THROUGH all the most beautiful and precious productions of human genius and human skill which the middle ages and the renaissance have bequeathed to us, we trace, more or less developed, more or less apparent, present in shape before us, or suggested through inevitable associations, one prevailing idea ; it is that of an impersonation in the feminine character of beneficence, purity, and power, standing between an offended Deity and poor, sinning, suffering humanity, and clothed in the visible form of Mary, the Mother of our Lord.
To the Roman Catholics this idea remains an indisputable religious truth of the highest import. Those of a different creed may think fit to dispose of the whole subject of the Madonna either as a form of superstition or a form of Art. But merely as a form of Art, we cannot in these days confine ourselves to empty conventional criticism. We are obliged to look further and deeper ; and in this department of Legendary Art, as in the others, we must take the higher ground, perilous though it be. We must seek to comprehend the dominant idea lying behind and beyond the mere representation. For, after all, some consideration is due to facts which we must necessarily accept, whether we deal with antiquarian theology or artistic criticism; namely, that the worship of the Madonna did prevail through all the Christian and civilized world for nearly a thousand years ; that, in spite of errors, exaggerations, abuses, this worship did comprehend certain great elemental truths interwoven with our human nature, and to be evolved perhaps with our future destinies. Therefore did it work itself into the life and soul of man; therefore has it been worked out in the manifestations of his genius ; and therefore the multiform imagery in which it has been clothed from the rudest imitations of life to the most exquisite creations of mind, may be resolved, as a whole, into one subject, and becomes one great monument in the history of progressive thought and faith, as well as in the history of progressive Art.
Of the pictures in our galleries, public or private, of the architectural adornments of those majestic edifices which sprang up in the middle ages (where they have not been despoiled or desecrated by a zeal as fervent as that which reared them), the largest and most beautiful portion have reference to the Madonna, her character, her person, her history. It was a theme which never tired her votaries, whether, as in the hands of great and sincere artists, it became one of the noblest and loveliest, or, as in the hands of superficial, unbelieving, time-serving artists, one of the most degraded. All that human genius, inspired by faith, could achieve of best all that fanaticism, sensualism, atheism, could perpetrate of worse do we find in the cycle of those representations which have been dedicated to the glory of the Virgin. And indeed the ethics of the Madonna worship, as evolved in Art, might be not unaptly likened to the ethics of human love ; so long as the object of sense remained in subjection to the moral idea so long as the appeal was to the best of our faculties and affections so long was the image grand or refined, and the influences to be ranked with those which have helped to humanize and civilize our race; but so soon as the object became a mere idol, then worship and worshippers, Art and artists, were together degraded.
It is not my intention to enter here on that disputed point, the origin of the worship of the Madonna. Our present theme lies within prescribed limits, wide enough, however, to embrace an immense field of thought ; it seeks to trace the progressive influence of that worship on the Fine Arts for a thousand years or more, and to interpret the forms in which it has been clothed. That the veneration paid to Mary in the early Church was a very natural feeling in those who advocated the divinity of her Son, would be granted, I suppose, by all but the most bigoted reformers ; that it led to unwise and wild extremes, confounding the creature with the Creator, would be admitted, I suppose, by all but the most bigoted Roman Catholics. How it extended from the East over the nations of the West, how it grew and spread, may be read in ecclesiastical histories. Everywhere it seems to have found in the human heart some deep sympathy deeper far than mere theological doctrine could reach ready to accept it ; and in every land the ground prepared for it in some already dominant idea of a mother-Goddess, chaste, beautiful, and benign. As, in the oldest Hebrew rites and pagan superstitions, men traced the promise of a coming Messiah, as the deliverers and kings of the Old Testament, and even the demigods of heathendom, became accepted types of the person of Christ, so the Eve of the Mosaic history, the Astarte of the Assyrians
The mooned Ashtaroth, queen and mother both the Isis nursing Horus of the Egyptians, the Demeter and, the Aphrodite of the Greeks, the Scythian Freya, have been considered by some writers as types of a divine maternity, fore-shadowing the Virgin-mother of Christi Others will have it that these scattered, dim, mistaken often gross and perverted ideas which were afterwards gathered into the pure, dignified, tender image of the Madonna, were but as the voice of a mighty prophecy, sounded through all the generations of men, even from the beginning of time, of the coming moral regeneration, and complete and harmonious development of the whole human race, by the establishment, on a higher basis, of what has been called the ” feminine element ” in society. And let me at least speak for myself. In the perpetual iteration of that beautiful image of THE WOMAN highly blessed there, where others saw only pictures or statues, I have seen this great hope standing like a spirit beside the visible form ; in the fervent worship once universally given to that gracious presence, I have beheld an acknowledgment of a higher as well as gentler power than that of the strong hand and the might that makes the right, and in every earnest votary, one who, as he knelt, was in this sense pious beyond the reach of his own thought, and ” devout beyond the meaning of his will.”
It is curious to observe, as the worship of the Virgin-mother expanded and gathered to itself the relics of many an ancient faith, how the new and the old elements, some of them apparently the most heterogeneous, became amalgamated, and were combined into the early forms of Art ; how the Madonna, when she assumed the characteristics of the great Diana of Ephesus, at once the type of Fertility and the Goddess of Chastity, became, as the impersonation of motherhood, all beauty, bounty, and graciousness ; and at the same time, by virtue of her perpetual virginity, the patroness of single and ascetic life the example and the excuse for many of the wildest of the early monkish theories. With Christianity, new ideas of the moral and religious responsibility of woman entered the world ; and while these ideas were yet struggling with the Hebrew and classical prejudices concerning the whole sex, they seem to have produced some curious perplexity in the minds of the greatest doctors of the faith. Christ, as they assure us, was born of a woman only, and had no earthly father, that neither sex might despair; “for had he been born a man (which was necessary), yet not born of woman, the women might have despaired of themselves, recollecting the first offence, the first man having been deceived by a woman. Therefore we are to suppose that, for the exaltation of the male sex, Christ appeared on earth as a man ; and, for the consolation of womankind, he was born of a woman only ; as if it had been said, ‘ from hence-forth no creature shall be base before God, unless perverted by depravity.”f (Augustine, Opera Supt. 238, Serm. 63.) Such is the reasoning of St. Augustine, who, I must observe, had an especial veneration for his mother Monica ; and it is, perhaps, for her sake that he seems here desirous to prove that through the Virgin Mary all womankind were henceforth elevated in the scale of being. And this was the idea entertained of her subsequently ; ” ennobler of thy nature ! ” says Dante, apostrophizing her, as if her perfections had ennobled not merely her own sex, but the whole human race.
But also with Christianity came the want of a new type of womanly perfection, combining all the attributes of the ancient female divinities with others altogether new. Christ, as the model man, united the virtues of the two sexes, till the idea that there are essentially masculine and feminine virtues intruded itself on the higher Christian conception, and seems to have necessitated the female type.
The first historical mention of a direct worship paid to the Virgin Mary occurs in a passage in the works of St. Epiphanius, who died in 403. In enumerating the heresies (eighty-four in number) which had sprung up in the early Church, he mentions a sect of women who had emigrated from Thrace into Arabia, with whom it was customary to offer cakes of meal and honey to the Virgin Mary, as if she had been a divinity, transferring to her, in fact, the worship paid to Ceres. The very first instance which occurs in written history of an invocation to Mary is in the life of St. Justina, as related by Gregory Nazianzen. Justina calls on the Virgin-mother to protect her against the seducer and sorcerer, Cyprian ; and does not call in vain. (See Sacred and Legendary Art.) These passages, however, do not prove that previously to the fourth century there had been no worship or invocation of the Virgin, but rather the contrary. However this may be, it is to the same period the fourth century we refer the most ancient representations of the Virgin in Art. The earliest figures extant are those on the Christian sarcophagi ; but neither in the early sculpture nor in the mosaics of S. Maria Maggiore do we find any figure of the Virgin standing alone ; she forms part of a group of the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi. There is no attempt at individuality or portraiture. St. Augustine says expressly, that there existed in his time no authentic portrait of the Virgin ; but it is inferred from his account that, authentic or not, such pictures did then exist, since there were already disputes concerning their authenticity. There were at this period received symbols of the person and character of Christ, as the lamb, the vine, the fish, etc., but not, as far as I can learn, any such accepted symbols of the Virgin Mary. Further, it is the opinion of the learned in ecclesiastical antiquities that, previous to the first Council of Ephesus, it was the custom to represent the figure of the Virgin alone without the Child; but that none of these original effigies remain to us, only supposed copies of a later date.
It has long been a disputed, or at least an unsettled and doubtful, point, as to whether certain figures existing on the earliest Christian monuments were or were not intended to represent the Virgin Mary. The Protestants, on the one hand, as if still inspired by that superstition against superstition which led to the violent and vulgar destruction of so many beautiful works of Art, and the Catholics on the other, jealous to maintain the authenticity of these figures as a testimony to the ancient worship of the Virgin, both appear to nie to have taken an exaggerated and prejudiced view of a subject which ought to be considered dispassionately on purely antiquarian and critical grounds. Having had the opportunity, during a late residence in Italy, of reconsidering and comparing a great number of these antique representations, and having heard the opinions of antiquarians, theologians, and artists, who had given their attention to the subject, and who occasionally differed from each other as to the weight of evidence, I have arrived at the conviction that some of these effigies represent the Virgin Mary, and others do not. I confess I do not believe in any authentic representation of the Virgin holding the Divine Child older than the sixth century, except when introduced into the groups of the Nativity and the Worship of the Magi. Previous to the Nestorian controversy, these maternal effigies, as objects of devotion, were, I still believe, unknown, but I cannot understand why there should exist among Protestants so strong a disposition to discredit every representation of Mary the Mother of our Lord to which a high antiquity had been assigned by the Roman Catholics. We know that as early as the second century, not only symbolical figures of our Lord, but figures of certain personages of holy life, as St. Peter and St. Paul, Agnes the Roman, and Euphemia the Greek, martyr, did certainly exist. The critical and historical testimony I have given elsewhere (Sacred and Legendary Art). Why, therefore, should there not have existed effigies of the Mother of Christ, of the ” Woman highly blessed,” the subject of so many prophecies, and naturally the object of a tender and just veneration among the early Christians ? It seems to me that nothing could be more likely, and that such representations ought to have a deep interest for all Christians, no matter of what denomination for all, in truth, who believe that the Saviour of the world had a good Mother, his only earthly parent, who brought him forth, nurtured and loved him. That it should be considered a point of faith with Protestants to treat such memorials with incredulity, and even derision, appears to me most inconsistent and unaccountable, though I confess that between these simple primitive memorials and the sumptuous tasteless column and image recently erected at Rome there is a very wide margin of disputable ground, of which I shall say no more in this place. But to return to the antique conception of the ” Donna orante ” or so-called Virgin-mother, I will mention here only the most remarkable examples ; for to enter fully into the subject would occupy a volume in itself.
There is a figure often met with in the Catacombs and on the sarcophagi, of a majestic woman standing with outspread arms (the ancient attitude of prayer), or holding a book or scroll in her hand. When this figure stands alone and unaccompanied by any attribute, I think the signification doubtful : but in the catacomb of St. Ciriaco there is a painted figure of a woman, with arms outspread and sustained on each side by figures, evidently St. Peter and St. Paul ; on the sarcophagi the same figure frequently occurs ; and there are other examples certainly not later than the third and fourth century. That these represent Mary the Mother of Christ I have not the least doubt ; I think it has been fully demonstrated that no other Christian woman could have been so represented, considering the manners and habits of the Christian community at that period. Then the attitude and type are precisely similar to those of the ancient Byzantine Madonnas and the Italian mosaics of Eastern workmanship, proving, as I think, that there existed a common traditional original for this figure, the idea of which has been preserved and transmitted in these early copies.
Further, there exist in the Roman museums many fragments of ancient glass found in the Christian tombs, on which are rudely pictured in colors figures exactly similar, and having the name MARIA inscribed above them. On one of these fragments I found the same female figure between two male figures, with the names inscribed over them, MARIA. PETRVS. PAVLVS., generally in the rudest and most imperfect style, as if issuing from some coarse manufacture, but showing that they have had a common origin with those far superior figures in the Catacombs and on the sarcophagi, while the inscribed names leave no doubt as to the significance.
On the other hand, there are similar fragments of coarse glass found in the Catacombs either lamps or small vases, bearing the same female in the attitude of prayer, and superscribed in rude letters, “Dulcis ANIMA PIE ZESES VIVAS.” (ZESES instead of JESUS.) Such may possibly represent, not the Virgin Mary, but the Christian matron or martyr buried in the tomb ; at least, I consider them as doubtful.
The Cavaliere Rossi, whose celebrity as an antiquary is not merely Italian, but European, and whose impartiality can hardly be doubted, told me that a Christian sarcophagus had lately been discovered at Saint-Maxime, in the South of France, on which there is the same group of the female figure, praying, and over it the name MARIA.
I ought to add, that on one of these sarcophagi, bearing the oft-repeated subject of the Good Shepherd feeding his sheep, I found, as the companion group, a female figure in the act of feeding birds, which are fluttering to her feet. It is not doubted that the Good Shepherd is the symbol of the beneficent Christ ; whether the female figure represents the Virgin-mother, or is to be regarded merely as a general symbol of female beneficence, placed on a par with that of Christ (in his human character), I will not pretend to decide. It is equally touching and beautiful in either significance.
I [give two] examples of these figures.
The [first] example is from a sarcophagus. It is a figure holding a scroll of the gospel, and standing between St. Peter and St. Paul : on each side (in the original) there are groups expressing the beneficent miracles of our Lord. This figure, I believe, represents the Virgin Mary.
The [second] example [shows] the manner in which this conspicuous female figure is combined with the series of groups on each side. She stands with hands outspread, in the attitude of prayer, between the two apostles, who seem to sustain her arms. On one side is the miracle of the water changed into wine ; on the other side, Christ healing the woman who touched his garment ; both of perpetual recurrence in these sculptures. Of these groups of the miracles and actions of Christ on the early Christian sarcophagi, I shall give a full account in the “History of our Lord, as illustrated in the Fine Arts ; ” at present I confine myself to the female figure which takes this conspicuous place, while other female figures are prostrate, or of a diminutive size, to express their humility or inferiority ; and I have no doubt that thus situated it is intended to represent the woman who was highly honored as well as highly blessed the Mother of our Saviour.
I have come, therefore, to the conclusion, that while many of these figures have a certain significance, others are uncertain. Where the figure is isolated, or placed within a frame or border, like the memorial busts and effigies on the pagan sarcophagi, I think it may be regarded as probably commemorating the Christian martyr or matron entombed in the sarcophagus ; but when there is no division, where the figure forms part of a continuous series of groups, expressing the character and miracles of Christ, I believe that it represents his mother.
The condemnation of Nestorius by the Council of Ephesus, in the year 431, forms a most important epoch in the history of religious Art. I have given farther on a sketch of this celebrated schism, and its immediate and progressive results. It may be thus summed up here. The Nestorians maintained, that in Christ the two natures of God and man remained separate, and that Mary, his human mother, was parent of the man, but not of the God ; consequently the title which, during the previous century, had been popularly applied to her, ” Theotokos ” (Mother of God), was improper and profane. The party opposed to Nestorius, the Monophysites, maintained that in Christ the divine and human were blended in one incarnate nature, and that consequently Mary was indeed the Mother of God. By the decree of the first Council of Ephesus, Nestorius and his party were condemned as heretics ; and henceforth the representation of that beautiful group, since popularly known as the ” Madonna and Child,” became the expression of the orthodox faith. Every one who wished to prove his hatred of the arch-heretic exhibited the image of the maternal Virgin holding in her arms the Infant Godhead, either in his house as a picture, or embroidered on his garments, or on his furniture, on his personal ornaments in short, wherever it could be introduced. It is worth remarking that Cyril, who was so influential in fixing the orthodox group, had passed the greater part of his life in Egypt, and must have been familiar with the Egyptian type of Isis nursing }Torus. Nor, as I conceive, is there any irreverence in supposing that a time-honored intelligible symbol should be chosen to embody and formalize a creed. For it must be remembered that the group of the Mother and Child was not at first a representation, but merely a theological symbol set up in the orthodox churches, and adopted by the orthodox Christians.
It is just after the Council of Ephesus that history first makes mention of a supposed authentic portrait of the Virgin Mary. The Empress Eudocia, when travelling in the Holy Land, sent home such a picture of the Virgin holding the Child to her sister-in-law, Pulcheria, who placed it in a church at Constantinople. It was at that time regarded as of very high antiquity, and supposed to have been painted from the life. It is certain that a picture traditionally said to be the same which Eudocia had sent to Pulcheria did exist at Constantinople, and was so much venerated by the people as to be regarded as a sort of Palladium, and borne in a superb litter or car in the midst of the imperial host when the emperor led the army in person. The fate of this relic is not certainly known. It is said to have been taken by the Turks in 1453, and dragged through the mire ; but others deny this as utterly derogatory to the majesty of the Queen of Heaven, who never would have suffered such an indignity to have been put on her sacred image. According to the Venetian legend, it was this identical effigy which was taken by the blind old Dandolo, when he besieged and took Constantinople in 1204, and brought in triumph to Venice, where it has ever since been preserved in the church of St. Mark and held in somma venerazione. No mention is made of St. Luke in the earliest account of this picture, though, like all the antique effigies of uncertain origin, it was in after times attributed to him.
The history of the next three hundred years testifies to the triumph of orthodoxy, the extension and popularity of the worship of the Virgin, and the consequent multiplication of her image, in every form and material, through the whole of Christendom.
Then followed the schism of the Iconoclasts, which distracted the Church for more than one hundred years, under Leo III., the Isaurian, and his immediate successors. Such were the extravagances of superstition to which the image-worship had led the excitable Orientals, that, if Leo had been a wise and temperate reformer, he might have done much good in checking its excesses ; but he was himself an ignorant, merciless barbarian. The persecution by which he sought to exterminate the sacred pictures of the Madonna, and the cruelties exercised on her unhappy votaries, produced a general destruction of the most curious and precious remains of antique Art. In other respects, the immediate result was naturally enough a reaction, which not only reinstated pictures in the veneration of the people, but greatly increased their influence over the imagination ; for it is at this time that we first hear of a miraculous picture. Among those who most strongly defended the use of sacred images in the churches was St. John Damascene, one of the great lights of the Oriental Church. According to the Greek legend, he was condemned to lose his right hand, which was accordingly cut off ; but he, full of faith, prostrating himself before a picture of the Virgin, stretched out the bleeding stump, and with it touched her lips, and immediately a new hand sprung forth ” like a branch from a tree.” Hence, among the Greek effigies of the Virgin, there is one, peculiarly commemorative of this miracle, styled “the Virgin with three hands.” (Didron, Christian Iconography, vol. ii. p. 397.) In the west of Europe, where the abuses of the image-worship had never yet reached the wild superstition of the Oriental Christians, the fury of the Iconoclasts excited horror and consternation. The temperate and eloquent apology for sacred pictures, addressed by Gregory II. to the Emperor Leo, had the effect of mitigating the persecution in Italy, where the work of destruction could not be carried out to the same extent as in the Byzantine provinces. Hence it is in Italy only that any important remains of sacred Art anterior to the Iconoclast dynasty have been preserved.
The second Council of Nice, under the Empress Irene, in 787 condemned the Iconoclasts, and restored the use of the sacred pictures in the churches. Nevertheless, the controversy still raged till after the death of Theophilus, the last and the most cruel of the Iconoclasts, in 842. His widow Theodora achieved the final triumph of the orthodox party, and restored the Virgin to her throne. We must observe, however, that only pictures were allowed ; all sculptured imagery was still prohibited, and has never since been allowed in the Greek Church, except in very low relief. The flatter the surface, the more orthodox.
It is, I think, about 886 that we first find the effigy of the Virgin on the coins of the Greek empire. On a gold coin of Leo VI., the Philosopher, she stands veiled, and draped, with a noble head, no glory, and the arms outspread, just as she appears in the old mosaics. On a coin of Romanus the Younger, she crowns the emperor, having herself the nimbus; she is draped and veiled. On a coin of Nicephorus Phocus (who’ had great pretensions to piety), the Virgin stands, presenting a cross to the emperor, with the inscription, ” Theotokos, be propitious.” On a gold coin of John Zimisces, 975, we first find the Virgin and Child, the symbol merely : she holds against her bosom a circular glory, within which is the head of the Infant Christ. In the successive reigns of the next two centuries she almost constantly appears as crowning the emperor.
Returning to the West, we find that in the succeeding period, from Charlemagne to the first crusade, the popular devotion to the Virgin, and the multiplication of sacred pictures, continued steadily to increase ; yet in the tenth and eleventh centuries Art was at its lowest ebb. At this time the subjects relative to. the Virgin were principally the Madonna and Child, rep-resented according to the Greek form, and those scenes from the Gospel in which she is introduced, as the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Worship of the Magi.
Towards the end of the tenth century the custom of adding the angelic salutation, the Ave Maria, to the Lord’s prayer, was first introduced; and by the end of the following century it had been adopted in the offices of the Church. This was, at first, intended as a perpetual reminder of the mystery of the Incarnation, as announced by the angel. It must have had the effect of keeping the idea of Mary as united with that of her Son, and as the instrument of the Incarnation, continually in the minds of the people.
The pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the crusades in the eleventh and the twelfth centuries, had a most striking effect on religious Art, though this effect was not fully evolved till a century later. More particularly did this returning wave of Oriental influences modify the representations of the Virgin. Fragments of the apocryphal gospels and legends of Palestine and Egypt were now introduced, worked up into ballads, stories, and dramas, and gradually incorporated with the teaching of the Church. A great variety of subjects derived from the Greek artists, and from particular localities and traditions of the East, became naturalized in Western Europe. Among these were the legends of Joachim and Anna; and the death, the assumption, and the coronation of the Virgin.
Then came the thirteenth century, an era notable in the history of mind, more especially notable in the history of Art. The seed scattered hither and thither, during the stormy and warlike period of the crusades, now sprung up and flourished, bearing diverse fruit. A more contemplative enthusiasm, a superstition tinged with a morbid melancholy, fermented into life and form. In that general ” fit of compunction,” which we are told seized all Italy at this time, the passionate devotion for the benign Madonna mingled the poetry of pity with that of pain ; and assuredly this state of feeling, with its mental and moral requirements, must have assisted in emancipating Art from the rigid formalism of the degenerate Greek school. Men’s hearts, throbbing with a more feeling, more pensive life, demanded something more like life and produced it. It is curious to trace in the Madonnas of contemporary, but far distant and unconnected schools of painting, the simultaneous dawning of a sympathetic sentiment for the first time something in the faces of the divine beings responsive to the feeling of the worshippers. It was this, perhaps, which caused the enthusiasm excited by Cimabue’s great Madonna [Rucellai chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence], and made the peo ple shout and dance for joy when it was uncovered before them. Compared with the spectral rigidity, the hard monotony, of the conventional Byzantines, the more animated eyes, the little touch of sweetness in the still, mild face, must have been like a smile out of heaven. As we trace the same softer influence in the earliest Siena and Cologne pictures of about the same period, we may fairly regard it as an impress of the spirit of the time, rather than that of an individual mind.
In the succeeding century these elements of poetic Art, expanded and animated by an awakened observation of nature, and a sympathy with her external manifestations, were most especially directed by the increasing influence of the worship of the Virgin, a worship at once religious and chivalrous. The title of ” Our Lady ” came first into general use in the days of chivalry, for she was the lady ” of all hearts,” whose colors all were proud to wear. Never had her votaries so abounded. Hundreds upon hundreds had enrolled themselves in brotherhoods, vowed to her especial service ; 2 or devoted to acts of charity, to be performed in her name. Already the great religious communities, which at this time comprehended all the enthusiasm, learning, and influence of the Church, had placed themselves solemnly and especially under her protection. The Cistercians wore white in honor of her purity ; the Servi wore black in respect to her sorrows ; the Franciscans had enrolled themselves as champions of the Immaculate Conception ; and the Dominicans introduced the rosary. All these richly endowed communities vied with each other in multiplying churches, chapels, and pictures, in honor of their patroness, and expressive of her several attributes. The devout painter, kneeling before his easel, addressed himself to the task of portraying those heavenly lineaments which had visited him perhaps in dreams. Many of the professed monks and friars became themselves accomplished artists.
At this time Jacopo di Voragine compiled the ” Golden Legend,” a collection of sacred stories, some already current, some new, or in a new form. This famous book added many themes to those already admitted, and became the authority and storehouse for the early painters in their groups and dramatic compositions. The increasing enthusiasm for the Virgin naturally caused an increasing demand for the subjects taken from her personal history, and led, consequently, to a more exact study of those natural objects and effects which were required as accessories, to greater skill in grouping the figures, and to a higher development of historic Art.
But of all the influences on Italian Art in that wonderful fourteenth century, Dante was the greatest. He was the intimate friend of Giotto. Through the communion of mind, not less than through his writings, he infused into religious Art that mingled theology, poetry, and mysticism which ruled in the Giottesque school during the following century, and went hand in hand with the development of the power and practice of imitation. Now the theology of Dante was the theology of his age. His ideas respecting the Virgin Mary were precisely those to which the writings of St. Bernard, St. Bonaventura, and St. Thomas Aquinas had already lent all the persuasive power of eloquence, and the Church all the weight of her authority. Dante rendered these doctrines into poetry, and Giotto and his followers rendered them into form. In the Paradiso of Dante, the glorification of Mary, as the ” Mystic Rose” (Rosa mystica) and Queen of Heaven with the attendant angels, circle within circle, floating round her in adoration, and singing the Regina Coeli, and saints and patriarchs stretching forth their hands towards her is all a splendid but still indefinite vision of dazzling light crossed by shadowy forms. The painters of the fourteenth century, in translating these glories into a definite shape, had to deal with imperfect knowledge and imperfect means ; they failed in the power to realize either their own or the poet’s conception ; and yet thanks to the divine poet ! that early conception of some of the most beautiful of the Madonna subjects for instance, the Coronation and the Sposalizio has never, as a religious and poetical conception, been surpassed by later artists, in spite of all the appliances of color, and mastery of light and shade, and marvellous efficiency of hand since attained.
Early in the fifteenth century, the Council of Constance (A. D. 1414) and the condemnation of Huss gave a new impulse to the worship of the Virgin. The Hussite wars, and the sacrilegious indignity with which her sacred images had been treated in the north, filled her orthodox votaries of the south of Europe with a consternation and horror like that ex-cited by the Iconoclasts of the eighth century, and were followed by a similar reaction. The Church was called upon to assert more strongly than ever its orthodox veneration for her, and, as a natural consequence, votive pictures multiplied ; the works of the excelling artists of the fifteenth century testify to the zeal of the votaries and the kindred spirit in which the painters worked.
Gerson, a celebrated French priest, and chancellor of the university of Paris, distinguished himself in the Council of Constance by the eloquence with which he pleaded for the Immaculate Conception, and the enthusiasm with which he preached in favor of instituting a festival in honor of this mystery, as well as another in honor of Joseph, the husband of the Virgin. In both he was unsuccessful during his life-time ; but for both eventually his writings prepared the way. He also composed a Latin poem of three thousand lines in praise of Joseph, which was among the first works published after the invention of printing. Together with St. Joseph, the parents of the Virgin, St. Anna more particularly, became objects of popular veneration, and all were at length exalted to the rank of patron saints, by having festivals instituted in their honor. It is towards the end of the fifteenth century, or rather a little later, that we first meet with that charming domestic group called the ” Holy Family,” afterwards so popular, so widely diffused, and treated with such an infinite variety.
Towards the end of this century sprung up a new influence the revival of classical learning, a passionate enthusiasm for the poetry and mythology of the Greeks, and a taste for the remains of antique Art. This influence on the representations of the Virgin, as far as it was merely external, was good. An added dignity and grace, a more free and correct drawing, a truer feeling for harmony of proportion and all that constitutes elegance, were gradually infused into the forms and attitudes. But dangerous became the craving for mere beauty dangerous the study of the classical and heathen literature. This was the commencement of that thoroughly pagan taste which in the following century demoralized Christian Art. There was now an attempt at varying the arrangement of the sacred groups which led to irreverence, or at best to a sort of superficial mannered grandeur ; and from this period we date the first introduction of the portrait Virgins. An early, and most scandalous, example [by Pinturicchio] remains to us in one of the frescoes in the Vatican [in one of the Appartamenti Borgia] which represents Giulia Farnese in the character of the Madonna, and Pope Alexander VI. (the infamous Borgia) kneeling at her feet in the character of a votary. Under the influence of the Medici the churches of Florence were filled with pictures of the Virgin, in which the only tiling aimed at was an alluring and even meretricious beauty. Savonarola thundered from his pulpit in the garden of San Marco against these impieties. He exclaimed against the profaneness of those who represented the meek mother of Christ in gorgeous apparel, with head unveiled, and under the features of women too well and publicly known. He emphatically declared that if the painters knew as well as he did the influence of such pictures in perverting simple minds, they would hold their own works in horror and detestation. Savonarola yielded to none in orthodox reverence for the Madonna ; but he desired that she should be represented in an orthodox manner. He perished at the stake, but not till after he had made a bonfire in the Piazza at Florence of the offensive effigies ; he perished persecuted to death by the Borgia family. But his influence on the greatest Florentine artists of his time is apparent in the Virgins of Botticelli, Lorenzo di Credi, and Fra Bartolommeo, all of whom had been his friends, admirers, and disciples ; and all, differing from each other, were alike in this, that, whether it be the dignified severity of Botticelli, or the chaste simplicity of Lorenzo di Credi, or the noble tenderness of Fra Bartolommeo, we feel that each of them had aimed to portray worthily the sacred character of the Mother of the Redeemer. And to these, as I think, we might add Raphael himself, who visited Florence but a short time after the horrible execution of Savonarola, and must have learned through his friend Bartolommeo to mourn the fate and revere the memory of that remarkable man, whom he placed afterwards in the grand fresco of the ” Theologia,” among the doctors and teachers of the Church. (Vatican, Rome.) Of the numerous Virgins painted by Raphael in after times, not one is supposed to have been a portrait : he says himself, in a letter to Count Castiglione, that he painted from an idea in his own mind, ” mi servo d’ una certa idea the mi vielle in mente ; ” while in the contemporary works of Andrea del Sarto we have the features of his handsome but vulgar wife in every Madonna he painted.’
In the beginning of the sixteenth century, the constellation of living genius in every department of Art, the riches of the Church, the luxurious habits and classical studies of the churchmen, the decline of religious conviction, and the ascendency of religious controversy, had combined to multiply church pictures, particularly those of a large and decorative character. But, instead of the reign of faith, we had now the reign of taste. There was an absolute passion for picturesque grouping ; and, as the assembled figures were to be as varied as possible in action and attitude, the artistic treatment, in order to prevent the lines of form and the colors of the draperies from interfering with each other, required great skill and profound study : some of these scenic groups have become, in the hands of great painters, such as Titian, Paul Veronese, and Annibal Caracci, so magnificent, that we are inclined to forgive their splendid errors. The influence of Sanazzaro, and of his famous Latin poem on the Nativity (De Partu Virgins), on the artists of the middle of the sixteenth century, and on the choice and treatment of the subjects pertaining to the Ma-donna, can hardly be calculated ; it was like that of Dante in the fourteenth century, but in its nature and result how different ! The grand materialism of Michael Angelo is supposed to have been allied to the genius of Dante ; but would Dante have acknowledged the group of the Holy Family in the Florentine Gallery, to my feeling one of the most profane and offensive of the so-called religious pictures, in conception and execution, which ever proceeded from the mind or hand of a great painter ? No doubt some of the sculptural Virgins of Michael Angelo are magnificent and stately in attitude and expression, but too austere and mannered as religious conceptions ; nor can we wonder if the predilection for the treatment of mere form led his followers and imitators into every species of exaggeration and affectation. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the same artist who painted a Leda, or a Psyche, or a Venus one day, painted for the same patron a Virgin of Mercy, or a ” Mater Purissima” on the morrow. Here, the votary told his beads, and recited his Aves, before the blessed Mother of the Redeemer ; there, she was invoked in the purest Latin by titles which the classical mythology had far otherwise consecrated. I know nothing more disgusting in Art than the long-limbed, studied, inflated Madonnas, looking grand with all their might, of this period ; luckily they have fallen into such disrepute that we seldom see them. The ” Madonna dell’ lungo Collo ” of Parmigiano (Pitti, Florence) might be cited as a favorable example of this mistaken and wholly artificial grace.
But in the midst of these paganized and degenerate influences, the reform in the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church was preparing a revolution in religious Art. The Council of Trent had severely denounced the impropriety of certain pictures admitted into churches : at the same time, in the conflict of creeds which now divided Christendom, the agencies of Art could not safely be neglected by that Church which had used them with such signal success. Spiritual Art was indeed no more. It was dead : it could never be revived without a return to those modes of thought and belief which had at first inspired it. Instead of religious Art, appeared what I must call theological Art. Among the events of this age which had great influence on the worship and the representations of the Madonna, I must place the battle of Lepanto, in 1571, in which the combined fleets of Christendom, led by Don Juan of Austria, achieved a memorable victory over the Turks. This victory was attributed by Pope Pius V. to the especial interposition of the Blessed Virgin. A new invocation was now added to her Litany, under the title of Auxilium Christianorum; a new festival, that of the Rosary, was now added to those already held in her honor ; and all the artistic genius which existed in Italy, and all the piety of orthodox Christendom, were now laid under contribution to encase in marble sculpture, to enrich with countless offerings, that miraculous house, which the angels had borne over land and sea, and set down at Loretto ; and that miraculous, bejewelled, and brocaded Madonna, enshrined within it.
In the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Caracci school gave a new impetus to religious, or rather, as it had been styled in contradistinction, sacerdotal or theological Art. If these great painters had been remarkable merely for the application of new artistic methods, for the success with which they combined the aims of various schools
Di Michel Angiol la terribil via E ‘l vero natural di Tiziano,
the study of the antique with the observation of real life their works undoubtedly would never have taken such a hold on the minds of their contemporaries, nor kept it so long. Everything to live must have an infusion of truth within it, and this ” patch-work ideal,” as it has been well styled, was held together by such a principle. The founders of the Caracci school, and their immediate followers, felt the influences of the time, and worked them out. They were devout believers in their Church, and most sincere worshippers of the Madonna. Guido, in particular, was so distinguished by his passionate enthusiasm for her, that he was supposed to have been favored by a particular vision, which enabled him more worthily to represent her divine beauty.
It is curious that, hand in hand with this development of taste and feeling in the appreciation of natural sentiment and beauty, and this tendency to realism, we find the associations of a peculiar and specific sanctity remaining with the old Byzantine type. This arose from the fact, always to be borne in mind, that the most ancient artistic figure of the Madonna was a purely theological symbol : apparently the moral type was too nearly allied to the human and the real to satisfy faith. It is the ugly, dark-colored, ancient Greek Madonnas, such as this, which had all along the credit of being miraculous ; and ” to this day,” says Kugler, ” the Neapolitan lemonade-seller will allow no other than a formal Greek Madonna, with olive-green complexion and veiled head, to be set up in his booth. It is the same in Russia. Such pictures, in which there is no attempt at representation, real or ideal, and which merely have a sort of imaginary sanctity and power, are not so much idols as they are mere fetishes. The most lovely Madonna by Raphael or Titian would not have the same effect. Guido, who himself painted lovely Virgins, went every Saturday to pray before the little black Madonna della Guardia [near Bologna], and, as we are assured, held this old Eastern relic in devout veneration.”
In the pictures of the Madonna, produced by the most eminent painters of the seventeenth century, is embodied the theology of the time. The Virgin Mary is not, like the Madonna di San Sisto, “a single projection of the artist’s mind,” but, as far as he could put his studies together, she is “a compound of every creature’s best,” sometimes majestic, sometimes graceful, often full of sentiment, elegance, and refinement, but wanting wholly in the spiritual element. If the Madonna did really sit to Guido in person, we fancy she must have revealed her loveliness, but veiled her divinity.
Without doubt the finest Madonnas of the seventeenth century are those produced by the Spanish school ; not because they more realize our spiritual conception of the Virgin quite the contrary : for here the expression of life through sensation and emotion prevails over abstract mind, grandeur, and grace but because the intensely human and sympathetic character given to the Madonna appeals most strongly to our human nature. The appeal is to the faith through the feelings, rather than through the imagination. Morales and Ribera excelled in the Mater Dolorosa ; and who has surpassed Murillo in the tender exultation of maternity ? There is a freshness and a depth of feeling in the best Madonnas of the late Spanish school which puts to shame the mannerism of the Italians and the naturalism of the Flemish painters of the same period ; and this because the Spaniards were intense and enthusiastic believers, not mere thinkers, in Art as in religion.
As in the sixth century, the favorite dogma of the time (the union of the divine and human nature in Christ, and the dignity of Mary as parent of both) had been embodied in the group of the Virgin and Child, so now, in the seventeenth, the doctrine of the eternal sanctification and predestination of Mary was, after a long controversy, triumphant, and took form in the ” Immaculate Conception ; ” that beautiful subject in which Guido and Murillo excelled, and which became the darling theme of the later schools of Art. It is worthy of remark, that while in the sixth century, and for a thousand years afterwards, the Virgin, in all devotional subjects, was associated in some visible manner with her divine Son, in this she appears without the Infant in her arms. The maternal character is set aside, and she stands alone, absolute in herself, and complete in her own perfections. This is a very significant characteristic of the prevalent theology of the time.
I forbear to say much of the productions of a school of Art which sprang up simultaneously with that of the Caracci, and in the end overpowered its higher aspirations. The Naturalisti, as they were called, imitated nature without selection, and produced some charming painters. But their religious pictures are almost intolerable, and their Madonnas are almost all portraits. Rubens and Albano painted their wives ; Allori and Vandyck their mistresses ; Domenichino his daughter. Salvator Rosa, in his Satires, exclaims against this general profaneness in ternis not less strong than those of Savonarola in his Sermons ; but the corruption was by this time beyond the reach of cure ; the sin could neither be preached nor chided away, Striking effects of light and shade, peculiar attitudes, scenic groups, the perpetual and dramatic introduction of legendary scenes and personages, of visions and miracles of the Madonna vouchsafed to her votaries, characterize the productions of the seventeenth century. As ” they who are whole need not a physician, but they who are sick,” so in proportion to the decline of faith were the excitements to faith, or rather to credulity : just in proportion as men were less inclined to believe were the wonders multiplied which they were called on to believe.
I have not spoken of the influence of Jesuitism on Art. This Order kept alive that devotion for the Madonna which their great founder Loyola had so ardently professed when he chose for the Lady of his thoughts, ” no princess, no duchess, but one far greater, more peerless.” The learning of the Jesuits supplied some themes not hitherto in use, principally of a fanciful and allegorical kind, and never had the meek Mary been so decked out with earthly ornament as in their church pictures. If the sanctification of simplicity, gentleness, maternal love, and heroic fortitude, were calculated to elevate the popular mind, the sanctification of mere glitter and ornament, embroidered robes, and jewelled crowns, must have tended to degrade it. It is surely an unworthy and a foolish excuse that, in thus desecrating with the vainest and most vulgar finery the beautiful ideal of the Virgin, an appeal was made to the awe and admiration of vulgar and ignorant minds ; for this is precisely what, in all religious imagery, should be avoided. As, however, this sacrilegious millinery does not come within the province of the Fine Arts, I may pass it over here.
Among the Jesuit prints of the seventeenth century, I re-member one which represents the Virgin and. Child in the centre, and around are the most famous heretics of all ages, lying prostrate, or hanging by the neck. Julian the Apostate ; Leo the Isaurian ; his son, Constantine Capronymus ; Arius ; Nestorius ; Manicheus ; Luther ; Calvin very characteristic of the age of controversy which had succeeded to the age of faith, when, instead of solemn saints and grateful votaries, we have dead or dying heretics surrounding the Mother of Mercy !
After this rapid sketch of the influences which modified in a general way the pictures of the Madonna, we may array be-fore us and learn to compare, the types which distinguished in a more particular manner the separate schools, caught from some more local or individual impulses. Thus we have the stern, awful quietude of the old Mosaics ; the hard lifelessness of the degenerate Greek ; the pensive sentiment of the Siena, and stately elegance of the Florentine Madonnas ; the intellectual Milanese, with their large foreheads and thoughtful eyes ; the tender, refined mysticism of the Umbrian ; the sumptuous loveliness of the Venetian ; the quaint, characteristic simplicity of the early German, so stamped with their nationality, that I never looked round me in a roomful of German girls without thinking of Albert Durer’s Virgins ; the intense lifelike feeling of the Spanish ; the prosaic, portrait-like nature of the Flemish schools ; and so on. But here an obvious’ question suggests itself. In the midst of all this diversity, these ever-changing influences, was there no characteristic type universally accepted, suggested by common religious associations, if not defined by ecclesiastical authority, to which the artist was bound to conform ? How is it that the impersonation of the Virgin fluctuated, not only with the fluctuating tendencies of successive ages, but even with the caprices of the individual artists.
This leads us back to reconsider the’ sources from which the artist drew his inspiration.
The legend which represents St. Luke the Evangelist as a painter appears to be of Eastern origin, and quite unknown in Western Europe before the first crusade. It crept in then, and was accepted with many other oriental superstitions and traditions. It may have originated in the real existence of a Greek painter named Luca a saint, too, he may have been ; for the Greeks have a whole calendar of canonized artists painters, poets, and musicians ; and this Greek San Luca may have been a painter of those Madonnas imported from the ateliers of Mount Athos into the West by merchants and pilgrims ; and the West, which knew but of one St. Luke, may have easily confounded the painter and the evangelist.
But we must also remember that St. Luke the Evangelist was early regarded as the great authority with respect to the few Scripture particulars relating to the character and life of Mary ; so that, in the figurative sense, he may be said to have painted that portrait of her which has been since received as the perfect type of womanhood : 1. Her noble, trustful humility, when she receives the salutation of the angel; the complete and feminine surrender of her whole being to the higher holier will, ” Be it unto me according to thy word ” (Luke i. 38). 2. Then, the decision and prudence of character shown in her visit to Elizabeth, her elder relative ; her journey in haste over the hills to consult with her cousin, which journey it is otherwise difficult to accord with the oriental customs of the time, unless Mary, young as she was, had possessed unusual promptitude and energy of disposition (Luke i. 39, 40). 3. The proof of her intellectual power in the beautiful hymn she has left us, ” My soul doth magnify the Lord” (Luke i. 46). The commentators are not agreed as to whether this effusion was poured forth by immediate inspiration, or composed and written down, because the same words, ” and Mary said,” may be interpreted in either sense ; but we can no more doubt her being the authoress than we can doubt of any other particulars recorded in the same Gospel : it proves that she must have been, for her time and country, most rarely gifted in mind, and deeply read in the Scriptures. 4. She was of a contemplative, reflecting, rather silent disposition. ” She kept all these sayings, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke ii. 19). She made no boast of that wondrous and most blessed destiny to which she was called ; she thought upon it in silence. It is inferred that as many of these sayings and events could be known to herself alone, St. Luke the Evangelist could have learned them only from her own lips. 5. Next, her truly maternal devotion to her divine Son, whom she attended humbly through his whole ministry ; and lastly, the sublime fortitude and faith with which she followed her Son to the death scene (Luke xxiii. 27), stood beside the cross till all was finished (John xix. 25), and then went home, and lived; for she was to be to us an example of all that a woman could endure, as well as all that a woman could be and act out in her earthly life. Such was the character of Mary ; such the portrait really painted by St. Luke, and, as it seems to me, these scattered, artless, unintentional notices of conduct and character converge into the most perfect moral type of the intellectual, tender, simple, and heroic woman that ever was placed before us for our edification and example.
But in the Church traditions and enactments, another character was, from the fifth century, assigned to her, out of which grew the theological type, very beautiful and exalted, but absorbing to a great degree the scriptural and moral type, and substituting for the merely human attributes others borrowed from her relation to the great scheme of redemption ; for it was contended that, as the mother of The Divine, she could not be herself less than divine ; consequently above the angels, and first of all created beings. According to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, her tender woman’s wisdom became supernatural gifts ; the beautiful humility was changed into a knowledge of her own predestined glory ; and, being raised bodily into immortality, and placed beside her Son, in all ” the sacred splendor of beneficence,” she came to be regarded as our intercessor before that divine Son, who could refuse nothing to his Mother. The relative position of the Mother and Son, being spiritual and indestructible, was continued in heaven ; and thus step by step the woman was transmuted into the divinity.
But, like her Son, Mary had walked in human form upon earth, and in form must have resembled her Son ; for, as it is argued, Christ had no earthly father, therefore could only have derived his human lineaments from his mother. All the old legends assume that the resemblance between the Son and the Mother must have been perfect.
These growing thoughts my mother soon perceiving By words at times cast forth, only rejoiced, And said to me apart, “High are thy thoughts, O Son ; but nourish them, and let them soar To what height sacred virtue and true worth Can raise them, though above example high.”
[Paradise Regained, book i. 227.]
Dante alludes to this belief :
Riguarda ormai nella faccia eh’ a Christo Più s’ assomiglia.
Now raise thy view Unto the visage most resembling Christ.
The accepted type of the head of Christ was to be taken as a model, in its mild, intellectual majesty, for that of the Virgin-mother, as far as difference of sex would allow.
In the ecclesiastical history of Nicephorus Callixtus he has inserted a description of the person of Mary, which he declares to have been given by Epiphanius, who lived in the fourth century, and by him derived from a more ancient source. It must be confessed, that the type of person here assigned to the Virgin is more energetic for a woman than that which has been assigned to our Saviour as a man. ” She was of middle stature ; her face oval ; her eyes brilliant, and of an olive tint ; her eyebrows arched and black ; her hair was of a pale brown ; her complexion fair as wheat. She spoke little, but she spoke freely and affably ; she was not troubled in her speech, but grave, courteous, tranquil. Her dress was without ornament, and in her deportment was nothing lax or feeble.” To this ancient description of her person and manners, we are to add the scriptural and popular portrait of her mind ; the gentleness, the purity, the intellect, power, and fortitude ; the gifts of the poetess and prophetess ; the humility in which she exceeded all womankind. Lastly, we are to engraft on these personal and moral qualities the theological attributes which the Church, from early times, had assigned to her, the supernatural endowments which lifted her above angels and men : all these were to be combined into one glorious type of perfection. Where shall we seek this highest, holiest impersonation ? Where has it been attained, or even approached ? Not, certainly, in the mere woman, nor yet in the mere idol ; not in those lovely creations which awaken a sympathetic throb of tenderness ; nor in those stern, motionless types which embody a dogma ; not in the classic features of marble goddessess, borrowed as models ; nor in the painted images which stare upon us from tawdry altars in flaxen wigs and embroidered petticoats. But where ?
Of course we each form to ourselves some notion of what we require; and these requirements will be as diverse as our natures and our habits of thought. For myself, I have seen my own ideal once, and only once, attained : there where Raphael inspired if ever a painter was inspired projected on the space before him that wonderful creation which we styled the Madonna di San Sisto (Dresden Gallery) ; for there she stands the transfigured woman, at once completely human and completely divine, an abstraction of power, purity, and love, poised on the empurpled air, and requiring no other support; looking out, with her melancholy, loving mouth, her slightly dilated, sibylline eyes, quite through the universe, to the end and consummation of all things ; sad, as if she beheld afar off the visionary sword that was to reach her heart through HIM now resting as enthroned on that heart ; yet already exalted through the homage of the redeemed generations who were to salute her as Blessed. Six times have I visited the city made glorious by the possession of this treasure, and as often, when again at a distance, with recollections. disturbed by feeble copies and prints, I have begun to think, ” Is it so indeed ? is she indeed so divine ? or does not rather the imagination encircle her with a halo of religion and poetry, and lend a grace which is not really there ; ” and as often, when returned, I have stood before it and confessed that there is more in that form and face than I had ever yet conceived. I cannot here talk the language of critics, and speak of this picture merely as a picture, for to me it was a revelation. In the same gallery is the lovely Madonna of the Meyer family ; inexpressibly touching and perfect in its way, but conveying only one of the attributes of Mary, her benign pity ; while the Madonna di San Sisto is an abstract of all.
The poets are ever the best commentators on the painters. I have already given from the great ” singers of high poems ” in the fourteenth century their exposition of the theological type of the Madonna. Now, in some striking passages of our modern poets we may find a most beautiful commentary on what I have termed the moral type.