120 – The Colour of Virtue

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Maestà, c. 1335. Museo di Arte Sacra, Massa Marittima.

I’m giving a talk for ARTscapades on Wednesday afternoon (at 2pm) entitled Good and Bad Government, which would be fine, apart from the fact that it has a subtitle The Lorenzetti Brothers in Siena. What was I thinking? I will have plenty of time to talk about Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, one of the world’s most remarkable secular fresco cycles, but not much more. So I was hugely relieved to read that the introduction will be ‘brief’ – indeed, it will be very brief – I don’t want to miss the opportunity to talk about the fresco cycle properly. To make up for that, I’m going to have a look at another of Ambrogio’s paintings today. Unfair, perhaps to miss out on older brother Pietro, but I’ll just have to come back to him another day. However, evidence is scarce. Both brothers were, in all probability, born in Siena (Pietro around 1280, and Ambrogio about a decade later), and it seems most likely that they both trained with Duccio. Ambrogio spent some time in Florence, as did Pietro, who also worked in Assisi, Pistoia and Cortona. It may well have been in Florence that they became familiar with the work of Giotto, whose naturalism and solid humanity influenced both brothers, although neither ever let go of the lyricism inherent in Sienese practice. They worked alongside one another on the façade of the Hospital opposite Siena Cathedral (although sadly these frescoes have not survived), and each painted an altarpiece for the cathedral as part of the elaboration of the themes of Duccio’s Maestà.  As there is no mention of either brother after 1347 it seems likely that both died during the Black Death. Today, I would like to look at the Maestà which Ambrogio painted for one of the churches in Massa Marittima, famous enough to have been mentioned by Vasari, but lost for centuries. It turned up in 1867 in the attic of the Convent of Sant’Agostino, where it had been split into 5 sections, and, although some of the altarpiece has probably been lost, to look at it today you would never know that for a while the panels were used as a bin used to clear ashes from a fireplace.

Maestà means, quite simply, ‘Majesty’, and as the title for a painting it implies the full majesty and splendour of the Madonna and Child enthroned in the Court of Heaven. Ambrogio pulls out all the stops, packing the firmament with more saints than you will ever have seen, and, for that matter, more than you could identify, or even count. They are arranged in three ranks, although precisely how this works physically is by no means clear. It could simply be that all the saints at the bottom are really short, although there could be three platforms on which they stand. However, apart from the six angelic musicians – three on either side – who are clearly kneeling, or the three figures sitting on the steps, it is not at all obvious what is supporting any of these people. But then, they are souls in heaven, so the question is immaterial, in more senses than one. You can see the front row of each of the ‘ranks’ of saints quite clearly, and this disguises the number of people who are present – until you look closer.

You might start to see that the halos overlap like waves, each ‘rank’ of saints being three or four deep. You might also realise that there is, actually, no throne. The steps are the only solid element. The cushion on which Mary is seated is actually supported by a pair of angels, whose inner wings are raised. The stone-grey feathers suggest the back of a throne – but there is nothing there. It is a matter of faith: you know there must be a throne, and so you believe it. At the very top, another pair of angels is preparing to scatter flowers in celebration of the Virgin, who is herself associated with so many different flowers, although the splendour and majesty is subtly undermined by the oh-so-human affection demonstrated by mother and child. They bump noses, slightly cross-eyed, and yet maintain what is, under the circumstances, an almost comical gravity. This is God made Man in a very real sense, and a detail to the left suggests that Jesus has only just been born. As yet, nothing has happened to write about.

John the Evangelist stands in the position of honour at the right hand of the throne (that is, on our left – although on the right of this detail). He is poised to write the opening of his gospel, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ –  but as yet the page is blank. His quill is held delicately between thumb and forefinger, all of the feathery bits removed as was the practice at the time. There is a beautiful and elaborate illumination made up of scrolling leaf-like forms reaching down the left hand side of the left hand page of the otherwise empty spread, looking for all the world like the sort of decorated paper you can still buy in Tuscany today. Standing next to him is St Peter, with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and then St Paul, sword held informally over his shoulder. Although the halos are gold leaf (would it be possible to count them?) his sword was silver, but it has tarnished to black. Behind and below these three most of the saints cannot be seen, let alone identified, but at the bottom left is St Catherine of Alexandria (see the full painting above for her wheel), and next to her, St Francis, in the brown Franciscan habit.

In the foreground, and forming the foundations and support of the spiritual throne, are three steps, each of which is a different colour, with a figure dressed in the same colour sitting on it. The white, green and red steps are labelled ‘FIDES’, ‘SPES’, and ‘CARITAS’ respectively – Faith, Hope and Charity. The three figures are personifications of the three ‘Theological Virtues’ which I first discussed back in April (see Day 42 – Some Virtues and Day 45 – Virtues, again…) The relevant biblical text is, of course, the first epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians, chapter 13, which ends with verse 13:

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Faith sit on the lowest step and holds her left hand to her chest while looking at a painting – or a decorated shield, perhaps? – on which we can see two faces looking left and right, both bearded, the former with a shorter beard. What we can’t see, hovering above the heads, is a dove – the Holy Spirit – but technical analysis must confirm that it was there, as this is identified as an image of the Holy Trinity, the very thing in which Faith believes. She wears a gorgeously fashionable, beautiful painted semi-transparent wimple, held in place with a crown. She also has gold work on her bodice for which the gold leaf was applied, then tooled (circular ‘punches’ of different sizes have been pressed, or tapped, onto the gold leaf to create indentations) and then, in part, painted. A pair of wings spreads out behind her, crossing the top, red step, which is delicately decorated. This is another way of using gold. In this case the leaf was applied to the panel, and the red painted over it. Much of the decoration you can see – including the ‘TAS’ of ‘CARITAS’ – was revealed by scratching away the red paint to reveal the gold underneath, a technique known as sgraffito – which, like modern-day ‘graffiti’, means ‘scratched’ (even if today graffiti is applied with a spray can).

Hope sits on the middle, green step. Unfortunately her robe has discoloured, and looks more brown than green now. Usually we would expect her to look up towards heaven, hands joined in prayer, but here she supports a tower, representing the Church. The image of the Virtues in this painting is derived from a 12th Century French theologian called Peter the Chanter.  Faith forms the foundation of the Church, Hope lifts it towards Heaven, and Charity, which St Paul says is ‘the greatest of these’, sits at the top, expressing the burning passion of the unqualified love of – and for – God.

An ethereal pink, rather than the richer vermillion of the step, Charity has a more spiritual feel than the other two, partly because she is all but monochrome, and partly because she lacks the naturalistic, contemporary dress of her companions. In her right hand she holds an arrow, or dart – more like the pagan Cupid, perhaps – and in her left, a heart, just as Giotto’s Charity does in the Scrovegni chapel (See Day 45) .

Colour symbolism is notoriously unreliable in art, but the common understanding that white, green and red stand for Faith, Hope and Charity is given its fullest and clearest exposition in this painting. It was this symbolism which led the colour combination to be so widely used – by the Medici in Florence, the Gonzaga in Mantua and the Este in Ferrara, for example. Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II (in the National Gallery) also uses precisely these colours: so many virtuous people. As for modern Italy – well, the tricolore was inspired by the French tricolore (different pronunciation!) Apparently the Italian press (or equivalent) had mis-reported the French Revolutionary colours as red, white and green (rather than blue), and the Italian nationalists adopted these instead – and stuck with them. Subsequently they have become associated with the Theological Virtues, although that was not the original intention. However it would have been driven home by reference to the Divine Comedy, for centuries the second most widely-read book in Italy. When Dante first encounters the semi-divine Beatrice, to him the paragon of virtue, towards the end of the Purgatory (Canto XXX, 28-33), she wears precisely these colours:

within a cloud of flowers which rose from the angels’ hands within and without, a lady appeared to me, girt with olive over a white veil, clothed, under a green mantle, with the colour of living flame’.

I can’t help thinking that, in Ambrogio’s Maestà, Charity looks like a ‘living flame’ – and that the angels at the very top of the painting scatter flowers in much the manner that Dante describes. Between Dante and Peter the Chanter, much of the imagery of this altarpiece can be explained. But how much of this would Lorenzetti have known? In 1347 he appeared before the Council of Siena and  impressed them ‘with his words of wisdom’. So he must have been learned, a reputation which lasted long enough for Vasari to mention it in the 16th Century. But someone else must have suggested the elements to be included – and in particular, precisely which saints he should paint – although by no means all of them would ever have been identified. As yet, we do not know who that was. I shall leave you with one more saint, though, as it is one you have probably never seen before – and may never encounter again.

On the far right of the painting is a bishop in black. It is San Cerbone, the patron saint of Massa Marittima, and dedicatee of their cathedral: he is believed to have been the bishop in the middle of the sixth century. Once appointed to the diocese, his flock were soon disappointed because he always said mass at daybreak, which was far too early for most. After a while he was summoned to Rome to explain his behaviour to the Pope, and on the way he tamed a gaggle of wild geese with the sign of the cross. They followed him all the way to Rome, only flying off again when he made the sign of the cross a second time. He may have to do it again, as they have just rushed into the bottom right-hand corner of the painting. That’s how we know who this is.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “120 – The Colour of Virtue

  1. You have to know what to look for when looking at these early paintings otherwise it can seem to be a blur of gold – thank you so much for showing us the details and describing the background – its the human touches that make the link between our era and theirs. The geese are a wonderful touch!


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