The Madonna in Adoration of the Child, Filippino Lippi, 1478The first tender joys of a mother's love are strangely mingled with awe. Her babe is a precious gift of God, which she receives into trembling hands. A new sense of responsibility presses upon her with almost overwhelming force. Hers is the highest honor given unto woman; she accepts it with solemn joy, deeming herself all too unworthy.
This spirit of humility has been idealized in art, in the form of Madonna known as the Madre Pia. It represents the Virgin Mary adoring her son. Sometimes she kneels before him, sometimes she sits with clasped hands, holding him in her lap. Whatever the variation in attitude, the thought is the same: it is an expression of that higher, finer aspect of motherhood which regards infancy as an object not only of love, but of reverent humility. It is a recognition of the great mystery of life which invests even the helpless babe with a dignity commanding respect.
A picture with so serious an intention can never be widely understood. The meaning is too subtle for the casual observer. An outgrowth of mediæval pietism, it was superseded by more popular subjects, and has never since been revived. The subject had its origin as an idealized nativity, set in pastoral surroundings which suggest the Bethlehem manger. Theologically it represented the Virgin as the first worshipper of her divine Son. But though the sacred mystery of Mary's experience sets her forever apart as "blessed among women," she is the type of true motherhood in all generations.
The Madonna in Adoration is, properly speaking, a fifteenth century subject. It belongs primarily to that most mystic of all schools of art, the Umbrian, centering in the town of Perugia. Nowhere else was painting so distinctly an adjunct of religious services, chiefly designed to aid the worshipper in prayer and contemplation.
As an exponent of the typical qualities of the Perugian school stands the artist who is known by its name, Perugino. His favorite subject is the Madre Pia, and his best picture of the kind is the Madonna of the National Gallery. Having once seen her here, the traveller recognizes her again and again in other galleries, in the many replicas of this charming composition. The Madonna kneels in the foreground, adoring with folded hands the child, who is supported in a sitting posture on the ground, by a guardian angel. The Virgin's face is full of fervent and exalted emotion.
Perugino had no direct imitator of his Madre Pia, but his Bolognese admirer Francia treated the subject in a way that readily suggests the source of his inspiration. His Madonna of the Rose Garden in Munich instantly recalls Perugino. The artist has, however, chosen a novel motif in representing the moment when the Virgin is just sinking on her knees, as if overcome by emotion.
Between the Umbrian school and the Florentine, a reciprocal influence was exerted. If the latter taught the former many secrets of composition and technical execution, the Umbrians in turn imparted something of their mysticism to their more matter-of-fact neighbors. While the Umbrian school of the fifteenth century was occupied with the Madre Pia, Florence also was devoted to the same subject. Sculpture led the race, and in the front ranks was Luca della Robbia, founder of the school which bears his family name.
Beginning as a worker in marble, his inventive genius presently wrought out a style of sculpture peculiarly his own. This was the enamelled terra-cotta bas-relief showing pure white figures against a background of pale blue. They were made chiefly in circular medallions, lunettes, and tabernacles, and were scattered throughout the churches and homes of Tuscany.
Associated with Luca in his work was his nephew Andrea, who, in turn, had three sculptor sons, Giovanni, Girolamo, and Luca II. So great was the demand for their ware that the Della Robbia studios became a veritable manufactory from which hundreds of pieces went forth. Of these, a goodly number represent the Madonna in Adoration. While it is difficult to trace every one of these with absolute correctness to its individual author, the majority seem to be by Andrea, who, as it would appear, had a special fondness for the subject. It must be acknowledged that the nephew is inferior to his uncle in his ideal of the Virgin, less original than Luca in his conceptions, and less noble in his results. His work, notwithstanding, has many charming qualities, which are specially appropriate to the character of the particular subject under consideration. There is, indeed, a peculiar value in low relief, for purposes of idealization. It has an effect of spiritualizing the material, and giving the figures an ethereal appearance. Andrea profited by this advantage, and, in addition, showed great delicacy of judgment in subduing curves and retaining simplicity in his lines.
We may see all this in the popular tabernacle which he designed, and of which there are at least five, and probably more, copies. The Madonna kneels prayerfully before her babe, who lies on the ground by some lily stalks. In the sky above are two cherubim and hands holding a crown. There is a girlish grace in the kneeling figure, and a rare sweetness in the face, entirely free from sentimentality. A severe simplicity of drapery, and the absence of all unnecessary accessories, are points of excellence worth noting. The composition was sometimes varied by the introduction of different figures in the sky, other cherubim, or the head of the Almighty, with the Dove.