Correggio, The Madonna of the Basket, about 1524, National Gallery, London.
Hello again! And before we get to Correggio, an apology – for those of you who are able to come to The Scrovegni Chapel from top to bottom I got the timings wrong on the last blog: the talks are from 14.00 – 15.00 UK time. At least they were right on the diary page, and if you got as far as booking with ARTscapades you would have seen the right times there: thanks to those of you who noticed the mistake!
So now to Correggio, and a charming painting I referred to when answering a question during a National Gallery talk recently, but didn’t have an image to hand. The question was about the Madonna breastfeeding – an issue I covered not so long back when discussing Artemisia, and Mary. One of the reasons for its representation was to show the Virgin as a good role model – and in today’s painting Joseph joins her. And before you get all 21st Century on me (or 20th Century, for that matter, but some people are still catching up) I know that gender roles have changed – as have our ideas about gender itself – but this is a painting from the 16th Century. It will be just one of many works I will include in the short course I am giving for the Wallace Collection (most of them from the Wallace itself) on 2 and 3 December from 11.00 – 13.00 (and yes, I’ve got the time right, I just checked!) on The Childhood of Christ in Art.
At first glance this might appear to be any other image of the Madonna and Child, an image which does not encapsulate any specific part of the biblical narrative, but is a devotional abstraction, on the whole, meant to illustrate the nature of the relationship and to emphasize the respect due to the Son of God and his mother. However, this is not an iconic Madonna and Child Enthroned, let alone a Maestà, in which the full ‘majesty’ of Mary, and the respect due to her as Queen of Heaven, is shown through the use of symbolic props (e.g. a crown), furniture (a throne) and supporting cast (the heavenly host, assembled in serried ranks). No, she is sitting on the ground, in all humility. The word in itself is related to sitting on the ground, as it has the same root as humus, meaning earth. She is seated at the foot of a tree, which takes up the top left hand corner of the picture, and I can’t help thinking that the two trunks – one broader, on the left, and another narrower, on the right, are in some way related to the figures of Mary and Jesus, who appear to have the same relative age, width and position as the two trunks: they represent strength, and our future growth. The ground is green, growing with lush vegetation, which adds to the sense of pleasant harmony created by the apparently smiling mother holding her son, still too young to be fully coordinated, who is sitting on her lap. She wears her traditional colours – a red robe, albeit seen here as a powdery pink, with a blue cloak, just visible on the left of the painting beneath her elbow. Jesus’s gesture, with his arms reaching out in both directions, forms a diagonal that is continued by the grassy slope on which they are seated, alongside which is a path, with a low stone wall on the other side, leading to a rough wooden fence.
Beyond the fence we see the carpenter Joseph at work, using a plane to smooth a post, or something similar. Correggio’s control of atmospheric perspective (the way in which the air, or atmosphere, affects the way we see distant objects) is superb, and Joseph is painted almost in monochrome, as if the air were misty, or full of dust. He appears to be marginalised, a subsidiary part of the painting: this would have been Correggio’s intention. Poor Joseph, he is excluded from the verdant garden in which Mary and Jesus share such an intimate relationship. But then, when you remember that the word ‘paradise’ is derived from an Old Iranian word meaning ‘walled enclosure’ – or effectively, ‘garden’ – not only is the garden, but also the wall, explained. Jesus, as Son of God, is already – and is always – in paradise, even if temporarily with us on Earth. Mary, free of sin (see Picture Of The Day 71 and POTD 72 – The Immaculate Conception), would never have to suffer the penalty of expulsion. Joseph, on the other hand, as a descendant of Adam and Eve, is excluded from paradise until Christ’s sacrifice redeems him. Not only that, but, unlike Mary, he is not physically related to Jesus – he may be Christ’s stepfather, and an honourable man, but he has no exemption from damnation should Christ’s mission fail. Which, admittedly, we know it won’t.
As for Jesus’s brief period, ‘temporarily with us on Earth’, what exactly was he? God? Or man? The answer, settled as early as 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, was that Jesus was both God and man – he had two ‘natures’ – but as mere humans, this is difficult for us to reconcile. Even if we accept he was the Son of God, and for that matter, as part of the Holy Trinity, God himself, how could he be like any other man while down on Earth? Well, it helps to show him naked, so that we can see that he was like any other man, which is why there are so many images of the Baby Jesus inadequately clad. By the time the Counter Reformation came along, the theology seems to have been secure, but the nudity of Our Lord, even at this tender age of innocence, was deemed, in contemporary parlance, ‘inappropriate’ – and so nappies were introduced, or skirts lengthened.
Behind Joseph – and so you could argue, even further from paradise – there are a whole array of ruins. Steps lead up from him past the base of a half-column, attached to stone pier, behind which are the remains of a rough stone wall, the lower part of which is still covered in plaster. Further back still is a collection of columns topped by a sloping roof (a memory of the unstable stable in Bethlehem, perhaps?) then another, more massive, ruined wall, and the base of yet another column. In Nativity scenes the symbolism is quite specific: it relates to at least two texts in the bible, and early Christian theology. During the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:17) Jesus says, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil,’ and in John 2:19 he also says, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ In St Augustine’s The City of God, written in the early 5th Century, the author suggests that as Christianity continued to grow, the Roman Empire would fall. All three of these ideas add up to the same thing – Jesus hadn’t come to destroy the old order, whether that be Judaism or Rome, but to rebuild it – and that is the idea that the ruins represent. Notice that Joseph is hard at work, part of the process of rebuilding.
So Joseph, marginalised as he is, is a good role model, working hard to support wife and family, while also furthering God’s purpose. Mary, too is a good mother. In the bottom left hand corner is the basket which gives the painting its name, beautifully woven, and, for that matter, beautifully painted. In it are a pair of shears, or scissors, a ball of thread and some cloth. Mary’s skills as a seamstress are not mentioned in the bible, but the implication is that, like all good mothers, she must have stayed at home and made clothes for her son. One of the many stories about her – in the apocryphal 2nd Century Protoevangelium – relates to her activities in the temple as a child. After she was presented to the temple (POTD 73 – Mary), and before she found a suitable husband (POTD 31 – The Suitors Praying), she spent her time with the other virgins spinning thread and weaving the veil of the temple. Lots were drawn to see who would spin which colour, and Mary was chosen to spin the purple – the colour associated with royalty – which, as she would become Queen of Heaven, was entirely apt.
In this 12th Century mosaic Annunciation from ‘La Martorana’ in Palermo we see Mary, wearing the imperial purple, in the process of putting down the thread she has been spinning as Gabriel approaches. We might not see this as purple, but the meaning of the word itself was not fully defined for centuries, and could refer to almost anything between red and blue. This thread needs to be distinguishable from her own clothing, but also to look rich – and it works on both counts.
When we look back to Correggio’s painting, we can see what Mary has been making – a coat in Correggio’s typically muted colour range, but definitely purple: this is the boy born to be king, after all. So far he has only managed to put his right arm into its sleeve, and as his little hand emerges, it seems to be blessing. But also, with both arms extended, and that right arm going upwards from the shoulder, it seems clear that Jesus already knows when his arm will find that position again. Which might make us question what it is that the carpenter Joseph is actually working on? And is Mary really smiling – or has Jesus’s gesture temporarily stopped her in her tracks, as she bows her head and takes a breath, aware of the implications? In order to rebuild this tiny temple, it would first have to grow to adulthood, only to be destroyed: one day in the future this baby will be nailed to the cross. All of the family know this. It is part of the process of rebuilding.
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