The Madonna In Art by Estelle M. Hurll - THE PASTORAL MADONNA. Part 1.

Madonna del Prato (Raphael)

It was many centuries before art, at first devoted exclusively to figure painting, turned to the study of natural scenery. Thus it was that Madonna pictures, of various kinds, had long been established in popular favor before the idea of a landscape setting was introduced. We need not look for interesting pictures of this class before the latter part of the fifteenth century, and it was not until the sixteenth that the pastoral Madonna, in its highest form, was first produced. Even then there was no great number which show a really sympathetic love of nature.

In the ideal pastoral, the landscape entirely fills the picture, and the figures are, as it were, an integral part of it. Such pictures are so rare that we write in golden letters the names of the few who have given us these treasures.

Raphael's justly comes first in the list. His earliest Madonnas show his love of natural scenery, in the charming glimpses of Umbrian landscape, which form the background. These are treated, as Müntz points out, with marked "simplicity of outline and breadth of design." They are, however, but the beginning of the great things that were to follow. The young painter's sojourn in Florence witnessed a marvellous development of his powers. Here he was surrounded by the greatest artists of his time, and he was quick to absorb into himself something of excellence from them all. His fertility of production was amazing. In a period of four years (1504-1508), interrupted by visits to Perugia and Urbino, he produced about twenty Madonnas, in which we may trace the new influences affecting him.

La belle jardinière

Leonardo da Vinci was, doubtless, his greatest inspiration, and it was from this master-student of nature that the young man learned, with new enthusiasm, the value of going directly to Nature herself. The fruit of this new study is a group of lovely pastoral Madonnas, which are entirely unique as Nature idyls. Three of these are among the world's great favorites. They are, the Belle Jardinière (The Beautiful Gardener), of the Louvre Gallery, Paris; the Madonna in Grünen (The Madonna in the Meadow), in the Belvedere Gallery, Vienna; and the Cardellino Madonna (The Madonna of the Goldfinch), of the Uffizi, Florence.

We turn from one to another of these three beautiful pictures, always in doubt as to which is the greatest. Fortunately, it is a question which there is no occasion to decide, as every lover of art may be the happy possessor of all three, in that highest mode of possession attained by devoted study.

In each one we have the typical Tuscan landscape, filling the whole picture with its tranquil beauty. The "glad green earth" blossoms with dainty flowers; the fair blue sky above is reflected in the placid surface of a lake. From its shores rise gently undulating hills, where towers show the signs of happy activity. In the foreground of this peaceful scene sits a beautiful woman with two charming children at her knee. They belong to the landscape as naturally as the trees and flowers; they partake of its tranquil, placid happiness.

Almost identical in general style of composition, the three pictures show many points of dissimilarity when we come to a closer study of the figures. Considered as a type of womanly beauty, the Belle Jardinière is perhaps the most commonplace of the three Virgins, or, to put it negatively, the least attractive. She is distinctly of the peasant class, gentle, amiable, and entirely unassuming. The Madonna in the Meadow is a maturer woman, more dignified, more beautiful. The smooth braids of her hair are coiled about the head, accentuating its lovely outline. The falling mantle reveals the finely modelled shoulders. The Madonna of the Goldfinch is a still higher type of loveliness, uniting with gentle dignity a certain delicate, high-bred grace, which Raphael alone could impart. Her face is charmingly framed in the soft hair which falls modestly about it. One wonders if any modern coiffeur could invent so many styles of hair dressing as does this gifted young painter of the sixteenth century.