Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Madonna of Humility

Niccolò Semitecolo (Nicoletto) (Nicholeto Semitecholo da Venexia)(active 1353 - 1370)
The Madonna of Humility
c. 1370
Tempera on panel
The Basilica of St Anthony of Padua, Padova

Lorenzo Veneziano (active 1357 - 1379)
The Madonna of Humility with Saints Mark and John the Baptist
About 1359/66
Tempera on poplar panel
31 x 57.5 cm
The National Gallery, London

The depiction of the Virgin sitting on the ground was called The Madonna of Humility

It was promoted by the Franciscan order who had a particular calling to the virtue of Humility through their founder

The earliest known painting on this theme is 1346. The two paintings above therefore are early examples of the genre

In Dante`s Purgatory, Purgatory is a steep and high mountain which Dante must ascend to reach Paradise which is at the summit.

On the mountain at differing levels are seven terraces corresponding with the Seven Deadly Sins. On each Terrace, sinners are doing expiation for that particular sin

The First Terrace is that of the Proud, those who lack humility. It is a sin of excessive love of one's own perceived excellence. It is one of the sins which according to Dante arises from love perverted, that is, sins arising from the heart of the sinner being set upon something which is wrong in the eyes of God

Dante and Virgil approach the sinners on the First Terrace. On all the Terraces, the sinners are saying a prayer. On this First Terrace, Dante has recasted The Lord`s Prayer as the expiatory Prayer of the Proud:

"Our Father, who are in heaven, encircled by
nothing except the greater love you have
for the first works that you made there on high,

praised be your name and your power by
every creature, with those thanks that are due
for the sweet emanation that flows from you.

May the peace of your kingdom come to us
who are not able to reach it by ourselves
try as we may, unless it comes to us.

As your angels make sacrifice to you
of their wills singing hosannas, even so
may humans offer their own wills to you.

Give us today the manna of every day
for without it, in this harsh desert we
go backward, straining forward as we may.

And as we pardon each one for the harm
that we have suffered, in loving-kindness
overlook what we deserve, and pardon us.

Do not oppose to the old adversary
our virtue that gives way so easily
but deliver us from his goading of it.

This last request we make not for ourselves,
dear Lord, who do not need it now for us.
It is for those who remain behind us"

Dante. Purgatory. Canto XI. Lines 1 - 24 (translated by W.S. Merwin)

In these lines we see the influence of St Augustine and St Francis of Assisi.

For St Augustine, one of the indispensable virtues was humility.

In replying in writing to an intelligent young man named Dioscorus, Augustine felt his patience being tested.

He emphatically declared:

"This way is first humility, second humility, third humility and no matter how often you keep asking me I will say the same over and over again." (Augustine, Letter 118)

According to Augustine,in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer the Christian pilgrim asks to be made acceptable to God through a process that begins in this life but which can only be completed in eternity.

"Praised be your name and your power by every creature" is an echo of the first poem of the Italian poetic tradition, a poem written by St. Francis, which is known as the The Canticle of the Sun, also known as the Laudes Creaturarum (Praise of the Creatures)

As St Francis says we are not the most important or the centre of creation, we are like everything else valuable in creation.