If I have cliff-hangers, I left you with one yesterday. Admittedly, it would have left you hanging at the edge of a very low curb, but there you go. At least none of you would have had a sleepless night, especially good as, thanks to daylight saving, we in the UK – and Europe as a whole, I believe – have had one hour’s less sleep. But at the end of yesterday’s blog I asked ‘who are the two mourning women? And, for that matter, the third, whose head appears at the bottom right? I think we will have to leave them all until tomorrow…’ It is now ‘tomorrow’, so what is the answer? Well, I hate to disappoint you, but I don’t know. But I do have an idea…
The two we have seen before are dressed much as we would have expected from the details we saw yesterday. The woman with outstretched arms at the left wears a cloth of gold gown, with very full, dark blue sleeves. She has a fur-lined green overdress, which is wrapped up and tucked into her belt to reveal both the fur lining, and the gold brocade of the dress underneath. Her companion at the top right reaches down towards the Virgin, dabbing tears from her face with her green cloak. Her dress is a relatively subdued light brown, although again it is fur-lined, worn over a simple black-sleeved bodice. Her hat is lilac, encased in what looks like a scimitar, beaten into a ploughshare, and then wrought further to become millinery. It is definitely meant to imply the exotic. Standing on the far right is the woman whose head we saw yesterday. She wears a white overdress, which to me looks a bit starchy, an impression belied by the cloth of gold over which it is worn, with similar brocade trims at the cuffs and lowest hem of the white dress. These additions, my sister informs me (thank you, Jane) were added because these were the parts of the dress which would be most likely to get dirty, and so could be easily replaced. Yet, however practical this might appear, the fact that this supposedly ‘disposable’ fabric was also of the most expensive, suggests a considerable amount of disposable income. This woman also wears a white headdress, or veil, including a bib tied around her neck – it is, effectively, a wimple, covering both her hair and her neck. Over all of this she wears a scarlet cloak, which would, in itself, have been a very expensive garment (if I haven’t said this before, although blue is famed as the most expensive pigment for painting, red was far more expensive than blue as a fabric). In her left hand she holds some sort of handled pot, or jar.
When seen up close, she is far older than any of the other women we have seen, with a wrinkled forehead, a pinched mouth and loose skin around her neck. She is pale with age, and indoor seclusion (the fate of many medieval and renaissance women), and also, undoubtedly, with grief. Not as pale, perhaps, as the Virgin, but then, not as grief stricken. The older woman holds her hand across her chest, a sign of her care and devotion, and her arm casts a shadow on her white overdress. She looks towards the Virgin, who looks out to us, much as she did in Lent 28, inviting our compassion – our ‘suffering with her’. She is cared for, as before, by St John the Evangelist, who rests his left hand on her shoulder, and holds out his right, an offer of further support. The four hands form a wonderful knot of sorrow and caring. His head is tilted at just the right angle to show us that he is genuinely moved, and exhibits true sympathy. As if to express this, the crook of his neck and the flick of the corner of her cloak almost interlock.
But who is the woman on the right? Well, let me quote from the National Gallery’s website:
‘Saint John and the Virgin appear in the foreground, surrounded by four women. If they are the same women who surrounded the Virgin in the foreground of the centre panel, they are wearing different clothes. The older woman on our right carries a small jar, the significance of which has not been explained.’
So, I was right. I don’t know, and neither does the gallery. They could be the same Holy Women, with different clothes – we have seen this before – but they could be others. After all, Mark 15:41 mentions ‘many other women which came up with him unto Jerusalem,’ and maybe these are some of them. But why include so many? And why are they so richly dressed? Is it, simply, that Luke 2:2-3 says that there were ‘certain women’ such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, ‘and many others, which ministered unto him of their substance?’ Maybe. But why the interest in them, in this particular altarpiece? As I said, I have an idea. It is mere hypothesis at the moment, but let’s see what you think. I have only said a limited amount about this altarpiece – but then, only a limited amount is known. It was commissioned by a Premonstratensian Canon, possibly Herman van Rossum, as we saw in Lent 25. He kneels in his white habit, facing right, just next to the Virgin Mary. The identification of the patron relies on the fact that he was the provost of the Koningsveld Convent, just on the edge of Delft, at the time that this altarpiece was made for it. Yes, it was made for a convent, full of the daughters of the great and the good who were ‘ministering unto [Jesus] of their substance’, and who would have had an especial devotion – and so care for – the Virgin Mary. But why would women ‘of substance’ be in a convent in the first place? Well, because of dowry inflation. The role of men in a large families is well known: the first son inherits, the second goes into the military, the third into law, and the fourth, the church. The options for women were different. The eldest would have a dowry, and so would find a husband more easily, but after that it became progressively more difficult, and many aristocratic women ended up in convents not because of a calling, but as a result of parental necessity. And while their fathers might not be able to afford a good dowry, they would have been well-dressed – like the women in this painting. There were – and are – Premonstratensian Canonesses, although they are often called Norbertine Nuns, after St Norbert who founded the Premonstratensian Order. For a while there were even mixed houses, with Canons and Canonesses in adjacent cloisters.
I can’t help noticing that the woman on the right is wearing a white dress and wimple, and faces to the left. In some way she balances the donor. Could she, perhaps, be a donatrix, or female donor? I do hope so! Maybe she is the abbess? I need to do more research, clearly, but abbesses could reach a high status, and at least one, the Blessed Gertrude of Aldenburg (d. 1297) was beatified (as her title suggests!) As for the ‘small jar’, I think the significance is quite clear, contrary to what the National Gallery says. After the crucifixion, when the body was laid in the tomb, Luke 23:55-56 tells us,
And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned, and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment.
I would suggest that the ‘small jar’ contains these spices and ointments.
I must also hypothesize about what the group as a whole are doing here. They do appear in much the same way as they did at the foot of the cross, and the Virgin appears, once more, to be on the verge of fainting. This ties into an idea that had great currency in medieval and renaissance thought, but which did not, with a few notable exceptions, outlive the Counter Reformation: lo spasimo della Vergine, as it is called in Italian, or, less poetically, ‘the swoon of the Virgin’. Although not mentioned in the gospels, the Gospel of Nicodemus, which I have referred to a couple of times already, includes references to Mary swooning during the crucifixion. In art this can be shown on the Via Crucis, at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion, during the Deposition from the Cross or the Entombment of Christ. Two of those are included in this painting. I should discuss this at length another time, but the Counter Reformation saw this weakness in the Virgin as suggesting a lack of faith in the resurrection, and also, as John 19:25 explicitly states, ‘Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother,’ the idea of her not standing was seen as contradicting the biblical evidence… so the depiction of lo spasimo was discouraged. Not so, during the period in which our work was painted. But how do we account for Mary kneeling at the foot of the cross during the Deposition, but also swooning in the foreground? Well, here’s another idea. Because of the short course I am teaching for the Wallace Collection this week (see the diary), I have been looking at Dürer’s Small Passion series – and then decided to compare it to the Great Passion. Here are his versions of The Crucifixion, The Lamentation over the Dead Christ and The Burial of Christ, which are dated 1497-8, from the Great Passion.
The composition of The Crucifixion is similar to that envisaged by the Master of Delft – and it could be that the latter was influenced by it, although this is quite a common form. But note how Mary swoons a second time at The Burial of Christ. To me, the group at the bottom of our painting looks for all the world like a Lamentation – but without the actual body of Christ. Maybe, this was to be imagined. Maybe there simply wasn’t the space for it, or it was deemed unnecessary, given the presence of the body in the Deposition. But whatever it is, it gives the artist another chance to invite us to share in the Virgin’s grief, and to show the women of substance caring for her, something with which the occupants of the convent could associate. And at their feet – well, at their feet on the right we see the plantain, strawberry and violet we saw in Lent 2, and on the left is the aquilegia which was the subject of the very first of these Lent posts. We are back where we started. Which must mean that we have seen the whole painting. Or have we? After all, it is only Palm Sunday: there is still a week until Easter, and six more days of Lent.