Decorative Image

he first tender joys of a mother's love are strangely mingled with awe. Her babe is a precious gift of God, which she receives into trembling hands. A new sense of responsibility presses upon her with almost overwhelming force. Hers is the highest honor given unto woman; she accepts it with solemn joy, deeming herself all too unworthy.

This spirit of humility has been idealized in art, in the form of Madonna known as the Madre Pia. It represents the Virgin Mary adoring her son. Sometimes she kneels before him, sometimes she sits with clasped hands, holding him in her lap. Whatever the variation in attitude, the thought is the same: it is an expression of that higher, finer aspect of motherhood which regards infancy as an object not only of love, but of reverent humility. It is a recognition of the great mystery of life which invests even the helpless babe with a dignity commanding respect.

A picture with so serious an intention can never be widely understood. The meaning is too subtile for the casual observer. An outgrowth of mediæval pietism, it was superseded by more popular subjects, and has never since been revived. The subject had its origin as an idealized nativity, set in pastoral surroundings which suggest the Bethlehem manger. Theologically it represented the Virgin as the first worshipper of her divine Son. But though the sacred mystery of Mary's experience sets her forever apart as "blessed among women," she is the type of true motherhood in all generations.

The Madonna in Adoration is, properly speaking, a fifteenth century subject. It belongs primarily to that most mystic of all schools of art, the Umbrian, centering in the town of Perugia. Nowhere else was painting so distinctly an adjunct of religious services, chiefly designed to aid the worshipper in prayer and contemplation.

As an exponent of the typical qualities of the Perugian school stands the artist who is known by its name, Perugino. His favorite subject is the Madre Pia, and his best picture of the kind is the Madonna of the National Gallery. Having once seen her here, the traveller recognizes her again and again in other galleries, in the many replicas of this charming composition. The Madonna kneels in the foreground, adoring with folded hands the child, who is supported in a sitting posture on the ground, by a guardian angel. The Virgin's face is full of fervent and exalted emotion.

Perugino had no direct imitator of his Madre Pia, but his Bolognese admirer Francia treated the subject in a way that readily suggests the source of his inspiration. His Madonna of the Rose Garden in Munich instantly recalls Perugino. The artist has, however, chosen a novel motif in representing the moment when the Virgin is just sinking on her knees, as if overcome by emotion.

Between the Umbrian school and the Florentine, a reciprocal influence was exerted. If the latter taught the former many secrets of composition and technical execution, the Umbrians in turn imparted something of their mysticism to their more matter-of-fact neighbors. While the Umbrian school of the fifteenth century was occupied with the Madre Pia, Florence also was devoted to the same subject. Sculpture led the race, and in the front ranks was Luca della Robbia, founder of the school which bears his family name.

Beginning as a worker in marble, his inventive genius presently wrought out a style of sculpture peculiarly his own. This was the enamelled terra-cotta bas-relief showing pure white figures against a background of pale blue. They were made chiefly in circular medallions, lunettes, and tabernacles, and were scattered throughout the churches and homes of Tuscany.

Associated with Luca in his work was his nephew Andrea, who, in turn, had three sculptor sons, Giovanni, Girolamo, and Luca II. So great was the demand for their ware that the Della Robbia studios became a veritable manufactory from which hundreds of pieces went forth. Of these, a goodly number represent the Madonna in Adoration. While it is difficult to trace every one of these with absolute correctness to its individual author, the majority seem to be by Andrea, who, as it would appear, had a special fondness for the subject. It must be acknowledged that the nephew is inferior to his uncle in his ideal of the Virgin, less original than Luca in his conceptions, and less noble in his results. His work, notwithstanding, has many charming qualities, which are specially appropriate to the character of the particular subject under consideration. There is, indeed, a peculiar value in low relief, for purposes of idealization. It has an effect of spiritualizing the material, and giving the figures an ethereal appearance. Andrea profited by this advantage, and, in addition, showed great delicacy of judgment in subduing curves and retaining simplicity in his lines.

We may see all this in the popular tabernacle which he designed, and of which there are at least five, and probably more, copies. The Madonna kneels prayerfully before her babe, who lies on the ground by some lily stalks. In the sky above are two cherubim and hands holding a crown. There is a girlish grace in the kneeling figure, and a rare sweetness in the face, entirely free from sentimentality. A severe simplicity of drapery, and the absence of all unnecessary accessories, are points of excellence worth noting. The composition was sometimes varied by the introduction of different figures in the sky, other cherubim, or the head of the Almighty, with the Dove.

Andrea della Robbia.—Madonna in Adoration. Andrea della Robbia.—Madonna in Adoration.

Only second in popularity to this was Andrea's circular medallion of the Nativity, with the Virgin and St. John in adoration. There are two copies of this in the Florentine Academy, one in the Louvre, and one in Berlin. The effect of crowding so many figures into a small compass is not so pleasing as the classical simplicity of the former composition.

Contemporary with the Della Robbias was another Florentine family of artists equally numerous. Of the five Rossellini, Antonio is of greatest interest to us, as a sculptor who had some qualities in common with the famous porcelain workers. Like them, he had a special gift for the Madonna in Adoration. We can see this subject in his best style of treatment, in the beautiful Nativity in San Miniato, "which may be regarded as one of the most charming productions of the best period of Tuscan art."[5] The tourist will consider it a rich reward for his climb to the quaint old church on the ramparts overhanging the Arno. If perchance his wanderings lead him, on another occasion, to the hill rising on the opposite side, he will find, in the Cathedral of Fiesole, a fitting companion in the altar-piece by Mino da Fiesole. This is a decidedly unique rendering of the Madre Pia. The Virgin kneels in a niche, facing the spectator, adoring the Christ-child, who sits on the steps below her, turning to the little Baptist, who kneels at one side on a still lower step.

[5] C.C. Perkins, in Tuscan Sculptors.

Lorenzo di Credi.—Nativity. Lorenzo di Credi.—Nativity.

Passing from the sculpture of Florence to its painting, it is fitting that we mention first of all the friend and fellow-pupil of the Umbrian Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi. The two had much in common. Trained together in the workshop of the sculptor Verrocchio, in those days of intense religious stress, they both becamefollowers of the prophet-prior of San Marco, Savonarola. Their religious earnestness naturally found expression in the beautiful subject of the Madre Pia. The Florentine artist, though not less devout than his friend, introduces into his work an element of joy, characteristic of his surroundings, and more attractive than the somewhat melancholy types of Umbria. His Adoration, in the Uffizi, is an admirable example of his best work. Following the fashion made popular by the Della Robbias, the artist chose for his composition the round picture, or tondo. By this elimination of unnecessary corners, the attention centres in the beautiful figure of the Virgin, which occupies a large portion of the circle. In exquisite keeping with the modest loveliness of her face, a delicate, transparent veil is knotted over her smooth hair, and falls over the round curves of her neck. In expression and attitude she is the perfect impersonation of the spirit of humility, joyfully submissive to her high calling, reverently acknowledging her unworthiness.

This picture may be taken as a typical example of the subject in Florentine painting. Lorenzo himself repeated the composition many times, and numerous other works could be mentioned, strikingly similar in treatment, by Ghirlandajo, in the Florence Academy; by Signorelli, in the National Gallery; by Albertinelli, in the Pitti; by Filippo Lippi, in the Berlin Gallery; by Filippino Lippi, in the Pitti; and so on through the list.

In many cases the subject seems to have been chosen, not so much from any devotional spirit on the part of the painter, as from force of imitation of the prevailing Florentine fashion. This is especially true in the case of Filippo Lippi, who does not bear the best of reputations. Although a brother in the Carmelite monastery, his love of worldly pleasures often led him astray, if we are to believe the gossip of the old annalists. We may allow much for the exaggerations of scandal, but still be forced to admit that his candid realism is plain evidence of a closer study of nature than of theology.

Browning has given us a fine analysis of his character in the poem bearing his name, "Fra Lippo Lippi." The artist monk, caught in the streets of the city on his return from some midnight revel, explains his constant quarrel with the rules of art laid down by ecclesiastical authorities. They insist that his business is "to the souls of men," and that it is "quite from the mark of painting" to make "faces, arms, legs, and bodies like the true." On his part, he claims that it will not help the interpretation of soul, by painting body ill. An intense lover of every beautiful line and color in God's world, he believes that these things are given us to be thankful for, not to pass over or despise. Obliged to devote himself to a class of subjects with which he had little sympathy, he compromised with his critics by adopting the traditional forms of composition, and treating them after the manner of genre painters, in types drawn from the ordinary life about him. The kneeling Madre Pia he painted three times: two of the pictures are in the Florence Academy, and the third and best is in the Berlin Gallery.

Filippo Lippi.—Madonna in Adoration. Filippo Lippi.—Madonna in Adoration.

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In the Madonna of the Uffizi, he broke away somewhat from tradition, and rendered quite a new version of the subject. The Virgin is seated with folded hands, adoring her child, who is held up before her by two boy angels. His type of childhood is by no means pretty, though altogether natural. The Virgin cannot be called either intellectual or spiritual, but "where," as a noted critic has asked, "can we find a face more winsome and appealing?" Certainly she is a lovely woman, and

"If you get simple beauty and naught else,
That's somewhat: and you'll find the soul you have missed
Within yourself, when you return him thanks."

The idea of the seated Madre Pia, comparatively rare in Florentine art, is quite frequent in northern Italy. Sometimes the setting is a landscape, in the foreground of which the Madonna sits adoring the babe lying on her lap. Examples are by Basaiti (Paduan), in the National Gallery, and by a painter of Titian's school, in Berlin. Much more common is the enthroned Madonna in Adoration, and for this we may turn to the pictures of the Vivarini, Bartolommeo and Luigi, or Alvise. These men were of Muranese origin, and in the very beginning of Venetian art-history were at the head of their profession, until finally eclipsed by the rival family of the Bellini. Among their works, we find by each one at least three pictures of the type described. As the most worthy of description, we may select the altar-piece by Luigi, in the Church of the Redentore. As it is one of the most popular Madonnas in Venice, no collection is complete without it. A green curtain forms the background, against which the plain marble throne-chair is brought into relief. The Virgin sits wrapt in her own thoughts, an impersonation of tranquil dignity.

Luigi Vivarini.—Madonna and Child. Luigi Vivarini.—Madonna and Child.

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A heavy wimple falls low over her forehead, entirely concealing her hair, and with its severe simplicity accentuating the chastebeauty of her face. Two fascinating little cherubs sit on a parapet in front, playing on lutes; and, lulled by their gentle music, the sweet babe sleeps on, serenely unconscious of it all.

Before such pictures as this, gleaming in the dim light of quiet chapels, many a heart, before unbelieving, may learn a new reverence for the mysterious sanctity of motherhood.