, but because his type of womanhood is incapable of expressing such lofty idealism. His virgins are modelled upon the simple Andalusian maidens, sweet, timid, dark-eyed creatures. Their faces glow with gentle affection as they look wistfully out of the picture, or raise their eyes to heaven, as if dimly discerning the heights which they have never reached.

The Pitti Madonna is one of this sweet company, and perhaps the loveliest of them all. Both she and her beautiful boy are full of gentle earnestness, and if they are too simple-minded to realize what is in store for them, they are none the less ready to do the Father's will.

One more picture remains for us to consider as an illustration of the Madonna as Witness. Had we mentioned it first, nothing further could have been said on the subject. The Sistine Madonna is the greatest ever produced, from every point of view. We have already noted the superiority of its artistic composition over all other enskied Madonnas, and are the more ready to appreciate its higher merits; for its strongest hold upon our admiration is in its moral and religious significance. Its theme is the transfiguration of loving and consecrated motherhood. Mother and child, united in love, move towards the glorious consummation of the heavenly kingdom.

Raphael.—Sistine Madonna. Raphael.—Sistine Madonna.

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It has been said that Raphael made no preparatory studies for this Madonna, but, in a larger sense, he spent his life in preparation for it. He had begun by imitating the mystic sweetness of Perugino's types, drawn by an intuitive delicacy of perception to this spiritual idealism, while yet too inexperienced to express any originality. Then, by an inevitable reaction, he threw himself into the creation of a purely naturalistic Madonna, and carried the Mater Amabilis to its utmost perfection. Having mastered all the secrets of woman's beauty, he returned once more to the higher realm of idealism to send forth his matured conception of the Madonna as the Christ-bearer.

The Sistine Madonna is above all words of praise; all extravagance of expression is silenced before her simplicity. Hers is the beauty of symmetrically developed womanhood; the perfect poise of her figure is not more marked than the perfect poise of her character. Not one false note, not one exaggerated emphasis, jars upon the harmony of body, soul, and spirit. Confident, but entirely unassuming; serious, but without sadness; joyous, but not to mirthfulness; eager, but without haste; she moves steadily forward with steps timed to the rhythmic music of the spheres. The child is no burden, but a part of her very being. The two are one in love, thought, and purpose. Sharing the secret of his sacred calling, the mother bears her son forth to meet his glorious destiny.

Art can pay no higher tribute to Mary, the Mother of Jesus, than to show her in this phase of her motherhood. We sympathize with her maternal tenderness, lavishing fond caresses upon her child. We go still deeper into her experience when we see her bowed in sweet humility before the cares and duties she is called upon to assume. But we are admitted to the most cherished aspirations of her soul, when we see her oblivious of self, carrying her child forth to the service of humanity. It is thus that she becomes one of his "witnesses unto the people;" it is thus that "all generations shall call her blessed."