Hello! It’s been a while… over a month, bizarrely enough, although I can’t tell whether time is going quickly or slowly. The time has been filled with numerous adventures, I’m glad to say, including two trips to Venice, one working, one holiday, and both a joy! I’ve also managed to take in a number of exhibitions, including a return visit to Titian at the National Gallery, and a first encounter with the NG’s glorious Artemisia, the inspiration for today’s musings. I continue to make plans for the future, plans which, as you will realise, are constantly subject to change. Among the most exciting is A Flash Trip to Stockholm, 2 – 5 November – and if you’re free and want to get away while we still can, please do join us. For a reminder of just one of the things we will see, have a look back to Picture Of The Day 36 – St George. More of the plans later on – let’s concentrate on Artemisia.
She truly was a remarkably woman, and a great artist. I’ve already written about her twice (POTD 17 and POTD 69), but she is always worth coming back to, and if you haven’t managed to make it to the exhibition, it really is worthwhile. Her strength of character is well known, and frequently discussed, and the fortitude and determination of the women she paints is also rightly celebrated, notably in a number of images of Judith and Holofernes. But amidst the focus on her personal life and misfortunes, on her strength and on the strength of her subjects, and on her genuine understanding of the plight of women which was born of personal experience (something which no male artist could possibly have had, of course), I can’t help thinking that today’s painting has not received the attention it deserves. Apart from anything else, I think it is a wonderfully beautiful image, its delicacy, and the affection it depicts, matched by a beautifully conceived composition.
The Madonna fills the full space of the painting, bringing her closer to us, and making the subjects more immediate, more ‘present’. The Christ Child sits on her lap in a position more sophisticated than we would expect for a toddler – but then, this is the Son of God.
She sits on a low chair, and in order to prevent her son from slipping off her lap, her feet are tucked to one side, so her right thigh remains horizontal. Her left knee is not so strongly bent, allowing the child to lean on her left thigh, which is slightly higher. The overlapping zig-zags of her legs – one in dark shadow, and another in brilliant light (the chiaroscuro developed by the recently-deceased Caravaggio being used to full advantage) is then echoed by the ‘v’ of her blue cloak, lying over the seat of the chair, swept back by her leg, and curving out and around, a fuller expression of the folds seen in the pink robe. She is seated on this cloak, and we see it again tucked around her right arm, framing the leg in the dark shadows, and enclosing the form of the child. Her left arm supports him, but doesn’t hold him – almost as if she is wary of the touch, and the gap between her thumb and forefinger opens up toreveals a deeply shadowed hollow, allowing the brilliant white fabric loosely held around Jesus – a hint of the shroud to come, perhaps? – to shine out.
There is another deep void between them, a dark shadow that makes them look entirely sculptural, and seems to represent the gap in their respective experience – she would have been little more than a girl, whereas he is the Son of God. And it is he who bridges the divide, his left arm reaching up to touch her neck with delicacy and with concern, as he looks into her eyes with ineffable love. There is a sense of divine understanding in this look, and in this gesture, which, like the elegant way in which he reclines, is far beyond his human years. Mary looks down with humility, as she offers her breast between her middle- and forefingers. The thin, white hem of her chemise, seen again at her wrist, create another link to him, as this hint of whiteness echoes the white fabric which enfolds him.
The dark space between them forms a diagonal which reaches to the top right corner of the painting. Their torsos and her legs are roughly parallel to this line, while his arm, and the gaze between the two, follow an opposing diagonal. That this was a hard-won composition can be seen from the numerous pentimenti – or changes – which are now visible: a phantom elbow and some transparent drapery curving out from her waist can be seen against the back of the simple chair, and the dark background around their heads appears to be filled with other ghostly presences, almost as if adding to their sanctity, which is defined by their haloes, hers almost solid, his, an undefinable glow.
Hard-won, yes, but not entirely original, as it happens. Ultimately it is derived from a print attributed to the School of Marcantonio Raimondi, the first engraver to base his works on other people’s paintings, and usually, on Raphael’s. It shouldn’t surprise us that Artemisia was inspired by a print. The painting is dated ‘About 1613-14’ in the catalogue of the National Gallery’s exhibition, although some authorities date it earlier – around 1609 – when Artemisia would have been 16. I don’t doubt the catalogue’s later date. Apparently, X-Rays of this painting suggest that, as well as the Raimondi engraving, a later painting which she would have seen in Florence was probably another source for this image, and she didn’t get to Florence until late 1612 or early 1613. But something that is worth bearing in mind is that, as a woman, she would not have been able to move freely through the city, and certainly, as a girl, should would not have been allowed out on her own. So her first knowledge of art would have come directly from her father, Orazio, who trained her, and from small, portable works of art – such as prints – which could have been owned, or borrowed, by the family. But she has not simply copied the print. Apart from the obvious omission of Joseph, she extends the reach of the child to touch his mother’s neck, tucks his right elbow within her enfolding arm, and ensures that they look at each other. Artemisia alone is responsible for the intimacy, and for the love between mother and son, that are such important features of the composition.
Why these changes? Should we read something about Artemisia’s own life from them, as people tend to with so many of her paintings? Probably not. Dating from her early years in Florence, shortly after she married and moved away from Rome, her experience as a mother at this stage was short-lived and harsh. She had five children, but only two of them survived infancy, and only one reached adulthood. The first, Giovanni Battista, was born in September 1613, but lived little more than a week. The second, Agnola, arrived in December of the following year, but died before she could be baptised. This means that by the time the Madonna was painted, Artemisia would have had next to no personal knowledge of breastfeeding. Of love, and of loss, on the other hand, she was only too aware.
The subject itself is more common than you might realise: the Madonna Lactans – the Madonna breastfeeding, or about to feed. It was popular in medieval times, and survived into the 16th Century for a number of reasons. One, which seems oddly contemporary, is that some were aware of the benefits of maternal breastfeeding, and were concerned that aristocratic women were all too willing to hand their babies over to wet nurses. But that is probably irrelevant here. The genre is one of the ways in which Mary could be shown as a good role model for all women: a good mother, not only pure, but also willing to stay at home and look after her baby. However, feeding the infant Christ can also be seen as the source of some of her influence. Recently I’ve become particularly interested in a rather unusual painting attributed to Lorenzo Monaco (I have no doubts about the attribution – I can’t imagine who else it would be by) which is currently in the Cloisters in New York, but which was originally painted for Florence Cathedral.
The painting shows the Holy Trinity, with God the Father at top centre, gesturing towards God the Son at bottom left, the Holy Spirit flying between, as if released from the Father’s right hand. Christ gestures to the wound in his chest, while indicating his mother, who holds something in her left hand, and gestures to a group of diminutive individuals kneeling in prayer before Jesus. The gestures tell us they are interceding with the Father, asking him to be merciful to us mere mortals. Jesus asks him something, referring to the wound, and to his mother, in support of his request, while Mary’s concern is for the people. The text, written onto the background, makes everything clear.
“My Father, let those be saved for whom you wished me to suffer the Passion,” says Jesus, as Mary addresses him: “Dearest son, because of the milk that I gave you, have mercy on them.” Even from the detail above it might not be entirely obvious that Mary is displaying her right breast. For one thing, accuracy with human anatomy was never Lorenzo’s concern, and for another, it is not something you would expect to see in a church. But what the painting really makes clear is that Mary’s physical nourishment of Jesus with the milk from her breast was seen as an equivalent of the way in which Jesus nourishes us spiritually with the blood and water that flowed mingled down from the wound in his chest. She shares his role in our redemption, and as such, was given a wonderful title, Co-Redemptrix, which went out of fashion in the 16th Century. I’m not at all sure that Artemisia would have been aware of any of this as she painted her Madonna. For her, and for her audience, the intimacy between mother and son, and the devotional nature of the image, would have been its chief charms. More abstruse elements of theology are all very well and good in a church, but wouldn’t make art sellable to the great and the good of 17th Century Florence, Artemisia’s target audience. Nevertheless, the theology of the Madonna Lactans hovers somewhere in the background of this beautiful image.
I discussed these ideas at length recently in my short course for the National Gallery, inspired by their exhibition Sin: the art of transgression. If you missed that, I will be reshaping the highlights into an online talk for Art History Abroad on 2 December. It’s not on their website yet, but as soon as it is I will put a link on my diary page. I am also starting to think about a short course looking at the ways in which Jesus is represented in the Wallace Collection, which should happen at about the same time – the beginning of Advent. More details of this, and of the National Gallery’s Stories of Art: Module 3 – on the 16th Century – when I have them, although Stories of Art will start on Wednesday 6 January for 6 weeks. In the meantime, do come to Stockholm if you’re free. If not, then until the next time, farewell!