Lavinia Fontana, The Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis, 1578. Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA.
It is very rare that a museum can present an exhibition of the work of an artist who is not only very good, but also relatively unknown – especially when they lived in the 16th Century. But the National Gallery of Ireland has achieved just that with a superb exhibition entitled Lavinia Fontana: Trailblazer, Rule Breaker which I will be introducing this Monday, 29 May at 6.00pm. I understand the title, although I’m not sure I entirely agree with it. Did she break any rules? Part of me suspects that, because she truly was a trailblazer, she got there so early that the rules she is supposed to have broken hadn’t yet been written. I’ll explain what I mean on Monday! The following week (5 June) I will return to that quiet, undemanding genius of 17th Century Delft, Johannes Vermeer, to talk about the paintings which were not included in the Rijksmuseum’s exhibition. Not only will we get to see them, but we will also find out what they can tell us about the paintings which are (or were, for one final week) on show in Amsterdam. Then a week off! I’ll be back on 19 June to look at the National Gallery’s intriguing Saint Francis of Assisi, with its wonderful and entirely apt combination of art both ancient and modern. Today, though, I would like to talk about a superb painting which has somehow found its way into Aoife Brady’s superb catalogue, but, for whatever reason, has not made it to Dublin (there are always complications when dealing with so many different institutions spread across the world). Having written what follows, I realise that the painting is even more complex and rewarding than I had realised when I chose it – both visually and iconographically. A true masterpiece – and I use the term ‘master’ deliberately.
It is always worthwhile remembering that the names we give to paintings today are usually relatively recent in date, and that they are not necessarily a reflection of what the artist originally intended. Very often they are simply descriptions of what can be seen, and Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis tells us accurately enough what is in this painting. However, I’m not entirely convinced that this title really conveys what the painting is actually ‘about’. The Holy Family are certainly there – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – but, as so often, poor Joseph is left in the shadows, and on the outside. He is also fairly small, thanks to the perspective – he is some way behind the Virgin, and it is only his left hand, resting on the stick, that thrusts into the foreground. Rather than ‘The Holy Family’ it is more like ‘The Virgin and Child with St Joseph’. Jesus is right in the centre, with his Mother supporting him to the right, and they both glow against the dark background as if lit by an evenly distributed spotlight. But then, the female Saint, St Margaret (we know it’s her from the title if from nothing else), is also well lit, and closer to Mother and Child than either of the men. This implies that she is more important, and so far more a part of what the painting is ‘about’. Maybe we should go for ‘The Virgin, Child and St Margaret with Sts Francis and Joseph’. I’ve suggested naming Francis before Joseph because he is at Jesus’s right hand, in what is generally called the ‘position of honour’. All this quibbling about the title is quite petty, you might think, but we too often take the written word as given, an un-questioned truth, whereas we should really be thinking about what we can see – and we can see the Virgin, Child and St Margaret very clearly, while Francis and Joseph both recede into the shadows, and into the background.
The men are in supporting roles, and help to direct our attention to what is important. We know this is St Joseph because of the role he has adopted: supporting his wife and her Son, but not pushing himself forward. Not only this, but he was traditionally seen as an elderly man, hence he is grey and balding. Nevertheless, he walked to Bethlehem and then on to Egypt while his wife rode on a donkey, which is why he has a walking stick. Added to this, he quite often wears yellow. At a certain point he also became associated with curtains, partly because they were hung on beds, and Joseph was often seen asleep. This was not just because he was old, and prone to nod off, but also because in the bible he had four significant dreams. As it happens, the curtains in the background of this painting turn out to be quite important for the composition, and not just as a backdrop.
Opposite Joseph is St Francis. Not only does he wear the brown habit of the Franciscans, the order he himself founded, but he also has the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. The mark of the nail through the left hand is clearly visible, thanks to the light, and even if the wound in the right hand is not so easily seen, being shaded, it is there. Francis had a particular devotion to Christ’s greatest moments of humanity – his birth and death – so the fact that he is holding a crucifix while looking at the baby Jesus is entirely appropriate (I will discuss his life and legacy more thoroughly on 19 June, of course). Not only do the two male Saints frame the central figures, but their gazes also help to direct our attention. Joseph looks across to the Crucifix, aware that this baby will die too soon, and we follow his gaze. Francis looks past the crucified Christ towards the living infant, thus drawing our attention towards him. The curtain also serves to frame and focus our attention. A lit fold in the material leads from the top right corner of the painting towards St Joseph’s head, and then his gaze takes us on to the crucifix. The two fringed edges of the curtains, right and left, lead vertically down to the Child’s head, and diagonally to the cross respectively. From the latter, the diagonal continues along the crucifix, past Francis’s left hand, to Margaret’s modestly inclined head. Francis’s right hand serves to introduce her, even recommend her, to Jesus, much as a patron would promote a kneeling donor. A stronger diagonal is created by the alignment of heads from top right to bottom left – Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Margaret, with both Mother and Child looking down at the deferential Margaret: in many ways, she is the ultimate focus of attention.
If Margaret is the focus of attention, that does not take away from the fact that Jesus is at the centre. Behind him the curtains are open, revealing nothing but darkness, but serving to make him stand out more clearly, his cruciform halo identifying him as the Saviour. With his right hand raised to bless the kneeling Saint, and his left arm behind his Mother’s neck, he echoes the position of his future self upon the cross. Mary supports his left leg, and we see the sole of his foot, while Margaret’s face, wherever she is looking (and I suspect she is deep in contemplation, and looking with the mind’s eye), is close to his right foot: in her humility she could be on the verge of kissing it. However, given Francis’s stigmata, and the proximity of the crucifix, we are reminded that these delicate feet will one day have nails driven through them. As if that intimation of suffering and mortality were not enough, the cradle echoes details from a sarcophagus, and the table on which it stands is not unlike an altar, a place of sacrifice. The bright, richly coloured figures of Mary, Jesus and Margaret (and they are more richly coloured in the original than this reproduction suggests) stand out clearly in the foreground of the painting, with the two women wearing matching pinks: the relationship between them must be significant.
And then, at the bottom, a touch of the absurd – a monstrous mouth yawning wide, for all the world looking as if it wanted to swallow the altar in one gulp. Its curving tongue lines up with the golden hem of the upper green cloth, and just above that golden hem is the artist’s signature: LAVINIA FONTANA DE ZAPPIS FACIEBAT MDLXXVIII – ‘Lavinia Fontana de Zappi made this 1578’. Fontana, born in 1552, had married Gian Paolo Zappi at the age of 25, the year before this was painted. The marriage negotiations were specific and astute, and we know that because the contract survives: you can see the real thing in the exhibition, and I’ll show you a photo of it on Monday. Zappi was, according to the catalogue, ‘of good social standing but with little potential for earning’. The unconventional contract specifies that he was to move in to Lavinia’s father’s house to live with her, and had to allow her to continue in her chosen profession. This was clearly in his favour, as he had been advised that she was talented, and had the potential to earn good money – which turned out to be true. In many ways he was being invited to take the role of St Joseph: there to support his wife, provide her with legitimacy in the eyes of the public, allow her do what she had to do, and not to get in the way. But why the monster?
According to The Golden Legend, St Margaret, a fourth century martyr, was imprisoned and tortured because she was a Christian. This is what happened next, according to the English edition printed by William Caxton in 1483:
And there appeared an horrible dragon and assailed her and would have devoured her. But she made the sign of the cross and anon he vanished away. In another place it is said that he swallowed her in his belly, she making the sign of the cross, and the belly brake asunder and so she issued out all whole and sound.
At this point, even Jacobo da Voragine, author of The Golden Legend, had his doubts, although he does keep his options open. The next sentence reads, ‘This swallowing and breaking of the belly of the dragon is said that it is apocryphal’.
Now, given that the dragon’s ‘belly brake asunder’ and St Margaret ‘issued out all whole and sound’ it is not entirely surprising that the Saint became the patroness of pregnant women and childbirth. I’m sure it is also the source of the story of Little Red Riding Hood. More to the point, Lavinia Fontana had married the year before this was painted, and in the very year it was painted her first child was born. She went on to have ten more children, although sadly only four would survive to adolescence. Given that the painting measures 127 x 104.1 cm, it is probably too small to have been an altarpiece, particularly if you bear in mind the size of contemporary altarpieces: there are three in the exhibition, all of which are more than two and a half metres tall. They are large paintings: we foolishly assume that women only painted small and delicate works. In all probability this is a private devotional image, the sort of thing that might have been gifted to a pregnant woman, or to one who had recently given birth. We do not know who the patron was, but could Lavinia Fontana possibly have painted it for herself? It does seem entirely appropriate: she would have known how relevant the invocation of St Margaret would be during her future married life. As it happens, Zappi fulfilled all the stipulations of the marriage contract, and was a supportive husband – not unlike St Joseph. St Francis, whose life and religious order were given over to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience, reminds us that, in all humility, we are born to die – although death is, in Christian belief, a joyous rebirth into a new and eternal life. This is pure hypothesis, I know, but it would make sense if this beautiful painting, intricate in appearance and meaning, had been painted for the earthly family of the artist herself. And it would also make sense if we were to call it The Virgin and Child with St Margaret and attendant Saints. Credit where credit is due – and especially to the artist, Lavinia Fontana, who deserves to be better known.