Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The New-born

Georges de La Tour
Le Nouveau-né / The New-born
1630 - 1640s
Oil on canvas
76 x 91 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes

One of the most famous works of the Baroque artist, Georges de La Tour, is undoubtedly Le Nouveau-né

It is an ambiguous work. It is not stated if the subject is Mary and the Christ Child with St Anne. But there is more than a suggestion that it is

It was seized in the Revolution in 1794 from the house of a Royalist émigré from Rennes. Hence the lack of definite knowledge as to what it is meant to portray, when it was painted and for whom

It is a deeply tranquil work with the light being provided by an imaginary candle partly hidden by the figure of the servant or is it St Anne ? The artist is most celebrated for his mysterious candle-lit compositions and attracted many less able imitators.

The light shines softly on the head of the infant child almost as if the baby were the source of the illumination

It has been described as a Caravagesque work no doubt because of the chiaroscuro, the light and shadow produced through the setting at night

However the deceptively simple scene is the product of much work and technique which is almost pointilliste: the mother's dress is achieved by minute dots of colour of varying hue, as is the lilac garment of the figure of St Anne/servant.

The gazes of the adult are filled with love and tenderness totally rapt in the miracle of the birth

Through heightened realism. the great attention to detail and the lack of decor depicted in the scene, our attention is firmly fastened on the three figures. The artist`s genius is to endow the humblest figure with religious authority. He is one of the few painters who can convincingly portray and evoke silence

Ambiguity prevails in the picture. The way the mother holds the child is not free from straightforward interpretation. Is there a hint of sadness in her expression ? Is it stretching the point to say that the mother is holding the child in the way of a Pieta ? A prefiguring of a much less happy occasion when her child is place on her lap after being taken down from the Cross ? The scene is timeless not bound by rules of time and place. The work is a meditation rather than a simple genre painting.

Perhaps the following passage from the Pope`s Urbi et Orbi message of last Christmas puts the work into context:

"“The Word became flesh”. The light of this truth is revealed to those who receive it in faith, for it is a mystery of love. Only those who are open to love are enveloped in the light of Christmas. So it was on that night in Bethlehem, and so it is today. The Incarnation of the Son of God is an event which occurred within history, while at the same time transcending history. In the night of the world a new light was kindled, one which lets itself be seen by the simple eyes of faith, by the meek and humble hearts of those who await the Saviour"

A happy Christmas and Good New Year to one and all. Blogging will return in mid January.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Pastoral in Winter

Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo dal Ponte) (1515-1592)
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Oil on canvas
1.26 m. x 1.00 m
Musée national du château de Fontainebleau, Fontainebleau

Jacopo Bassano (Jacopo dal Ponte) (1515-1592)
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Oil on canvas
112,1 x 72,1 cm
Private collection, loaned to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The depiction of shepherds in art and literature is central to the Art of the Pastoral

Even before the Gospels were written, the motif of the shepherd and his sheep represented a simple uncomplicated life in sharp contrast to a more complicated and less ideal way of life

The pastor and his sheep were and are still idealised.

They represent innocence and purity in a corrupted world.

In On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry, Friedrich Schiller wrote:

"The naive way of thinking can accordingly never be a property of a corrupted man, but rather belongs only to children and childlike-minded men. These latter often act and think naively in the midst of the artificial relations of the great world; they forget out of their own beautiful human nature, that they have to do with a corrupt world, and conduct themselves even in the courts of kings with an ingenuousness and innocence as one finds only in the world of shepherds"

They represent the return to a Golden Age which probably never existed.

Bassano`s treatment of the theme is noteworthy. He treated religious subjects as if they were genre or everyday scenes. His naturalness brings the viewer into the scene. We respond to the scene and the goodness of the characters represented

In The New Testament pastors and their sheep crop up many times. They are singled out as amongst the first to be told about The Incarnation. Christ later in his preaching himself sets them up as exemplars, ideals to be imitated and followed.

Shepherds are seen as honest simple plain dealing men, used to hard work, totally and selflessly devoted to their cures.

That is why the latest reports from the Church in Holland are so painful and a matter of deep shame even to those outside Holland who have never had any contact with the Church in Holland.

Geoffrey Chaucer put the matter pithily and beyond answer in The General Prologue:

"And shame it is, if a prest take keep,

A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep."

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mantegna: The Nativity and the Incarnation

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
The Baby Jesus in a Manger
Miniature on parchment
27,3 cm x 28,3 cm
Ms. Lat. IX, 1 (3496), c. 133v
Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
The Adoration of the Shepherds
c. 1455-1456
Part of the polyptych of San Zeno of Verona
Wood transposed onto canvas
40 cm x 55,6 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
Madonna and Child with Seraphim and Cherubim
ca. 1460
Tempera and gold on wood
Arched top, 17 3/8 x 11 1/4 in. (44.1 x 28.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John the Baptist
c. 1500 - 05
Oil on canvas
62,9 cm x 51,3 cm
The Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
THe Holy Family with the Family of St John the Baptist
c. 1500
Oil on canvas
40 cm x 169 cm
Basilica di Sant'Andrea, Mantua (Mantova)

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
The Adoration of the Magi
c. 1495 - 1500
Oil on canvas
54,6 cm x 70,7 cm
The J.P. Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
The Adoration of the Magi
Tempera on wood
86 x 162 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
Presentation in the Temple
c. 1460
Tempera on cloth
67 x 86 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Andrea Mantegna (1431 - 1506)
Madonna with Sleeping Child
Tempera on canvas
43 x 32 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

"For today [Christmas] the Maker of the world was born of a Virgin's womb, and He, who made all natures, became Son of her, whom He created.

Today the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and That which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well.

Today the shepherds learned from angels' voices that the Saviour was born in the substance of our flesh and soul; and today the form of the Gospel message was pre-arranged by the leaders of the Lord's flocks , so that we too may say with the army of the heavenly host: Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace to men of good will. ...

[Y]et today's festival renews for us the holy childhood of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary: and in adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the commencement of our own life.

For the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body.

Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father's right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity

"In a great number of works of art, Jesus Christ - he for whom, according to Saint Peter, everything was created and in whom everything subsists - appears as a baby.

The paradox of a God incarnate, and therefore also of a God as a newborn or as a little child, is represented in all of those cloths, frescoes, mosaics or sculptures, which during many centuries of Christian art have attempted to depict the infancy of the Son of God.

While it is the case that the Gospels recount little about the first years of the life of the Redeemer, the artists have always tried to use their imaginations to remedy this poverty of details, and the patrimony of depiction's where Jesus is portrayed as a baby is very vast.

Many episodes of the infancy of Christ have been translated in visual language: the Nativity, the Adoration of the shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi, the Presentation at the Temple and the Circumcision of Jesus, the Escape to Egypt, Jesus and the Doctors. And that is aside from all of the representations of with the Sacred Family or the Madonna with Child ...

Many sacred writers, in reality, have meditated on the extraordinary fact that the Word, come from the Father, as the perfect God and not susceptible to any development or growth, had made himself similar to us, and therefore child, made to grow in the body and the intelligence, from the first steps of childhood, slowly towards maturity. The artists contemplated this enigma even more than the theologians. "

(Alessandro Scafi, Christ in the World of Art )

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nativity with Saints

Pietro di Francesco Orioli (c 1458 – 1496)
The Nativity with Saints
From The Nativity with Saints Altarpiece
c. 1485 - 95
Tempera on wood
187.5 x 155 cm
The National Gallery, London

I have written about Pietro Orioli before.

Orioli was a pupil of Matteo di Giovanni, though he also worked with the multi-talented Francesco di Giorgio. He is thought to have been independently active from the 1480s; his first documented work

The images above are from a work in The National Gallery in London which is only available for viewing once a week (Wednesday)

The work comes from the little chapel of Cerreto Ciampoli, in the Val-d'Arbia part of the Province of Siena. It was part of an altarpiece

In this Nativity scene we see the Virgin and Child with Saint Joseph, God the Father between two angels, John the Baptist, Saint Stephen and possibly a shepherd, Saints Jerome and Nicholas

For the altarpiece see below

THe original Siennese carpentry is still extant

Orioli is known from documents to have been particularly devout

Many experts have commented on the influence on the Siennese artist by the Dominicans, Savonarola and Botticelli

For more information about the artist see the website of the Basilica dell` Osservanza in Siena where the artist is buried

Friday, December 16, 2011

Blessed Hildegard of Bingen

It is reported that Blessed Hildegard of Bingen (1097/8-1179) will be made a Saint and then a Doctor of the Church in October 2012, nearly 1000 years after her death

One of the main reasons for the survival of the writings of Blessed Hildegard has been the The Wiesbaden Codex (“Riesencodex“: "giant codex", or “chain codex”) now in the Landesbibliothek Wiesbaden in Wiesbaden, Germany

It is a “definitive edition” of Hildegard’s writings probably finished during her lifetime (i.e., before 1179) or shortly after,

She had knowledge of the project and it involved five or six scribes in her monastery,

Part of Manuscript of Scivias by Hildegard of Bingen in The Wiesbaden ("Giant") Codex
c. 1175/1190
46 x 30 cm
Landesbibliothek Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden, Germany

Shortly after this manuscript other manuscripts were produced including this one of Scivias in the University of Heidelberg dating from about 1190 -1220 (Cod. Sal. X,16, Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Scivias , Zwiefalten und Salem, Ende 12

It has a number of beautiful illustrations. See below

2v Miniatur "Annus"

106r part of Teil III, Vision 1-13

142r part of Teil III, Vision 1-13

167v part of Teil III, Vision 1-13

177r part of Teil III, Vision 1-13

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Seven Joys of Mary

Hans Memling (1435-1494)
The Seven Joys of Mary
Oil on oak wood panel
81.3 x 189.2 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

There is some dispute about this picture. Not about the artist which is quite beyond doubt. It is about the title and what it is meant to depict.

The old title was and is The Seven Joys of Mary. These "Joys" do not coincide with the Five Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary

The seven joys are usually listed as: The Annunciation, The Nativity of Jesus, The Adoration of the Magi, The Resurrection of Christ, The Ascension of Christ to Heaven, The Pentecost or Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and Mary, and The Coronation of the Virgin in Heaven. There are variants. It was a common theme in medieval devotional painting and literature

The events depicted in Memling`s work all have a Marian joyful theme: the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Visit of the Three Wise Men, the escape from the Massacre of the Innocents (and presumably The Flight into Egypt), the Resurrection of Jesus with the appearances of Christ after the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Death and Assumption of Mary

Others have interpreted Memling`s work as The Advent and Triumph of Christ, the story of the Salvation through the Incarnation and the Resurrection. But if that was the case one wonders where are, for example,the depictions of the Baptism of Christ, the Institution of the Eucharist, the Passion and the Crucifixion,

Another title given to the work is The Panorama of the Epiphany. Again that seems to restrict the themes in the painting and undermine or deny the role of Mary in the work.

The Munich Gallery still refers to Memling`s picture as "The Seven Joys of Mary". To deny that the thread to all the images depicted is Mary is to perhaps ignore the obvious.

THe use of the old title is reinforced by the fact that the work was commissioned for the Tanner's Guild Chapel in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges

The donor, Pieter Bultync, is depicted in the painting on the left with his sons, and his wife Katharina van Riebeke is on the right.

One does wonder why some people have denied or continue to deny the obvious theme of the painting

Which leads us on to consider the word "Joy". Especially as last Sunday was "Gaudete Sunday"

The Pope took the proper meaning of the word "Joy" as his theme for last Sunday`s Angelus

Is "joy" different from "happiness"? The French seem to use two words: "joie" and "bonheur". English has two words too: "joy" and "happiness" but the words seem to be used interchangeably

The essence of true "joy" according to the Pope seems to be that it is permanent and not temporary, and that it does not derive by our own acts but from a divine source:

"True joy is not a mere passing state of soul, nor something that is achieved by our own power but is a gift; it is born from the encounter with the living person of Jesus, from making space for him in us, from welcoming the Holy Spirit who guides our life."

One does not readily associate the latter years of Pope Paul VI with Joy. He became very ill, anxious and frail. Yet in 1975 he wrote and published an Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete in Domino (Rejoice in the Lord), all devoted to an exposition to the theme of Christian Joy

In quite a prophetic passage which Pope Benedict seemed to echo in his Sunday Angelus, Pope Paul VI wrote:

"When he awakens to the world, does not man feel, in addition to the natural desire to understand and take possession of it, the desire to find within it his fulfillment and happiness?

As everyone knows, there are several degrees of this "happiness." Its most noble expression is joy, or "happiness" in the strict sense, when man, on the level of his higher faculties, finds his peace and satisfaction in the possession of a known and loved good.

Thus, man experiences joy when he finds himself in harmony with nature, and especially in the encounter, sharing and communion with other people. All the more does he know spiritual joy or happiness when his spirit enters into possession of God, known and loved as the supreme and immutable good.

Poets, artists, thinkers, but also ordinary men and women, simply disposed to a certain inner light, have been able and still are able, in the times before Christ and in our own time and among us, to experience something of the joy of God.

But how can we ignore the additional fact that joy is always imperfect, fragile and threatened?

By a strange paradox, the consciousness of that which, beyond all passing pleasure, would constitute true happiness, also includes the certainty that there is no perfect happiness. The experience of finiteness, felt by each generation in its turn, obliges one to acknowledge and to plumb the immense gap that always exists between reality and the desire for the infinite.

This paradox, and this difficulty in attaining joy, seem to us particularly acute today. This is the reason for our message.

Technological society has succeeded in multiplying the opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. For joy comes from another source. It is spiritual.

Money, comfort, hygiene and material security are often not lacking; and yet boredom, depression and sadness unhappily remain the lot of many. These feelings sometimes go as far as anguish and despair, which apparent carefreeness, the frenzies of present good fortune and artificial paradises cannot assuage.

Do people perhaps feel helpless to dominate industrial progress, to plan society in a human way? Does the future perhaps seem too uncertain, human life too threatened? Or is it not perhaps a matter of loneliness, of an unsatisfied thirst for love and for someone's presence, of an ill-defined emptiness? On the contrary, in many regions and sometimes in our midst, the sum of physical and moral sufferings weighs heavily: so many starving people, so many victims of fruitless combats, so many people torn from their homes! These miseries are perhaps not deeper than those of the past but they have taken on a worldwide dimension. They are better known, reported by the mass media—at least as much as the events of good fortune—and they overwhelm people's minds. Often there seems to be no adequate human solution to them."

And so back to the painting.

What the artist has depicted is Mary`s encounters with God: God the Father and the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation, the pregnancy and life with her Son, and the reception by her of The Holy Spirit at Pentecost and then her encounter with the Trinity. A life filled with Grace and by act of Divine Grace

One of the poorest of the poor, fragile and threatened by outside human forces, challenged by the vicissitudes and turmoils, she was and is triumphant filled with holy and everlasting Joy and forever in union with with The Trinity through Her Son.

Pope Paul VI perhaps summed it up best and completely in his Apostolic Exhortation, at a time when after The Second Vatican Council some thought that Mary was being "written out" of the Catholic Church:

"She [Mary], accepting the announcement from on high, the Servant of the Lord, Spouse of the Spirit and Mother of the Eternal Son, manifests her joy before her cousin Elizabeth who celebrates her faith:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...henceforth all generations will call me blessed."

She has grasped, better than all other creatures, that God accomplishes wonderful things: His name is holy, He shows His mercy, He raises up the humble, He is faithful to His promises.

Not that the apparent course of her life in any way departs from the ordinary, but she meditates on the least signs of God, pondering them in her heart.

Not that she is in any way spared sufferings: she stands, the mother of sorrows, at the foot of the cross, associated in an eminent way with the sacrifice of the innocent Servant.

But she is also open in an unlimited degree to the joy of the resurrection; and she is also taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven.

The first of the redeemed, immaculate from the moment of her conception, the incomparable dwelling-place of the Spirit, the pure abode of the Redeemer of mankind, she is at the same time the beloved Daughter of God and, in Christ, the Mother of all.

She is the perfect model of the Church both on earth and in glory. What a marvelous echo the prophetic words about the new Jerusalem find in her wonderful existence as the Virgin of Israel:

"I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garment of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels."

With Christ, she sums up in herself all joys; she lives the perfect joy promised to the Church: Mater plena sanctae laetitiae. And it is with good reason that her children on earth, turning to her who is the mother of hope and of grace, invoke her as the cause of their joy: Causa nostrae laetitiae."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Celebration of Poverty

Guido Reni 1575 - 1642
The Adoration of the Shepherds
About 1640
Oil on canvas
480 x 321 cm
The National Gallery, London

This work was possibly commissioned by Prince Karl Eusebius of Lichtenstein (who died in 1684).

The National Gallery acquired it from the Prince`s descendants in 1957.

Before the acquisition, some of the Trustees went to Vaduz to see it. It was in a very dark room. It was decided to take the painting outside. Unfortunately the wind took hold of it and it smashed into a fencepost. The post left a huge hole in the painting next to the head of one of the shepherds.

The National Gallery continued with the purchase no doubt on the well known retail concept of "If you break it, you own it"

After it was repaired the huge work stayed in the same room in the Gallery for nearly fifty years before it went to be restored. It is back after a period of three years in the National Gallery`s "backshop".

It is a late work of Reni`s and probably many of Reni`s assistants were involved in the actual production of the work.

On or about the same time Reni also was commissioned to carry out the same work for the Charterhouse of Saint Martin in Naples. It is still there. (See below)

Guido Reni 1575 - 1642
The Adoration of the Shepherds
About 1641
Oil on canvas
485 x 350 cm
Certosa e Museo di San Martino, Naples

It is a classic Nativity scene. Perhaps we are inured to its theme

Years ago, images of such scenes were extremely common especially on Christmas cards. Now such images are much fewer and have to compete with "secular" Christmas cards with no Christian symbols.

In many ways it is quite understandable. The image is counter-cultural to say the least.

In a season now dedicated to conspicuous consumption and self-indulgence, it is almmost a crime to be poor. It is not good marketing therefore to put traditional images to the fore and to bring to customers` minds the uncomfortable idea of poverty.

Yet what Reni depicts is a scene of great poverty and simplicity. It is being glorified. It is being celebrated.

There is absolutely no doubt that the second person of the Trinity chose to be born to a family and setting of great poverty.

At the Presentation at the Temple of Jerusalem when Mary and Joseph brought their first born son to be redeemed, they did not bring a lamb and a turtledove for sacrifice but the poor person`s option: a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons (See: Luke 2:22-40 and Leviticus 12)

Pope Benedict XVI discussed this on 1st January 2009 in his Homily in which he referred to his Message for the World Day of Peace entitled: "Fighting poverty to build peace"

"I believe that the Virgin Mary must have asked herself this question several times: why did Jesus choose to be born of a simple, humble girl like me? And then, why did he want to come into the world in a stable and have his first visit from the shepherds of Bethlehem?

Mary received her answer in full at the end, having laid in the tomb the Body of Jesus, dead and wrapped in a linen shroud (cf. Lk 23: 53). She must then have fully understood the mystery of the poverty of God.

She understood that God made himself poor for our sake, to enrich us with his poverty full of love, to urge us to impede the insatiable greed that sparks conflicts and divisions, to invite us to moderate the mania to possess and thus to be open to reciprocal sharing and acceptance."

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Science and Religion

From Aristotle`s Ethics: Science, Art, Wisdom and Listening
15th century Manuscript
34.5 x 25 cm
Musée Condé, Chantilly

The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion is an interdisciplinary research enterprise based at St Edmund's College, Cambridge. In addition to academic research, the Institute engages in the public understanding of science and religion

Amongst the fascinating lectures available in podcast form are those on Astronomy and Biblical events.

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys is Director of Research in the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy at the University of Cambridge and has delivered a number of lectures on the following topics:

They are interesting as the Professor demonstrates how Science can come to the aid of upholding the historicity of Jesus and events narrated in Scripture.

There are also many lectures by John Charlton Polkinghorne KBE FRS (born 16 October 1930). He is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest. He was professor of Mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979

Some of his lectures include:

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Crivelli and the Madonna and Child

Carlo Crivelli 1430/35 - 1495
Virgin and Child
c. 1480
Tempera on panel, 49 x 34 cm
Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Carlo Crivelli 1430/35 - 1495
Madonna and Child
c. 1480
Tempera and gold on wood, 37.8 x 25.4 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Crivelli specialised in exquisite devotional paintings of the Madonna and Child

Here are two examples: one in The Victoria and Albert Museum in London known as "The Jones Madonna" (after the donor of the work to the V and A), and the other in The Metropolitan Museum in New York. Both were meant probably as private devotional paintings.

They are intricate works full of devotional symbolism which probably for the modern taste are perhaps slightly overbearing.

With the pre-Raphelites, Crivelli`s reputation increased and then fell again. Now there is a recrudescence of interest in the artist.

The apple is the symbol of Death which arose from the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden.

The gourd is the symbol of recovery and redemption, of Resurrection deriving from the experiences of Jonah.

The fly is associated with Satan, the great Tempter. The fly is bearer of evil or pestilence, a symbol of sin

The goldfinch is associated with the Passion and Christ's Crown of Thorns because the bird feeds among thorns. One recalls Raphael’s painting, “Madonna of the Goldfinch,” again showing an Infant Jesus lovingly stroking a goldfinch.

THe fly and the goldfinch were often shown together as the goldfinch is the eater of flies, a saviour against disease harboured by the fly

The commentary by the Victoria and Albert on its work is masterly and worth reading in full.

Here is what the Museum says about the symbolism in the work in the V and A:

"[T]he painting shows the Virgin's half-length figure standing before a parapet holding the Child against her.

Behind her is a dark red embroidered dossal, across which hangs a swag of fruits with figs and peaches. Reminiscent of Mantegna's art, these are not only depicted for decorative purposes but enhance the devotional significance of the image. They enclose Christian symbolical meanings and relate to the story of Christ: Redemption (peach) and Fertility (fig).

Behind the dossal or cloth of honour is a bird-view of a hilly landscape showing on the left flourishing trees and on the right an isolated leafless tree. Again, trees are symbolically important in the religious iconography and act as a link between the sky, the earth and hell.

As flourishing, they allude to the regeneration whereas leafless trees stand for a prediction of death.

Furthermore, the leafless tree, an important feature in Veneto-Paduan devotional art of the 1450s (Lightbown, 2004), may allude to the Tree of Knowledge which is believed to have survived under this form in the Earthly Paradise. This bare tree already appeared in the early Bergamo Madonna and in other compositions by Mantegna and Schiavone (see Mantegna, Agony in the Garden (1460) and Schiavone's Madonna, (late 1450s) both in The National Gallery, London).

Symbols for life and death pervade the composition, which structure reiterates this idea with the parapet, cracked all'antica, which is sometimes interpreted as an altar, alluding thus to the coming sacrifice of Christ.

On the parapet are two more symbolic flowers: the pink or carnation which relates since the Middle Ages to the Passion of Christ while violets are Marian flowers enhancing her humility and purity.

These floral symbols are counterbalanced by the fly on the parapet far right, which represents evil and justify somehow the coming sacrifice of Christ for the redemption of mankind.

Small devotional pictures of this kind were made to solicit prayers and meditation from the believer who was supposed to look at it.

This is the purpose of the symbolical fruits which act as reminders of the religious credo and the reason why the Virgin and the Child are looking in two different directions so as to embrace the whole family kneeling before them"

Here is what seems to be the prototype of the Metropolitan work once situated in the Church of San Francesco in Alto in Ancona and now hanging in the city gallery in Ancona

Carlo Crivelli 1430/35 - 1495
Madonna and Child
Tempera on panel
21 cm x 15,5 cm
Pinacoteca Civica, Ancona

Here is another on the same theme which is in a private collection

Carlo Crivelli 1430/35 - 1495
The Madonna and Child at a marble parapet, an apple and a gourd hanging from a niche behind
1490 - 3
Tempera on panel
61.3 x 44 cm
Private collection

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

A Treasure of San Silvestro

Paolo Veronese (aka Paolo Caliari) 1528 - 1588
The Adoration of the Kings
Oil on canvas
355.6 x 320 cm
The National Gallery, London

Veronese painted this beautiful work in 1573 for the Church of San Silvestro in Venice. There it remained against a wall of the nave beside a chapel of the Confraternity of St Joseph until the middle of the nineteenth century.

When the church was remodelled in the mid 19th century, this and some other works were sold. Purportedly because they were too large for the new setting. Probably simply to raise money for the refurbishment and to replace them with some nineteenth century works.

First it was crated up and brought to Paris where it was to be offered to Baron James Rothschild. However he sold it on and The National Gallery acquired it in 1855 for the princely sum of £1,977 (now £135,000 using RPI to £1,180,000.00 using average earnings) plus £2 2s. 2d. for carriage from Paris

The purchase of the painting did cause some controvery. Questions were asked in "the House".


§ MR. OTWAY said, he begged to ask the hon. Gentleman the Secretary of the Treasury if it was true that £1,977 had been paid for the picture of "The Adoration of the Magi," recently placed in the National Gallery, and whether that sum included all the expenses occasioned to the country by the acquisition of that picture; by whose recommendation the picture had been purchased, and on what authority it was stated to be painted by Paolo Veronese?

§ MR. WILSON, in reply said, that £1,977 was the whole sum which this picture would cost, with the exception of £2 2s. 2d. paid for its carriage from Paris. All other expenses were paid by the seller. The purchase of the picture was recommended solely by the director of the National Gallery, but was acquiesced in and decided upon by the trustees. Whatever difference of opinion there might be as to the value of the picture, there could, he thought, be none as to its authenticity, for it stood in the position of being, perhaps, the best authenticated picture of the kind in the world. In Venice, where the picture had remained from the time of its being painted up to a very recent date, it was well known to have been the production of Paolo Veronese; and besides that, it was mentioned as his work and as belonging to the church from which it had been taken, in a book which was published in 1581, eight years after the date at which it was painted, and seven years before the death of the artist. In the British Museum there was a print of the picture, which was engraved in the year 1649."

Modern art experts and authorities now consider that perhaps Veronese himself was only responsible for the Virgin and Child. It would seem that it may be that the Virgin and Child together with the rest may have been painted by the followers of Jacopo Bassano.

Veronese also executed a number of variations of the same basic composition, for example showing the foremost wise man kissing Christ's foot

His studio and followers also used the same or a similar composition.

One does wonder who came off best: the church in Venice or the British taxpayer ?