THERE are representations of the Virgin, and among them some of the earliest in existence, which place her before us as an object of religious veneration, but in which the predominant idea is not that of her maternity. No doubt it was as the mother of the Saviour Christ that she was originally venerated ; but in the most ancient monuments of the Christian faith, the sarcophagi, the rude paintings in the catacombs, and the mosaics executed before the seventh century, she appears simply as a veiled female figure, not in any respect characterized. She stands in a subordinate position on one side of Christ ; St. Peter or St. John the Baptist on the other.
When the worship of the Virgin came to us from the East, with it came the Greek type and for ages we had no other the Greek classical type, with something of the Oriental or Egyptian character. When thus she stands before us without her Son, and the apostles or saints on each side taking the subordinate position, then we are to regard her not only as the mother of Christ, but as the second Eve, the mother of all suffering humanity ; THE WOMAN of the primeval prophecy whose issue was to bruise the head of the Serpent ; the Virgin predestined from the beginning of the world ; who was to bring forth the Redeemer of the world ; the mystical Spouse of the Canticles ; the glorified Bride of a celestial Bridegroom ; the received Type of the Church of Christ, afflicted on earth, triumphant and crowned in heaven ; the most glorious, most pure, most pious, most clement, most sacred Queen and Mother, Virgin of Virgins.
The form under which we find this grand and mysterious idea of glorified womanhood originally embodied is wonder-fully majestic and simple. A female figure of colossal dimensions, far exceeding in proportion all the attendant personages and accessories, stands immediately beneath some figure or emblem representing almighty power : either it is the omnipotent hand stretched out above her, holding the crown of immortality ; or it is the mystic dove which hovers over her ; or it is the half-form of Christ, in the act of benediction.
She stands with arms raised and extended wide, the ancient attitude of prayer ; or with hands merely stretched forth, expressing admiration, humility, and devout love. She is attired in an ample tunic of blue or white, with a white veil over her head, thrown a little back, and displaying an oval face with regular features, mild, dignified sometimes, in the figures of the ruder ages, rather stern and melancholy, from the inability of the artist to express beauty ; but when least beautiful, and most formal and motionless, al-ways retaining something of the original conception, and often inexpressibly striking and majestic.
The earliest figure of this character to which I can refer is the mosaic in the oratory of San Venanzio, in the Lateran, the work of Greek artists under the popes John IV. and Theodorus, both Greeks by birth, and who presided over the Church from 640 to 649. In the vault of the tribune, over the altar, we have first, at the summit, a figure of Christ half length, with his hand extended in benediction; on each side, a worshipping angel; below, in the centre, the figure of the Virgin according to the ancient type, standing with extended arms, in a violet or rather dark blue tunic and white veil, with a small cross pendant on her bosom. On her right hand stands St. Paul, on her left St. Peter; beyond St. Peter and St. Paul, St. John the Baptist holding a cross, and St. John the Evangelist holding a book ; and beyond these again, St. Domnio and St. Venantius, two martyred saints who perished in Dalmatia, and whose relics were brought out of that country by the founder of the chapel, John IV., himself a Dalmatian by birth. At the extremities of this group, or rather line of figures, stand the two popes, John IV. and Theodorus, under whom the chapel was founded and dedicated. Although this ancient mosiac has been many times restored, the original composition remains.
Similar, but of later date, is the effigy of the Virgin over the altar of the archiepiscopal chapel at Ravenna. This mosaic, with others of Greek work, was brought from the old tribune of the cathedral, when it was altered and repaired, and the ancient decorations removed or destroyed.
Another instance, also, at Ravenna, is the basso-relievo in Greek marble, and evidently of Greek workmanship, which is said to have existed from the earliest ages, in the church of S. Maria-in-Porto-Fuori, and is now preserved in the S. Mariain-Porto, where I saw it in 1847. It is probably as old as the sixth or seventh century, The features are very regular and beautiful, quite the Greek type.
In St. Mark’s at Venice, in the grand old basilica at Tor-cello, in San Donato at Murano, at Monreale, near Palermo, and in most of the old churches in the East of Europe, we find similar figures, either Byzantine in origin, or in imitation of the Byzantine style.
But about the middle of the thirteenth century, and con-temporary with Cimabue, we find the first indication of a departure, even in the mosaics, from the lifeless, formal type of Byzantine art. The earliest example of a more animated treatment is, perhaps, the figure in the apsis of St. John Lateran (Rome). In the centre is an immense cross, emblem of salvation; the four rivers of Paradise (the four Gospels) flow from its base ; and the faithful, figured by the hart and the sheep, drink from these streams. Below the cross is represented, of a small size, the New Jerusalem guarded by an archangel. On the right stands the Virgin, of colossal dimensions. She places one hand on the head of a diminutive kneeling figure, Pope Nicholas IV., by whom the mosaic was dedicated about 1290 ; the other hand, stretched forth, seems to recommend the votary to the mercy of Christ.
Full-length effigies of the Virgin seated on a throne, or glorified as queen of heaven, or queen of angels, without her divine Infant in her arms, are exceedingly rare in every age ; now and then to be met with in the early pictures and illuminations, but never, that I know of, in the later schools of Art. A signal example is the fine enthroned Madonna [attributed to Simone Memmi] in the Campo Santo [Pisa], who receives St. Ranieri when presented by St. Peter and St. Paul.
On the dalmatica (or deacon’s robe) preserved in the sacristy of St. Peter’s at Rome (which Lord Lindsay well describes as a perfect example of the highest style of Byzantine art), the embroidery on the front represents Christ in a golden circle of glory, robed in white, with the youthful and beardless face, his eyes looking into yours. He sits on the rainbow ; his left hand holds an open book, inscribed, ” Come, ye blessed of my Father ! ” while the right is raised in benediction. The Virgin stands on the right, entirely within the glory ; ” she is sweet in feature, and graceful in attitude, in her long white robe.” The Baptist stands on the left, outside the glory.
In pictures representing the glory of heaven, Paradise, or. the Last Judgment, we have this idea constantly repeated of the Virgin on the right hand of her Son, but not on the same throne with him, unless it be a Coronation, which is a subject apart.
In the great altar-piece of the brothers Van Eyck, the up-per part contains three compartments ; in the centre is Christ, wearing the triple tiara, and carrying the globe, as King, as Priest, as Judge ; on each side, as usual, but in separate compartments, the Virgin and St. John the Baptist. The Virgin, a noble queenly figure, full of serene dignity and grace, is seated on a throne, and wears a superb crown, formed of lilies, roses, and gems, over her long fair hair. She is reading intently in a book the Book of Wisdom. She is here the Sponsa Dei, and the Virgo Sapientissima, the most wise Virgin. This is the only example I can recollect of the Virgin seated on the right hand of her Son in glory, and holding a book. In every other instance she is standing or seated with her hands joined or clasped over her bosom, and her eyes turned towards him.
Among innumerable examples, I will cite only one, perhaps the most celebrated of all, and familiar, it may be presumed, to most of my readers, though perhaps they may not have regarded it with reference to the character and position given to the Virgin. It is one of the four great frescoes of the Camera della Segnatura, in the Vatican, exhibiting the four highest objects of mental culture Theology, Poetry, Philosophy, and Jurisprudence. In the first of these, commonly, but erroneously, called La Disputes del Sacramento, Raphael has combined into one great scene the whole system of theology as set forth by the Catholic Church ; it is a sort of concordance between heaven and earthbetween the celestial and terrestrial witnesses of the truth. The central group above shows us the Redeemer of the world, seated with extended arms, having on the right the Virgin in her usual place, and on the left, also in his accustomed place, St. John the Baptist ; both seated, and nearly on a level with Christ. The Baptist is here in his character of the Precursor sent ” to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe ” (John i. 7). The Virgin is exhibited, not merely as the Mother, the Sposa, the Church, but as HEAVENLY WISDOM, for in this character the Catholic Church has applied to her the magnificent passage in Proverbs : ” The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.” ” Then I was by Him as one brought up with Him, and I was daily His de-light, rejoicing always before Him” (Prov. viii. 22, 23, 30).
Nothing can be more beautiful than the serene grace and the mingled majesty and humility in the figure of the Virgin, and in her countenance, as she looks up adoring to the Fountain of all light, all wisdom, all goodness. Above the principal group is the emblematical image of the FATHER ; below is the holy Dove, in the act of descending to the earth. The rest of this wonderful and suggestive composition I omit here, as foreign to my subject.
The Virgin alone, separate from her Son, standing or en-throned before us, simply as the Vergine Dea or Regina Caeli, is rarely met with in modern Art, either in sculpture or painting. I will give, however, one single example.
In an altar-piece painted by Cosimo Rosselli, for the Serviti at Florence, she stands alone, and in a majestic attitude, on a raised pedestal. She holds a book, and looks upward to the holy Dove, hovering over her head ; she is here again the Virgo Sapientice. (Uffizi, Florence.) On one side are St. John the Evangelist and St. Antonino of Florence (see Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 404) ; on the other, St. Peter and St. Philip Benozzi ; in front kneel St. Margaret and St. Catherine ; all appear to contemplate with rapturous devotion the vision of the Madonna. The heads and attitudes in this picture have that character of elegance which distinguished the Florentine school at this period, without any of those. extravagances and peculiarities into which Piero often fell ; for the man had evidently a touch of madness, and was as eccentric in his works as in his life and conversation. The order of the Serviti, for whom he painted this picture, was instituted in honor of the Virgin, and for her particular service, which will account for the unusual treatment. (Legends of the Monastic Orders, p. 232.) [A striking mod-ern example of the Madonna Enthroned without her Son is the painting by the American artist, Abbot Thayer. The Virgin is seated on a pedestal in the midst of a landscape. Her hands lie loosely clasped in her lap, and she gazes before her with an expression of indescribable sweetness and purity. The figure has a simple queenly dignity which is very impressive. The Virgin’s little court consists of two charming children who kneel one on each side of her. The uniqueness of the composition and the remarkable effectiveness of the color scheme have made this picture famous. It was purchased of the artist by J. Montgomery Sears, Esq., of Boston, Massachusetts, in whose collection it now (1894) has a prominent place.]
The numerousoften most beautifulheads and half-length figures which represent the Virgin alone, looking up with a devout or tender expression, or with the head declined, and the hands joined in prayer, or crossed over the bosom with virginal humility and modesty, belong to this class of representations. In the ancient heads, most of which are imitations of the old Greek effigies ascribed to St. Luke, there is often great simplicity and beauty. When she wears the crown over her veil, or bears a sceptre in her hand, she figures as the queen of heaven (Regina Coeli). When such effigies are attended by adoring angels, she is the queen of angels (Regina Angelorum). When she is weeping or holding the crown of thorns, she is Our Lady of Sorrow, the Mater. Dolorosa. When she is merely veiled, with folded hands, and in her features all the beauty, maiden purity, and sweetness which the artist could render, she is simply the Blessed Virgin, the Madonna, the Santa Maria Vergine. Such heads are very rare in the earlier schools of art, which seldom represented the Virgin without her Child, but became favorite studies of the later painters, and were multiplied and varied to infinitude from the beginning of the seventeenth century. From these every trace of the mystical and solemn conception of antiquity gradually disappeared; till, for the majestic ideal of womanhood, we have merely inane prettiness, or rustic, or even meretricious grace, the borrowed charms of some earthly model.