Here’s Madonna and Child with Saints by Girolamo dai Libri (1474-1555). We received it one year as a Christmas card, and it provoked, besides laugher, quite a few thoughts from Demetrios and me.
I'm sorry you cannot see it in large enough scale really to appreciate it, but you can find an enlarged version (along with an alternate interpretation) here. Click on the thumbnail to see the largest view.
Demetrios yelped, “Come look at this! Only the Italians!”
“Oh, well,” I said as he handed it to me, “it doesn’t leave anything to the imagination, does it? Look at that Child’s posture. He’s sticking his belly out just as all those statues of saints do, that we saw in Rome. All he has to learn is to exaggerate it a bit more.”
“Look at the bishop with the hostile expression.”
I said it was probably the bishop who commissioned the work, and the artist had to include him but obviously didn’t like him. I cited the tree growing behind him, dead and with a peacock symbolizing pride. All of its branches are cut off, in contrast to the luxuriant, verdant tree behind the Madonna and Child. “I’d say that’s a deliberate commentary upon the bishop.”
“I’d say he’d better move out of range of that peacock before he gets a kind of blessing he didn’t expect!” said Demetrios.
What I want to know is, why is everybody looking as if disaster has just struck? Even the Madonna doesn’t look as if she is particularly enjoying this little interlude. If those are palm branches the saints are holding (look very closely!), they certainly aren’t being waved with any enthusiasm. The women look downright nauseated. Maybe they find the bishop disgusting; note how they turn away from him.
Then there’s the priest-monk, holding an instrument of torture. No, he doesn’t intend to use it! Rather, it symbolizes his own suffering and/or martyrdom. He is sumptuously dressed but embroidered upon the front of his robe is – St. John the Baptist, wearing animal skins!
Nobody, with the possible exception of the middle angel, is paying the slightest attention to the Christ-Child! Even the peacock isn’t interested. Everybody is casting strange, sidelong glances. The only one who looks us straight in the eye is the surly bishop. This makes him, in a way, the psychological centerpiece of the work. The Divine genitals, of course, are the visual center – come to think of it, maybe that’s why everyone is looking away.
So in this painting we have: a hostile-looking bishop, sanctimonious saints, naked Jesus, silly pet-like little angels, no human interaction (much less Divine), no love, and no joy.
But the main thing that strikes us is that this is a Renaissance painting; in other words, humanistic. It portrays religious figures, but they are seen in a thoroughly secular way. The Madonna and Child are passing an idle, sunny afternoon with a few of the chosen. Musical entertainment is being provided by the performing angels. Their music is not of the celestial variety, either, but earthly. You can tell because the angels are using a man-made instrument and instead of attending to “the music of the spheres” they depend upon sheet music for this gig, just as people would.
Everything is suffused with sensuality: the music, the rich attire, the picturesque countryside, the shimmering Alps, the sunshine, the shade tree, the saints who seem unacquainted with any form of asceticism, certainly not fasting, the warm, sexy bodies and delicate faces, even the carnation (not lily) being held by the Infant Jesus. The painting revels in the beauty of the good earth and shows nothing of spiritual beauties. (Here, perhaps, the embroidered image of St. John the Baptist provides even more satire than the artist intended.)
Now look at a real icon. It is visual theology. (So, of course, is Girolamo’s work, but I mean an icon expresses Christian theology.) The scenes are confabulated here in a way impossible in normal time and space; we thus know immediately that these are being transcended. Furthermore, the purpose and effect of these anachronisms are very different from the Italian ones.
Nobody here is involved with worldly pleasures. Instead, each scene of this treasure-map shows us something spiritually precious.
1.) God, the Highest in the Highest, is born into a lowly cave. The Light of the World lies in a dark grotto. The Uncontainable is contained in a body; the true God is true Man. Even the animals, unlike the peacock, seem to recognize their Creator, come to redeem not only mankind, but His whole created order, hallowing it by becoming Himself a part of it.
2.) The angels, dignified ones, are adoring and glorifying God, not entertaining Him, and stand in awe of what He has done for us humans, whose glory and destiny are now greater than theirs.
3.) The Good News is being announced first to the poor and simple, the shepherds – or to you and me, if we are poor and simple of heart. The Son of God has become the Son of David, the Shepherd-King.
4.) The Good News is about to dawn even upon the Gentiles (us). Those who worshipped the stars are being led by a star to worship the true and unsetting Sun. (“Wise men seek Him still.”) Shepherds and kings alike rejoice, for Christ, the Good Shepherd and King, makes the simple wise, the wise simple, and all His followers royal.
5.) St. Joseph is still wrestling with his doubts. How can He who is begotten from before all time without a mother now be born in flesh without a father? In some icons, the devil is standing before him, dressed as a beggar, arguing perhaps the principles of embryonic science or instrumental causality or the impossibility of “the Absolute” becoming relative. He is certainly slandering the Theotokos, who looks on mournfully while at the same time “pondering all these things in her heart.”
6.) The servant women are preparing to bathe the Baby in what looks just like a baptismal font, prefiguring His Baptism and ours, with all the many, rich layers of meaning baptism entails. To mention but one, it is in baptism that Christ is born in us, “For as many as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.”
Each of these miracles of love, pondered long enough and with faith, will lead us to awe, wonder, gratitude, joy, worship, tears. Each is an adornment bestowed by God upon the impoverished human heart, to be worn by it as a bride wears her jewels.
How different from the languid little concert in the Italian countryside. But I think the difference is highly instructive. It’s emblematic of the entire human situation. We have all been preoccupied with what delights the senses often to the exclusion of what frees, nourishes, heals and overjoys the soul. The trivial distracts us form the monumental. The merely charming seduces us away from the ultimately meaningful; the temporal and earth-bound, from transcendent Love. Instead of engaging that Mystery of unwavering Love, we have a perverse tendency, every day, to settle for smelling the roses.
The one work ignores everything spiritual and shows us ephemeral, material pleasures intended to delight the viewer’s eye (even while failing to delight the participants of the scene). The other depicts, great, inner, and everlasting joys. The one shows us who we probably resemble – the peacock – while the other shows us who we might be: wise men, simple of heart, worshippers, wrestlers against doubts and demons, servants, kings, god-bearers.
P.S. According to the review I've linked above, Demetrios and I were wrong about the bishop and the peacock. Its author thinks the peacock represents immortality and the bishop is none other than St. Augustine! But I am inclined to stick to my own view. Perhaps the artist called it St. Augustine, but gave the Saint the face of a bishop he knew. The reliability of the other review is somewhat lessened for me by its assertion that the priest is St. Leonard. If so, why is he shown here with, presumably, an instrument of torture? St. Leonard died "a happy death." Maybe they are some sort of chains, with which the Saint is sometimes represnted?? (The women saints, it says, are St. Catherine and St. Apollonia, both of Alexandria.)
Tuesday, January 29, 2008