In the history of art development, the enthroned Madonna begins where the portrait Madonna ends. We may date it from the thirteenth century, when Cimabue, of Florence, and Guido, of Siena, produced their famous pictures. Similar types had previously appeared in the mosaic decorations of churches, but now, for the first time, they were worthily set forth in panel pictures.
The story of Cimabue's Madonna is one of the oft-told tales we like to hear repeated. How on a certain day, about 1270, Charles of Anjou was passing through Florence; how he honored the studio of Cimabue by a visit; how the Madonna was then first uncovered; how the people shouted so joyously that the street was thereafter named the Borgo dei Allegri; and how the great picture was finally borne in triumphal procession to the church of Santa Maria Novella,—all these are the scenes in the pretty drama. The late Sir Frederick Leighton has preserved for future centuries this story, already six hundred years old, in a charming pageant picture: "Cimabue's Madonna carried through the streets of Florence." This was the first work ever exhibited by the English artist, and was an important step in the career which ended in the presidency of the Royal Academy.
Cimabue's Madonna still hangs in Santa Maria Novella, over the altar of the Ruccellai chapel, and thither many a pilgrim takes his way to honor the memory of the father of modern painting. The throne is a sort of carved armchair, very simple in form, but richly overlaid with gold; the surrounding background is filled with adoring angels. Here sits the Madonna, in stiff solemnity, holding her child on her lap. If we find it hard to admire her beauty, we must note the superiority of the picture to its predecessors.
For the enthroned Madonna in a really attractive and beautiful form, we must pass at once to the period of full art development. In the interval, many variations upon the theme have been invented. The throne may be of any size, shape, or material; the composition may consist of any number of figures. The Madonna, seated or standing, is now the centre of an assembly of personages symmetrically grouped about her. There is little or no unity of action among them; each one is an independent figure. The guard of honor may be composed of saints, as in Montagna's Madonna, of the Brera, Milan; or again it is a company of angels, as in the Berlin Madonna, attributed to Botticelli, similar to which is the picture by Ghirlandajo in the Uffizi Gallery. Where saints are represented, each one is marked by some special emblem, the identification of which makes, in itself, an interesting study. St. Peter's key, St. Paul's sword, St. Catherine's wheel, and St. Barbara's tower soon become familiar symbols to those fond of this kind of lore.
Among the idealized presences about the Virgin's throne may sometimes be seen the prosaic figure of the donor, whose munificence has made the picture possible. This is well illustrated in the famous Madonna of Victory in the Louvre, painted in commemoration of the Battle of Fornovo, where Mantegna represents Francesco Gonzaga, commander of the Venetian forces, kneeling at the Virgin's feet.
A charming feature in many enthroned Madonnas is the group of cherubs below,—one, two, or the mystic three. They are not the exclusive possession of any single school of art; Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto of the Florentines, Francia of the Bolognese, and Bellini and Cima of the Venetians were particularly partial to them. The treatment in Northern Italy gives them a more definite purpose in the composition than does that of Florence, for here they are always musicians, playing on all sorts of instruments,—the violin, the mandolin, or the pipe.
|Perugino.—Madonna and Saints.|
A beautiful Madonna enthroned is by Perugino, in the Vatican Gallery at Rome; one of the artist's best works in power and vivacity of color. The throne is an architectural structure of elegant simplicity of design, apparently of carved and inlaid marble. The Virgin sits in quiet dignity, her face bent towards the bishops at her right, St. Costantius and St. Herculanus. On the other side stand the youthful St. Laurence and St. Louis of Toulouse. Although Perugino was an exceedingly prolific artist, he did not often choose this particular subject. On this account the picture is especially interesting, and also because it is the original model of well known works by two of the Umbrian painter's most illustrious pupils.
Many, indeed, were the apprentices trained in the famous bottega at Perugia, but, among them all, Raphael and Pinturicchio took the lead. These were the two who honored their master by repeating, with modifications of their own, the beautiful composition of the Vatican. Pinturicchio's picture is in the Church of St. Andrea, at Perugia. A charming feature, which he introduced, is a little St. John, standing at the foot of the throne. Raphael's picture is the so-called Ansidei Madonna, of the National Gallery, London, purchased by the English government, in 1885, for the fabulous price of £72,000. The composition is here reduced to its simplest possible form, with only one saint on each side,—St. Nicholas on the right, St. John the Baptist on the left. The Virgin and child give no attention to these personages, but are absorbed in a book which is open on the Mother's knee.
Raphael had no great liking for this style of picture, which was rather too formal for his taste. It is noticeable that, in the few instances where he painted it, he took the suggestion, as here, from some previous work. Thus his Madonna of St. Anthony, also in the National Gallery (loaned by the King of Naples), was based upon an old picture by Bernardino di Mariotto, according to the strict orders of the nuns for whose convent it was a commission. The Baldacchino Madonna of the Pitti, at Florence, is closely akin to Bartolommeo's composition in the same gallery.
Glancing, briefly, at these scattered examples, we learn that the enthroned Madonna belongs to every school of Italian art, and exhibits an astonishing variety of forms. Probably it was in the North of Italy that it flourished most. The Paduan School has its fine representation in Mantegna's picture, already referred to; the Brescian, in Moretto's Madonna of S. Clemente; the Veronese, in Girolamo dai Libri's splendid altar piece in San Giorgio Maggiore; the Bergamesque, in Lotto's Madonna of S. Bartolommeo. Above all, it was in Venice, the Queen City of the Adriatic, that the enthroned Madonna reached the greatest popularity: the spirit of the composition was peculiarly adapted to the Venetian love of pomp and ceremony.