Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Buona Festa! The ‘Festa’ in question is the Feast of the Annunciation, or, to give it its English name, Lady Day. It’s the reason why we (in the UK) have Mother’s Day this weekend, rather than in May like everyone else. I suppose I should write about a painting of the Annunciation today (as I did two years ago), although I’d rather look at something else, as I will include The Annunciation with Saint Emidius – briefly, at least – when I talk about the exhibition Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky this Monday, 28 March at 6pm. Today I want to talk about a painting which is not in the exhibition to explain why I think Crivelli is such a remarkable painter, and, as it is Lady day, it is a painting of Our Lady.
The curators at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham wanted to include it in their exhibition apparently, but as it is painted on a wooden panel it is too delicate to travel. Wood is especially sensitive to fluctuations in humidity, among other things, and so it has stayed at home in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. However, that does mean that we can get up close to the details without worrying that someone might think we’re going to touch the painting.
Mary stands behind a stone parapet with a cloth of honour hanging behind her. Not only does this frame our view of her, so that we see her more clearly, but it also speaks to her high status, being effectively a sign of royalty: it reminds us of her role as Queen of Heaven. Another cloth is hung over the ledge, and Jesus sits on a cushion placed on top of it. Behind the cloth of honour is a landscape: we are out in the countryside, with a track running from one side to the other. It is not entirely clear where Jesus and Mary are, when you stop to think about it: what is the function of this wall, other than as a support for the child? And if Mary is in the countryside, where are we, on this side of the wall? Crivelli is actually using the convention of Northern European portraiture, in which the sitter appears behind such a parapet, or balcony, which both distances them from us, but also, conversely, forms a bridge. linking us to them. It also explains why we can’t see their legs. In this case, it allows us to see a bust-length image of the Madonna, while also providing a convenient surface on which her son can rest. In other paintings such a structure takes on the appearance of an altar, or tomb, or even both, and although that doesn’t seem to be the case here, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that it provides at least a distant echo of Christ’s fate.
The cloth of honour is held up by broad red laces, bound at their ends with metal aglets. A garland of fruits and a vegetable hang from the same type of lace, in front of the cloth but behind the Virgin’s head. It is not clear what these are attached to – or even what they could be attached to – and originally they would just have appeared from behind the engaged frame. ‘Engaged’ in this context means that the frame was attached to the panel before painting commenced, and the paint surface would have been continuous from one to the other. You can tell it was engaged because there is a lip around the edge of the painted surface just next to the bare wood: it’s hard to know why anyone would ever have wanted to rip off the original frame, and is greatly to be regretted, although it did happen surprisingly often. The vegetable is a gourd, which, from its appearance in the Book of Jonah (who disappeared into the belly of a giant fish, only to be spat up on the third day) is often seen as a symbol of the Resurrection (given that Jesus disappeared into the belly of the Earth, only to return after the same time had elapsed). Whatever the fruits are – apples or peaches, I’m not entirely sure – they represent the forbidden fruit from the Book of Genesis (it never actually says ‘apple’). Either way, between gourd and fruit, we are looking at sin and redemption. The garland casts shadows on the cloth of honour – but not on the sky. It would be very unusual if it did, of course, but another garland, in one of the paintings I will discuss on Monday, does – hence the title of the exhibition, Shadows on the Sky. It is unique in the History of Art as far as I am aware, and worth thinking about in detail – but more about that on Monday. However, Mary’s halo also casts a shadow – which is very odd. A halo was originally a way of representing a glow of light expressing the figure’s sanctity – but how could light cast a shadow? What Crivelli has painted is definitely a gold disc, a solid object encrusted with jewels, capable of casting its own shadow. Mary’s headdress is elegant and delicate, with the concentric arrangement of the opaque and transparent layers over her forehead entirely typical of his work, in which shapes are often echoed as he thinks about the patterns formed on the surface of the painting as much as the imaginary depth he can create using perspective and tonal variation.
Jesus’s halo is a similar gold disc, although marked with a red cross (it is only Jesus, as ‘himself’, or as the Lamb of God, or the Holy Spirit – as a dove – who have cruciform halos like this). He holds a goldfinch in his hands, a symbol of his passion. The goldfinch was supposed to have eaten one of the thorns from the eponymous crown when a drop of Christ’s blood fell on its head – hence the red marking. As if to emphasize its own symbolism, the bird stretches its wings like a cross. Jesus is not sure whether to look, or to look away: his face is turned to our left, but his pupils are in the corner of his eyes, looking towards the bird. Mary has the long, slim, fingers typical of Crivelli’s etiolated forms – they are overlong even, adding an almost unnatural refinement to her delicate gestures, as if unsure of how to hold her own son. The open stretch between her right thumb and forefinger loops his waist in the same way – and with similar angular inflections – as the loop of fabric that rings his right arm, another one of those echoes of form.
It is at the very bottom of this small painting – measuring just 37.8 x 25.4 cm – that it gets conceptually complex. There is no problem with the cloth – a yellow water silk equivalent to the pink of the cloth of honour. Having been stored tightly folded, one of those folds is clearly visible as the central axis of the material. But it is also softly wrinkled, the subtle shading forming a counterpoint with the markings of the fabric. The child’s legs and the tasselled cushion cast shadows, those of the latter being remarkably crisp. They tell us that the light is coming from high up to the left, and from just in front of the painting. At one end the parapet is cracked, and at the other there appears to be the most enormous fly. Both are symbols of change and decay, but Jesus has come for our redemption – to free us from the sin, which, in some way, the fly represents, associated as it is with death and disease, in part because of the brevity of its own earthly existence. The cracks can be read like the ruins in the background of many paintings of the Nativity: Jesus has come to rebuild, rather than to destroy. But let’s look at the fly again – and compare it to Christ’s feet. They are of the same order of size. Can you imagine a fly the same size as a baby’s feet? Look again at the fly, and then at its shadow, and compare the shadow to that cast by the tassel. The light on the fly appears to be coming from the wrong direction… which suggests that it is not standing on the parapet at all. It appears to be standing on the surface of the painting, and casting a shadow onto the paint. If I were there in front of it, I’d be tempted to brush it away. It is a fly from our world – hence its disproportionate size – and Crivelli is playing with our perception. If he is good enough as an artist, he will trick us into thinking it is real – like the old story of the competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes which were so real that birds flew down to eat them, but when he went to pull back the curtain in front of Parrhasius’ painting, he discovered that it was a painting of a curtain… so which was the better artist? Crivelli adds these details to keep us involved, to make us believe what we see (‘if it can crack, it must be real stone’), but also to remind us that this is a painting. Why do we want to know that it is a painting? Probably because that itself implies that the subject is worthy – that Jesus and Mary are worthy – to be represented, and so should be honoured accordingly. And also, of course, to show us how good he is. But how do we know who ‘he’ is? Well, because he tells us.
‘The work of Carlo Crivelli from Venice’, says the cartellino (a word which nowadays could now be translated as ‘tag’, but which means ‘a little cartello’ – itself a word which could be translated as ‘sign’, but means ‘little carta’ – or paper – so a cartellino is a little little paper…). The wording is Crivelli’s standard signature: he was keen to be known by his origins .Venice was, after all, one of the great centres of art, and its inclusion implies that he must have been good. However, nothing he painted there is known, and all that survives comes from the Marche, where he spent the last three decades of his life. He was not the only artist to depict a cartellino like this. There are so many, in fact, by so many different artists, that we can assume that they really did put their names onto pieces of paper and then physically attach them to the painting, rather than painting their names directly onto the finished work. Indeed, one suggestion why we don’t know the names of so many early Northern painters is that the original cartellini have simply fallen off. This might happen here: the cartellino is attached by blobs of red wax, although the blob at the bottom right has fallen off, leaving a red stain. But what is the paper supposed to be attached to? To the water silk? Or to the painted panel itself? I’ll leave you to have a look and decide for yourselves, but do bear in mind what would be more appropriate. Whichever it is, Crivelli had the most remarkable sense of the possibilities of painting, of illusion, and of crossing the boundaries between reality and imagination. This, together with his technical brilliance, is what has convinced me that he was such a great artist. We will talk about about these ideas, including trompe l’oeil and meta-trompe-l’oeil – ‘going beyond deception’ – on Monday when we look at the Shadows on the Sky. And if you still want an Annunciation for today’s Festa, you could always look back to Piero della Francesca, from two years ago (Day 7 – The Annunciation), or Veit Stoss (Day 70 – The Annunciation, again) or Giotto (Day 80 – Gabriel’s Mission)…