Decorative Image

ndoubtedly the most popular of all Madonna subjects—certainly the most easily understood—is the Mater Amabilis. The mother's mood may be read at a glance: she is showing in one of a thousand tender ways her motherly affection for her child. She clasps him in her arms, holding him to her breast, pressing her face to his, kissing him, caressing him, or playing with him. Love is written in every line of her face; love is the key-note of the picture.

The style of composition best adapted to such a theme is manifestly the simplest. The more formal types of the enthroned and glorified Madonnas are the least suitable for the display of maternal affection, while the portrait Madonna, and the Madonna in landscape or domestic scenes, are readily conceived as the Mater Amabilis. Nevertheless, these distinctions have not by any means been rigidly regarded in art. This is manifest in some of the illustrations in Part I., as the Enthroned Madonna, by Quentin Massys, where the mother kisses her child, and Angelico's Madonna in Glory, where she holds him to her cheek.

Gathering our examples from so many methods of composition, we are in the midst of a multitude of pictures which no man can number, and which set forth every conceivable phase of motherliness.

Let us make Raphael our starting-point. From the same master whose influence led him to the study of external nature, he learned also the study of human nature. To the interpretation of mother-love he brought all the fresh ardor of youth, and a sunny temperament which saw only joy in the face of Nature. One after another of the series of his Florentine pictures gives us a new glimpse of the loving relation between mother and child.

The Belle Jardinière gazes into her boy's face in fond absorption. The Tempi Madonna holds him to her heart, pressing her lips to his soft cheek. In the Orleans and Colonna pictures she smiles indulgently into his eyes as he lies across her lap, plucking at the bosom of her dress. Other pictures show the two eagerly reading together from the Book of Wisdom (The Conestabile and Ansidei Madonnas).

The painter's later work evinces a growing maturity of thought. In the Holy Family of Francis I., how strong and tender is the mother's attitude, as she stoops to lift her child from his cradle; in the Chair Madonna, how protecting is the capacious embrace with which she gathers him to herself in brooding love. No technical artistic education is necessary for the appreciation of such pictures. All who have known a mother's love look and understand, and look again and are satisfied.

Correggio touches the heart in much the same way; he, too, saw the world through rose-colored glasses. His interpretation of life is full of buoyant enjoyment. Beside the tranquil joy of Raphael's ideals, his figures express a tumultuous gladness, an overflowing gayety. This is the more curious because of the singular melancholy which is attributed to him. The outer circumstances of his life moved in a quiet groove which was almost humdrum. He passed his days in comparative obscurity at Parma, far from the great art influences of his time. But isolation seemed the better to develop his rare individuality. He was the architect of his own fortunes, and wrought out independently a style peculiar to himself. His most famous Madonna pictures are large compositions, crowded with figures of extravagant attitudes and expression. The fame of these more pretentious works rests not so much upon their inner significance as upon their splendid technique. They are unsurpassed for masterly handling of color, and for triumphs of chiaroscuro.

There are better qualities of sentiment in the smaller pictures, where the mother is alone with her child. It is here that we find something worthy to compare with Raphael. There are several of these, produced in rapid succession during the period when the artist was engaged upon the frescoes of S. Giovanni (Parma), and soon after marriage had opened his heart to sweet, domestic influences.

The first was the Uffizi picture, so widely known and loved. The mother has gathered up her mantle so that it covers her head and drops at one side on a step, forming a soft, blue cushion for the babe. Here the little darling lies, looking up into his mother's face. Kneeling on the step below, she bends over him, with her hands playfully outstretched, in a transport of maternal affection.

Following this came the picture now in the National Gallery, called the Madonna della Cesta, from the basket that lies on the ground. It is a domestic scene in the outer air: the mother is dressing her babe, and smilingly arrests his hand, which, on a sudden impulse, he has stretched towards some coveted object. The same face is almost exactly repeated in the Madonna of the Hermitage Gallery (St. Petersburg), who offers her breast to her boy, at that moment turning about to receive some fruit presented by a child angel. There are two duplicates of this picture in other galleries.

The Zingarella (the Gypsy) is so called from the gypsy turban worn by the Madonna. The mother, supposed to be painted from the artist's wife, sits with the child asleep on her lap. With motherly tenderness she bends so closely over him that her forehead touches his little head. It is unfortunate that this beautiful work is not better known. It is in the Naples Gallery.

A comparison of these pictures discloses a remarkable variety in action and grouping. On the other hand, the Madonnas are quite similar in general type. With the exception of the Zingarella, who is the most motherly, they are all in a playful mood. The same playfulness, but of a more sweet and motherly kind, lights the face of the Madonna della Scala. The composition is somewhat in the portrait style, showing the mother in half length, seated under a sort of canopy. The babe clings closely to her neck, turning about at the spectator with a glance half shy and half mischievous. His coyness awakens a smile of tender amusement in the gentle, young face above him.

The picture has an interesting history. It was originally painted in fresco over the eastern gate of Parma, where Vasari saw and admired it. In after years, the wall which it decorated was incorporated into a small new church, of which it formed the rear wall. To accommodate the high level of the Madonna, the building was somewhat elevated, and, being entered by a flight of steps, was known as S. Maria della Scala (of the staircase).

Correggio.—Madonna della Scala. Correggio.—Madonna della Scala.

The name attached itself to the picture even after the church was destroyed (in 1812), and the fresco removed to the town gallery. The marks of defacement which it bears are due to the votive offerings which were formerly fastened upon it,—among them, a silver crown worn by the Madonna as late as the eighteenth century. Though such scars injure its artistic beauty, they add not a little to the romantic interest which invests it.

Beside such names as Raphael and Correggio, history furnishes but one other worthy of comparison for the portrayal of the Mater Amabilis—it is Titian. His Madonna is by no means uniformly motherly. There are times when we look in vain for any softening of her aristocratic features; when her stately dignity seems quite incompatible with demonstrativeness.[4] But when love melts her heart how gracious is her unbending, how winning her smile! Once she goes so far as to play in the fields with her little boy, quieting a rabbit with one hand for him to admire. (La Vierge au Lapin, Louvre.) In other pictures she holds him lying across her lap, smiling thoughtfully upon him. Such an one is the Madonna with Sts. Ulfo and Brigida, in the Madrid Gallery. The child is taking the flowers St. Brigida offers him, and his mother looks down with the pleased expression of fond pride. Again, when her babe holds his two little hands full of the roses his cousin St. John has brought him, she smiles gently at the eagerness of the two children. (Uffizi Gallery.)

[4] See the Madonna of the Cherries in the Belvedere at Vienna, and the Madonna and Saints in the Dresden Gallery.

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

Another similar composition reveals a still sweeter intimacy between mother and son. The babe stretches out his hand coaxingly towards his mother's breast, but she draws her veil about her, gently denying his appeal. A more beautiful mother, or a more bewitching babe, it were hard to find. Three fine half-length figures of saints complete this composition, each of great interest and individuality, but not necessary to the unity of action—the Madonna alone making a complete picture. There are two copies of this work, one in the Belvedere at Vienna, and one in the Louvre at Paris.

The motif of this picture is not unique in art, as will have been remarked in passing. The first duty of maternity, and one of its purest joys, is to sustain the newborn life at the mother's breast. A coarse interpretation of the subject desecrates a holy shrine, while a delicate rendering, such as Raphael's or Titian's, invests it with a new beauty. Other pictures of this class should be mentioned in the same connection. There is one in the Hermitage Gallery at St. Petersburg, attributed by late critics to the little-known painter, Bernardino de' Conti. The Madonna's face, her hair drawn smoothly over her temples, has a beautiful matronliness. Still another is the Madonna of the Green Cushion, by Solario, in the Louvre. Here the babe lies on a cushion before his mother, who bends over him ecstatically, her fair young face aglow with maternal love as she sees his contentment.

We have noticed that in one of Corregio's pictures the babe lies asleep on his mother's lap. It is interesting to trace this pretty motif through other works of art. No phase of motherhood is more touching than the watchful care which guards the child while he sleeps; nor is infancy ever more appealing than in peaceful and innocent slumber. Mrs. Browning understood this well, when she wrote her beautiful poem interpreting the thoughts of "the Virgin Mary to the Child Jesus." Hopes and fears, joy and pity, are alternately stirred in the heart of the watcher, as she bends over the tiny face, scanning every change that flits across it. Each verse suggests a subject for a picture.

We should naturally expect that Raphael would not overlook so beautiful a theme as the mother watching her sleeping child. Nor are we disappointed. The Madonna of the Diadem, in the Louvre, belongs to this class of pictures. Like the pastoral Madonnas of the Florentine period, it includes the figure of the little St. John, to whom, in this instance, the proud mother is showing her babe, daintily lifting the veil which covers his face.

The seventeenth century produced many pictures of this class; among them, a beautiful work by Guido Reni, in Rome, deserves mention, being executed with greater care than was usual with him. Sassoferrato and Carlo Dolce frequently painted the subject. Their Madonnas often seem affected, not to say sentimental, after the simpler and nobler types of the earlier period. But nowhere is their peculiar sweetness more appropriate than beside a sleeping babe. The Corsini picture by Carlo Dolce is an exquisite nursery scene. Its popularity depends more, perhaps, upon the babe than the mother. Like Lady Isobel's child in another poem of motherhood by Mrs. Browning, he sleeps—

"Fast, warm, as if its mother's smile,
Laden with love's dewy weight,
And red as rose of Harpocrate,
Dropt upon its eyelids, pressed
Lashes to cheek in a sealèd rest."

In Northern Madonna art, the Mater Amabilis is the preëminent subject. This fact is due partly to the German theological tendency to subordinate the mother to her divine Son, but more especially to the characteristic domesticity of Teutonic peoples. From Van Eyck and Schongauer, through Dürer and Holbein, down to Rembrandt and Rubens, we trace this strongly marked predilection in every style of composition, regardless of proprieties. Van Eyck does not hesitate to occupy his richly dressed enthroned Madonna at Frankfort with giving her breast to her babe, and Dürer portrays the same maternal duties in the Virgin on the Crescent Moon. Holbein's Meyer Madonna, splendid with her jewelled crown, is not less motherly than Schongauer's young Virgin sitting in a rude stable.

Rembrandt in humble Dutch interiors, Rubens in numerous Holy Families modelled upon the Flemish life about him always conceive of the Virgin Mother as delighting in her maternal cares. As has been said of Dürer's Madonna,—and the description applies equally well to many others in the North,—"She suckles her son with a calm feeling of happiness; she gazes upon him with admiration as he lies upon her lap; she caresses him and presses him to her bosom without a thought whether it is becoming to her, or whether she is being admired."

Dürer.—Madonna and Child. Dürer.—Madonna and Child.

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This entire absence of posing on the part of the German Virgin is one of the most admirable elements in this art. This characteristic is perfectly illustrated in Dürer's portrait Madonna of the Belvedere Gallery, at Vienna. This is an excellent specimen of the master, who, alone of the Germans, is considered the peer of his great Italian contemporaries. Frankly admired both by Titian and Raphael, he has in common with them the supreme gift of seeing and reproducing natural human affections. His work, however, is as thoroughly German as theirs is Italian. The Madonna of this picture has the round, maidenly face of the typical German ideal. A transparent veil droops over the flowing hair, covered by a blue drapery above. The mother holds her child high in her arms, bending her face over him. The babe is a beautiful little fellow, full of vivacity. He holds up a pear gleefully, to meet his mother's smile. The picture is painted with great delicacy of finish.

The Mater Amabilis is the subject par excellence of modern Madonna art. Carrying on its surface so much beauty and significance, it is naturally attractive to all figure painters. While other Madonna subjects are too often beyond the comprehension of either the artist or his patron, this falls within the range of both. The shop windows are full of pretty pictures of this kind, in all styles of treatment.

There are the portrait Madonnas by Gabriel Max, already mentioned, and pastoral Madonnas by Bouguereau, by Carl Müller, by N. Barabino, and by Dagnan-Bouveret. Others carry the subject into the more formal compositions of the enthroned and enskied Madonnas, being, as we have seen, not without illustrious predecessors among the old masters. Of these we have Guay's Mater Amabilis, where the mother leans from her throne to support her child, playing on the step below with his cousin, St. John; and Mary L. Macomber's picture, where the enthroned Madonna folds her babe in her protecting arms, as if to shield him from impending evil.

Bodenhausen.—Madonna and Child. Bodenhausen.—Madonna and Child.

By Bodenhausen we have the extremely popular Mater Amabilis in Gloria, where a girlish young mother, her long hair streaming about her, stands in upper air, poised above the great ball of the earth, holding her sweet babe to her heart.

Pictures like these constantly reiterate the story of a mother's love—an old, old story, which begins again with every new birth.