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.

Moretto.—Madonna in Glory. Moretto.—Madonna in Glory.

In the glorified Madonna of St. John the Evangelist, Brescia, the pyramidal effect is accentuated by curtains draped back on either side of the upper part of the composition. In the Madonna of San Giorgio Maggiore, at Verona, we have a much more attractive picture. The "gloria" encompassing the vision is clearly defined, giving so strong an effect of the supernatural that we cease to judge the composition by ordinary standards of natural law. The Virgin's white veil flutters from her head as if caught by some heavenly breeze. Her cloak floats about her by the same mysterious force, held in graceful festoons by winged cherub heads.

Below is a group of five virgin martyrs, with St. Cecilia in the centre, wearing a crown of roses; St. Lucia holds the awl, the instrument of her torture, looking down at St. Catherine, who leans against her terrible wheel; St. Agnes, on the other side, reads quietly from a book while she caresses her lamb, and St. Barbara stands behind her, with eyes lifted to the sky. They are all splendid young Amazons, recalling Moretto's fine St. Justina of the Vienna Gallery. There is no trace of ascetism in their strong, well-developed figures, and in their faces no suggestion of an unhealthy pietism.

Moretto's ideals were an anticipation of the most advanced ideas of the modern science of physical culture. His Madonna and saints derive their beauty neither from over refinement on the one hand, nor from sensuous charms on the other, but from sane and harmonious self-development.

The Berlin Gallery contains a third glorified Madonna by the same painter, treated as a Holy Family. St. Elizabeth sits beside the Virgin, who holds her own boy on her right side, while bending to embrace the little St. John with the left arm. So large a group is not appropriately treated in this way, yet the picture is so fine a work of art as to disarm criticism.

Still another representative of the Brescian school must be considered in the person of Savoldo. Born of a noble family, and following painting as an amusement rather than as an actual profession, his works are rare, and one of the finest examples of his art is the Glorification of the Virgin, in the Brera Gallery, at Milan. The mandorla-shaped glory surrounds the Virgin's figure, studded with faintly discerned cherub heads. On either side, a musical angel is in adoration; four saints stand on the earth below. The entire conception is rendered with the utmost delicacy: the grace and beauty of the Madonna are of exactly the quality to make her appearance a beatific vision.

From Brescia we turn to Verona, where we again find many pictures of the beautiful subject. There are, in the churches of Verona, at least three notable works, by Gianfrancesco Caroto, in this style. One is in Sant' Anastasia, another is in San Giorgio, and the third—the artist's best existing work—is in San Fermo Maggiore, and shows the Virgin's mother, St. Anne, seated with her in the clouds.

Girolamo dai Libri was a few years younger than Caroto, and at one period was, to some extent, an imitator of the latter. Beginning as a miniaturist, he finally attained a high place among the Veronese artists of the first order. His characteristics can nowhere be seen to better advantage than in the Madonna of St. Andrew and St. Peter, in the Verona Gallery. The Virgin is in an oval glory, edged all around with small, fleecy clouds. She has a beautiful, matronly face, with abundant hair, smoothly brushed over her forehead. The two apostles, below, are fine, strong figures, full of virility.

Morando, or Cavazzola, was, doubtless, the most gifted of the older school of Verona, possessing some of the best qualities of the later master, Paolo Veronese. We should not leave the school, therefore, without mentioning a remarkable contribution he added to this class of pictures in his latest altar-piece. Here the upper air is filled with a sacred company, the Virgin and child are attended by St. Francis and St. Anthony, and surrounded by seven allegorical figures to represent the cardinal virtues. Below are six saints, specially honored in the Franciscan Order. The picture is called the finest production of the school in the first quarter of the sixteenth century.

In the Venetian school, Titian and Tintoretto both painted the subject of the Madonna in glory, but the pictures are not notable compared with many others from their hands.

From the North of Italy we naturally turn next to the South, to inquire what Raphael was doing at the same period in Rome. Occupied by many great works under the papal patronage, he still found time for his favorite subject of the Madonna, painting some pictures in the styles already mastered, and two for the first time in the style of the Madonna in the sky.

Spanish School.—Madonna on the Crescent Moon. Spanish School.—Madonna on the Crescent Moon.

The first was the Foligno Madonna, now in the Vatican Gallery. It was painted in 1511 for the pope's secretary, Sigismund Conti, as a thank-offering for having escaped the danger of a falling meteor at Foligno. No thoughtful observer can be slow to recognize the superiority of this composition over all others of its kind in point of unity. Here is no formal row of saints, each absorbed in his or her own reflections, apart from any common purpose. On the contrary, all unite in paying honor to the Queen of Heaven. Not less superior to his contemporaries was the painter's skill in arranging the figures of Mother and child with such grace of equilibrium that they seem to float in the upper air.

In the Sistine Madonna, Raphael carried this form of composition to the highest perfection. So simple and apparently unstudied is its beauty, that we do not realize the masterliness of its art. We seem to be standing before an altar, or, better still, before an open window, from which the curtains have been drawn aside, allowing us to look directly into the heaven of heavens. A cloud of cherub faces fills the air, from the midst of which, and advancing towards us, is the Virgin with her child. The downward force of gravity is perfectly counterbalanced by the vital energy of her progress forward. There is here no uncomfortable sense, on the part of the spectator, that natural law is disregarded. While the seated Madonna in glory seems often in danger of falling to earth, this full-length figure in motion avoids any such solidity of effect.

The figures on either side are also so posed as to arouse no surprise at their presence. We should have said beforehand that heavy pontifical robes would be absurdly incongruous in such a composition, but Raphael solves the problem so simply that few would suspect the difficulties. The final touch of beauty is added in the cherub heads below, recalling the naïve charm of the similar figures in the Umbrian picture we have considered.

Bouguereau.—Madonna of the Angels. Bouguereau.—Madonna of the Angels.

After the time of Raphael, a pretty form of Madonna in glory was occasionally painted, showing the Virgin with her babe sitting above the crescent moon. The conception appears more than once in the paintings of Albert Dürer, and later, artists of all schools adopted it. Sassoferrato's picture in the Vatican Gallery is a popular example. Tintoretto's, in Berlin, is not so well known. In the Dresden Gallery is a work, by an unknown Spanish painter of the seventeenth century, differing from the others in that the Virgin is standing, as in the oft-repeated Spanish pictures of the Immaculate Conception.

It is of pictures like this that our poet Longfellow is speaking, when he thus apostrophizes the Virgin:

"Thou peerless queen of air,
As sandals to thy feet the silver moon dost wear."

The enskied Madonna involves many technical difficulties of composition, and demands a high order of artistic imagination. It could hardly be called a frequent subject in the period of greatest artistic daring, and no modern painter has shown any adequate understanding of the subject, though there are not lacking those who have made the attempt. Bodenhausen, Defregger, Bouguereau, have all followed Raphael in representing the Queen of Heaven as a full-length figure in the sky; but their conception has not the dignity corresponding to the style of treatment.

Impatient and dissatisfied with such modern art, we turn back to the old masters with new appreciation of their great gifts.