184 – A Mother by a Sister and a daughter

Andrea de Mena y Bitoria, Mater Dolorosa, 1675. Hispanic Society of America, New York.

As I think I’ve said during the talks recently, I keep finding more women who were artists. Apparently there are people who think that these artists are being ‘discovered’ more and more nowadays, but don’t be fooled – they have all been known about for a long time, it’s just that, for all sorts of reasons, people stopped talking about them – and that seems to have happened way back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. So in this case, it’s just a sign of my ignorance. Not only that, but I almost missed the fact that today’s sculpture was made by a woman: in Italy Andrea is a man’s name, the equivalent of Andrew, whereas in Spain (with which I am less familiar), as in England, it is given to women. Andrea de Mena carved and painted this delicate sculpture in 1675 – and so it deserves inclusion in this Monday’s talk A Baroque Abundance (23 January, 5.30-7.30pm). Indeed, she adds to that very ‘abundance’ of women artists in the 17th Century. We will also, of course, discuss the now-famous Artemisia Gentileschi, her superb Dutch counterpart, Judith Leyster (who may be well known, even if she does not have the same celebrity status) and many (many) more.

Where did I come across Andrea de Mena? Well, in the Royal Academy exhibition Spain and the Hispanic World, which I will talking about in-person for Art History Abroad this Tuesday, 24 January. I will then repeat the same talk online on Monday 13 February (booking is now open). Today’s sculpture will feature!

This is an incredibly delicate sculpture. According to the Hispanic Society of America’s ‘Collection Search’ it is 17cm high, and I am assuming that this refers to the bust, rather than including the base, although the entry is not specific. I’ll take a ruler the next time I go to the exhibition. The materials are listed as  ‘Wood, polychrome’ – meaning, quite simply, that it is carved out of wood and then painted in different colours. The colours themselves are entirely traditional for the subject, and indeed, our identification of the subject is entirely based on the colours: a red dress, a white head-dress, and a blue cloak hung over the head – this must be the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus. She looks up, her chin slightly lifted, with her eyes shaded and partly closed. Her eyebrows slant down towards either side of her face, her lips are slightly parted and even more slightly downturned on either side. She is looking up, of course, at her son on the cross, her restrained grief plain for all to see, hence the title in Latin: Mater Dolorosa, ‘the grieving mother’. When the title is given in English – as it is for an equivalent sculpture at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (see below) – that it is listed as ‘the Virgin of Sorrows’. Within this difference – ‘mother’ and ‘virgin’ – the entirety of Mary’s unique status is made clear.

If we get closer, we can see that the materials are more complex than suggested. She appears to have real tears, not to mention real eyelashes. Her flesh tones are painted with the same delicacy we would expect of an oil painting on canvas, with a slight flush of the cheeks, the red of the mouth and a shadowing around the eyes that speaks of sorrow rather than shape. You might also notice that a tiny flake of paint has become detached from the tip of the nose, and carefully restored so as not to disturb the otherwise perfect – immaculate – complexion. The cheeks are ever so slightly hollowed, and there is a tiny dimple in the chin, while the face is framed by deep shadow, a result of the deep cutting of the cloak.

Remember that this is wood cut with a mallet and chisel. Both the blue cloak and white headdress – which has delicate stitching along the hem – are carved to a couple of millimetres of thickness (or thinness, rather): it would have been so easy to break through these membranes with one slip of the chisel. They are carved deeply around the head and neck to create the deep shadows which enhance the depth of Mary’s sorrow. Whereas the catalogue photograph (below) is lit evenly, as befits a catalogue, for clarity’s sake, in the exhibition the lighting is superb, and more dramatic: the shadows are deep and the tears glint in the light. You might argue – and you would be right – that Andrea de Mena did not have electric lighting to achieve these effects. However, the deep cutting of drapery was common, especially for Baroque sculptors who wanted to capture the drama of painterly chiaroscuro, which is best exemplified, of course, in the work of Caravaggio. And daylight coming through a window – or candlelight, or lamplight at night – would achieve similar results in any century. But how did Andrea de Mena, an artist of whom I had not previously heard, achieve such mastery? And, for that matter, how do we even know that she did? Well, for one thing, she signed it.

The label painted onto the base of the sculpture starts ‘Soror Andrea’ – Sister Andrea. She was a nun. ‘Soror Andrea in M. Cisterçiensi F.t’ – Sister Andrea made this in the Cistercian Monastery (don’t get hung up on the English usage that monks live in monasteries and nuns live in convents: the words are effectively interchangeable). The last line reads (well, I hope it does, this is my transcription, as I can’t find an official one anywhere), ‘Malace anno 1675’. Málaga, in the year 1675. So, Andrea de Mena y Bitoria was a nun in the Cistercian monastery in Malaga. We also know, given that I’ve given you her full name, who her father and mother were: Mr de Mena and Ms Bitoria respectively. Which is why I nearly missed that she was a woman. My response, when I read the name on the label, was, ‘ah yes, de Mena – but I don’t remember that being his first name’. Not that I am that familiar with Pedro de Mena’s work, but I do remember a fantastic sculpture of his being bought by the Fitzwilliam Museum a few years back, and have talked about it when discussing sculptural materials. Compare and contrast:

Andrea learnt from her father before she entered the monastery (or convent…), but seems to have carried on working as an enclosed nun. Her technique and style are both remarkably similar to that of her father. The Fitzwilliam’s list of materials is revealing: ‘polychromed wood, human hair and glass’. Actually, they are listed on the Art Fund website, and a page on a Cambridge University site goes on to clarify that the eyes and tears are made of glass, with the glass of the eyes being painted from behind. The eyelashes are made of human hair, and the teeth from ivory. The differences between the two sculptures are mainly in tone – and age. Pedro really captures the sense that, as a result of her purity, the Virgin never aged: this could easily be the 15-year-old mother of a 33-year-old son. Andrea’s work shows a more mature, but by no means old, woman. However, this comparison is by no means ideal, as I suspect Andrea’s version has been conserved since the photograph on the right was taken. In the flesh it certainly has more life than this image would suggest.

The survival of Andrea’s signed works means that her name lives on. Of the women who did work in the world of art, we probably know only a fraction, as women were not allowed to sign legal documents – which meant it was hard, if not impossible, for them to set up business independently (for this and much of what follows I am indebted to a paper by Casey Gardenio-Foat, ‘Daughters of Seville: Workshops and Women Artists in Early Modern Andalucía’ in Woman’s Art Journal, Spring/Summer 2010, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 21-27). However, within the family sphere this legal constraint was not a problem, and it made sense for artists to train their children – whether sons or daughters – as this provided them with what was effectively free labour. What was so remarkable about Luisa Roldán, about whom I wrote about a few weeks ago (see 182 – The Rest of Christmas), was that she set up her own studio outside of her father’s house, outside of the court (although she did become a court artist) and outside of a convent. She wasn’t the only one of Pedro Roldán’s daughters who worked in the family business. All three of her sisters also sculpted, and all three of them married other members of the workshop – and all three couples continued to work in the studio until Pedro’s death. Luisa married yet another member of the workshop, Luis Antonio de los Arcos, against her parents’ wishes. Was he not suitable? Not a good man? Worse than that, not a good artist? Not at all. It seems likely that they didn’t want to lose her talents if they set up a workshop on their own. The same was probably true of Jacopo Tintoretto’s reluctance to let his daughter, the artist Marietta Robusti, go and work for Philip II of Spain. As it happens, Luisa Roldán’s signed works are all dated after her marriage, while the early work is lost among the production of the family workshop. Roldán’s husband Luis was the nominal head of the workshop, as he could sign the contracts, but he worked, effectively, as his wife’s assistant. She carved the sculptures, he painted them, she signed them.

Andrea de Mena, who carved and painted this Mother, was also a Sister. Both Andrea and her sister Claudia entered the Convent of St Anne in Málaga in 1672, when Andrea was 18. They both trained with their father. But wait a moment – is it really fair to define them by their relationships? Does this diminish their achievement? Some people might think it does: should we not talk about them in their own right, rather than in terms of their relationships to the men in their lives? And yet Hans Holbein Jr – the famous one – would have been nothing without his father. And Lucas Cranach the Elder – well, he was better than his son, as it happens (although the quality of his work diminished with time). And as for the Brueghels… too complicated! So we do it with men too. And anyway, we know so little about Andrea. After she and Claudia, daughters of Pedro de Mena, entered the convent (and the sisters became Sisters), they are known to have carved statues of Sts Benedict and Bernard, but, if these sculptures survived, no one has ever identified them. The only undisputed works are this Mater Dolorosa and its companion, an Ecce Homo, in exactly the same format. We know, therefore, that she was still working as a sculptor three years after entering the convent, but we only know that because she signed and dated them – but we only know that Andrea made them because she signed them. What else did she do? And where is it now? No one knows. At least we can treasure what little is left, as I’ve said before. Both sculptures have found a home with the Hispanic Society of America, and both have a temporary residence in the Royal Academy. Anas we’re talking about them, if you ever thought that young women could not possibly be as gruesome as old men, well, see below and think again. We will see these two jewels, briefly, when I talk about this exhibition on 13 February, and they will also feature (equally briefly) alongside the abundance of Andrea’s artistic ‘sisters’ on Monday. And let’s keep looking for the others.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

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