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

Bellini's the Madonna between St. Paul and St. George
In proportion to a mother's ideals and ambitions for her child does her love take on a higher and purer aspect. The noblest mother is the most unselfish; she regards her child as a sacred charge, only temporarily committed to her keeping. Her care is to nurture and train him for his part in life; this is the object of her constant endeavor. Thus she comes to look upon him as hers and yet not hers. In one sense he is her very own; in another, he belongs to the universal life which he is to serve. There is no conflict between the two ideas; they are the obverse sides of one great truth. Both must be recognized for a complete understanding of life. What is true of all motherhood finds a supreme illustration in the character of the Virgin Mary. She understood from the first that her son had a great mission to fulfil, that his work had somewhat to do with a mighty kingdom. Never for a moment did she lose sight of these things as she "pondered them in her heart." Her highest joy was to present him to the world for the fulfilment of his calling.

As a subject of art, this phase of the Madonna's character requires a mode of treatment quite unlike that of the Mater Amabilis or the Madre Pia. The attitude and expression of the Virgin are appropriate to her office as the Christ-bearer. Both mother and child, no longer absorbed in each other, direct their glance towards the people to whom he is given for a witness. (Isaiah 55:4.) These may be the spectators looking at the picture, or the saints and votaries filling the composition. The mother's lap is the throne for the child, from which, standing or sitting, he gives his royal blessing.

It will be readily understood that so lofty a theme can not be common in art. In our own day, it has, with the Madre Pia, passed almost entirely out of the range of art subjects; modern painters do not try such heights. Franz Defregger is alone in having made an honest and earnest effort, not without success, to express his conception of the theme. To his Enthroned Madonna at Dölsach, and his less well-known Madonna in Glory, let us pay this passing word of honor.

To approach our subject in the most systematic way, we will go back to the beginnings of Madonna art. Mrs. Jameson tells us that the group of Virgin and Son was, in its first intention, a theological symbol, and not a representation. It was a device set up in the orthodox churches as a definite formalization of a creed. The first Madonnas showed none of the aspects of ordinary motherhood in attitude, gesture, or expression. The theological element in the picture was the first consideration. We may take as a representative case the Virgin Nike-peja (of Victory), supposed to be the same which Eudocia, wife of the Emperor Theodosius II., discovered in her travels in Palestine, and sent to Constantinople, whence it was finally brought to St. Mark's, Venice. The Virgin—a half-length figure—holds the child in front of her, like a doll, as if exhibiting him to the gaze of the worshippers before the altar over which the picture hung. Both faces look directly out at the spectator, with grave and stiff solemnity.

The progress of painting, and the growing love of beauty, at length wrought a change. The time came when art saw the possibility of uniting, with the religious conception of previous centuries, a more natural ideal of motherhood. Thus, while the Madonna continues to be preëminently a witness of her son's greatness, it is not at the sacrifice of motherly tenderness.

In Venetian art-history, Giovanni Bellini stands at the period when the old was just merging into the new. We have already seen how greatly he and his contemporaries differed from the painters of a later time. Taking advantage of all the progressive methods of the day, they did not relinquish the religious spirit of their predecessors, hence their work embodies the best elements of the old and new. As we examine the Bellini Madonnas, one after another, we can not fail to notice how delicately they interpret the relation of the mother to her child.

Loving and gracious as she is, she is not the Mater Amabilis: she is too preoccupied, though not too cold for caresses. Neither is she the Madre Pia, though by no means lacking in humility. Her thoughts are of the future, rather than of the present. True to a mother's instinct, she encircles her child with a protecting arm, but her face is turned, not to his, but to the world. Both are looking steadfastly forward to the great work before them. Their eyes have the far-seeing look of those absorbed in noble dreams. Their faces are full of sweet earnestness, not of the ascetic sort, but joyful, with a calm, tranquil gladness.

This description applies almost equally well to a half-dozen or more of Bellini's Madonnas, in various styles of composition. For the sake of definiteness, we may specify the Madonna between St. Paul and St. George in the Venice Academy. The Virgin is in half-length, against a scarlet curtain, supporting the child, who stands on the coping of a balcony. In technical qualities alone, the picture is a notable one for precision of drawing, breadth of light and shade, and brilliant color. In Christian sentiment it is among the rare treasures of Italian art. The National Gallery and the Brera contain others which are very similar in style and conception.

The three enthroned Madonnas which have already been noticed are not less remarkable for religious significance. There is a peculiar freshness and vivacity in the San Giobbe picture. Both Virgin and child are alert and eager, welcoming the future with smiling and youthful enthusiasm.