Monday, December 08, 2014

Vasari and The Immaculate Conception

Giorgio Vasari (1512-1574)
The Immaculate Conception 
Oil on panel
Santi Apostoli, Florence

Giorgio Vasari (1512-1574)
The Immaculate Conception
Brown ink and wash, blank ink and pencil on parchment
51.8 x 35.7 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris (D.A.G)

The artist said of this work:
"In October, then, of the year 1540, I began the altar-picture for Messer Bindo, proposing to paint in it a scene that should represent the Conception of Our Lady, according to the title of the chapel; which subject presenting no little difficulty to me, Messer Bindo and I took the opinions of many common friends, men of learning, and finally I executed it in the following manner.  
Having depicted the Tree of the Primal Sin in the middle of the picture, I painted at its roots Adam and Eve naked and bound, as the first transgressors of the commandment of God, and then one by one, bound to the other branches, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, David, and the other Kings in succession, according to the order of time; all, I say, bound by both arms, excepting Samuel and John the Baptist, who are bound by one arm only, because they were blessed in the womb.  
I painted there, also, with the tail wound about the trunk of the Tree, the Ancient Serpent, who, having a human form from the middle upwards, has the hands bound behind; and upon his head, treading upon his horns, is one foot of the glorious Virgin, who has the other on a Moon, being herself all clothed with the Sun, and crowned with twelve stars.  
The Virgin, I say, is supported in the air, within a Splendour, by many nude little Angels, who are illumined by the rays that come from her; which rays, likewise, passing through the leaves of the Tree, shed light upon those bound to it, and appear to be loosing their bonds by means of the virtue and grace that they bring from her from whom they proceed. 
And in the heaven, at the top of the picture, are two children that are holding certain scrolls, in which are written these words: QUOS EVAE CULPA DAMNAVIT, MARIAE GRATIA SOLVIT. [Those whom the fault of Eve damned, the grace of Mary saved] 
In short, so far as I can remember, I had not executed any work up to that time with more study or with more lovingness and labour; but all the same, while I may perhaps have satisfied others, I did not satisfy myself, although I know the time, study, and labour that I devoted to it, particularly to the nudes and heads, and, indeed, to every part. 
For the labours of that picture Messer Bindo gave me three hundred crowns of gold, besides which, in the following year, he showed me so many courtesies and kindnesses in his house in Rome, where I made him a copy of the same altar-piece in a little picture, almost in miniature, that I shall always feel an obligation to his memory. " 
Giorgio Vasari,  Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects Trans Gaston de Vere 1912 - 15 (Volume  10, pp 185 - 186)

Bindo Altoviti  was a rich Floretine banker who engaged Vasari for the work in the family chapel in the Church of Santi Apostoli in Florence

It is still there in situ

The work was a great success and many copies and replicas were made

The Church itself was founded about 800 and was popularly called Il  Vecchio Duomo

It is situated in Piazza del Limbo

It was called Piazza del Limbo because it used to house a cemetery for neonates who had not been baptised. In The Divine Comedy, Dante refers to it to as a subterranean part of the material world

The work depicts Mary as the New Eve who remedies the evil unleashed through Eve and by her grace is the sine qua non by which the Gates of Heaven are re-opened and the Old Testament saints released from Limbo

Mary is depicted as being so blessed and powerful she is depicted as descending into Limbo itself

This work was the epitome of a new Florentine iconography of The Immaculate Conception which remained popular 

The Scriptural sources are Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12:1

However references to Limbo and The Harrowing of Hell  also bring to mind the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus

In that Gospel, Christ is the one who descends into Hades to deliver the Patriarchs, not Mary

However in the Gospel reference is made repeatedly to Christ as the breaker of chains, the same designation given by Vasari to Mary

For example
"Ecce iam iste Iesus suae divinitatis fulgore fugat omnes tenebres mortis, et firma ima carceris confregit, et ejecit captivos et solvit vinctos" (Chapter 23)
In this work Mary is shown as defeating the Serpent alone

This was not acceptable and by 1543 Vasari had changed the inscription on another Immaculate Conception (now in Lucca) to:
"Quod Eva tristis abstulit, tu reddis almo germine"
Christ is firmly the Redeemer

In 1572 St Pope Pius V settled the matter and decreed that in iconography of The Immaculate Conception where Mary is shown crushing the head of the Serpent, she must be shown as accompanied by her son, Jesus, the  Redeemer

See also Donal O’Connor, G. Vasari’s Allegory of the Immaculate Conception and its Theological Tensions  in Irish Theological Quarterly, 2000, 65, p. 169-177

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