Before I start, some breaking news: I will be giving an online lecture this evening (Monday 21 December) entitled ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ – I’m covering for my dear friend Nick Ross who, alas, is not well. Here’s wishing him a speedy recovery, and if you just happen to be free from 5.45 for a 6pm lecture (GMT), click on the link above. There are so many versions of the Adoration that I will make it my aim not to talk about this one! Enough said, back to the Calendar, and today, we have Mary.
This image is standard across Western European art – a young, blonde, white woman, with a perfect complexion, dressed in blue. She wears blue for so many different reasons. The Catholic Church sees her as Queen of Heaven, and the skies are blue, for example. But also, there was a Marian hymn, dating from the 8th Century, called Ave Maris Stella – ‘Hail Star of the Sea’ (this link takes you to a recording by the Westminster Cathedral Choir – apologies for any adverts that precede it!) In the same way that sailors use stars to guide their way, Mary was seen as out guiding star through life. ‘Maris’, meaning ‘of the sea’, is a pun on ‘Maria’ – and the sea is also blue. And finally, as is well known, blue was the most expensive pigment, so it was a sign of the respect due to Mary that money was being spent on her depiction. However, this is not ultramarine, the most expensive blue, derived from lapis lazuli, but azurite, a naturally occurring basic copper carbonate. It was sometimes called ‘German blue’ as it was more readily available in the North of Europe, which is probably why Gossaert used it. It was still fairly pricey, but nowhere near as expensive as ultramarine. Curiously, the is no difference between the paint used for her cloak and that on the robe. However, the cloak was painted directly onto the white ground, whereas the robe was painted over a layer of grey – so on the surface the former looks lighter than the latter, even though the paint is the same colour: it’s the background showing through which makes the difference.
Blue is by no means universal. For the Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin she often wears white, and whereas in Italy she regularly wears a blue cloak over a red robe, in the North of Europe this is usually reversed – a red cloak over a blue robe. Or sometimes, just red one red. Red is associated with royalty, so again affirms her status as Queen of Heaven, and is ultimately derived from Byzantine paintings (which evolve into Orthodox icons), in which Mary wears the Imperial purple.
As this was painted in Northern Europe, the fact that she is blonde should not surprise us – Gossaert is painting for a local audience, and they want something that they can understand, something that is familiar. This is one of the features of the painting that helps it to communicate. Even in Italy, where the majority of the population are dark haired, Mary is blonde, more often than not – and there are numerous reasons for that. Just one was St Bridget’s vision of the Nativity, in which she saw the Virgin, ‘with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely down her shoulders’. St Bridget was from Sweden, so it is hardly surprising that she had this image of Mary in her mind, even if she was in Bethlehem at the time. Her vision was widely promoted, because as a whole it supports the idea of the Virgin Birth – but this really isn’t the place to go into all of that.
Not only does Mary have a perfect complexion, but she is the epitome of beauty for the time. Here is a quotation from ‘Le Testament’, by François Villon (1431-63?), which you can find in The Penguin Book of French Verse, I. A fifteenth century poem, admittedly, but it still seems entirely apt for the early 16th:
…that smooth forehead, that fair hair, those arched eyebrows, those well-spaced eyes, … that fine straight nose, neither large nor small, those dainty little ears, that dimpled chin, the curve of those bright cheeks, and those beautiful red lips.
Her beauty, and the perfection of her complexion, express the idea that Mary was free of sin. Although I couldn’t say if either Gossaert, or the patron of the painting, believed in the Immaculate Conception, by the early 16th Century most Christians would have believed that Mary was free of sin, whatever the divine mechanism that allowed this. And as I’ve already written about it extensively, I’m just going to direct you back to Day 71 – The Immaculate Conception and Day 72 – The Immaculate Conception 2.
Mary’s perfect beauty is brought into focus by the comparison with Jasper/Casper, the eldest magus – comparing their faces enhances the suspicion that his is a portrait, whereas hers, an ideal. And she is ideal. She is also, as it happens, the only female in the painting. I don’t know what contemporary teaching on angels is (although some of you have tried to enlighten me), but back then they would all have been considered male, an extension of the priesthood, which was all male. Now, if you’d excuse me, I have to prepare a lecture! More tomorrow…