Our Lady, the “Pensive One” Marian Icons in Rome and Italy
1 – Maria lactans, Priscilla’s Catacomb, Rome
In the Bright Dark of Catacombs In The Clash of Gods: A Reinterpretation of Early Christian Art (Princeton University Press, 1993, p. 141), referring to early Christians the art historian Thomas F. Mathews wrote: “the images were their way of thinking out loud on the problem of Christ. Indeed, the images are the thinking process itself”. At least, the birth of a new iconography reflected and participated to a theological development, especially on a popular side. Nor was this process of thinking through images only theological, or aimed to didactic and ritual purposes. It involved the worldview and the feeling of life itself. It was part of a spiritual 1
revolution, concerning those expectations or aspirations the ancient society and culture was able to answer or satisfy no longer, the ground of material conditions not excluded at all. There is no reason to not extend such judgements to the mother of the Christ, indeed. Quite obviously in the Gospels, mainly in Luke’s Gospel, she expresses herself far less than Jesus. All the more this circumstance renders her a mystery, not only in the holy sense of the word. What little she says or does regards material necessities as well as spiritual pursuits, in some an autonomous way (for instance, in the Magnificat). It sounds so meaningful, as to make her worthy of being called the “pensive one”, still by a modern poet as Rainer M. Rilke in his poem Annunciation: Words of the Angel. And the Madonna of the Magnificat by Botticelli will be not only a reading, but also a writing one. Since learned or “full of grace”, we have not to do with a simple or illiterate woman, so frequent at her time.
2 – Maria orans, Coemeterium Maius on the Via Nomentana, Rome
No wonder, early iconic representations of her are interpretations at the same time. In Christian cemeteries as the Roman catacombs, the wall pictures were more decorative or illustrative than mediums of cult. Mostly, they fall within religious art anyway. Nay, they show how devotional art can be also a thoughtful one. Faded and damaged, in the Catacomb of Priscilla the oldest known image of Mary dates to the late 2 nd century. She is portrayed 2
seated, apparently while nursing an infant Jesus. In such a sense, it should be the precedent of so many “Madonnas of Milk” or Byzantine icons of the type Galaktotrophousa, reminding us of the human side of the son as well as of the nature of his mother. In Rome similar pictures are quite late, indeed. The central Virgo lactans in the front mosaic of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere is datable to the 12 th-13th century. She is enthroned amidst other virgins, on both sides coming to present her and her baby. The Madonna delle Grazie, now in the Church of S.ta Maria delle Grazie at the Trionfale quarter (to be not confused with a homonymous one at Tivoli near Rome, an image of the type “Advocate”), is a Byzantine icon which a tradition wants carried from Jerusalem in 1587, by a hermit whose name was Albentius. In 1618 it was built a first church, no longer existing, to shelter the image that will become very popular. After a censorship promoted by the Counter-Reformation, generally this kind of representations had got and will be rare again. In the Catacomb of Priscilla, Mary looks down at her son, with a veil over her head. He turns his head to gaze at the viewer. On the left a third standing figure, probably the biblical prophet Isaiah or rather Balaam, faces us pointing up to a star. In both cases, we deal with a prophecy interpreted as foreboding the birth of Jesus by Mary. If we accept the latter hypothesis, we had better refer to a legend reported by an apocryphal source, the Arabic Infancy Gospel. There, the Magi bearing gifts to the Child are identified as Zoroastrian priests. Zoroaster was the prophet and founder of their religion. Identified as the biblical Balaam, he had taught his people how to recognize the Saviour at the right moment.
3 – Enthroned Madonna and Child, Commodilla’s Catacomb, Rome
Thus, the pointed at star ought to be the famous comet driving the Persian Magi where Jesus was born. Actually, a scene of three Magi before the Madonna with Child is depicted in the same catacomb, as well as the scene of an angel announcing Jesus’ conception to the Virgin. Annunciation and search for the way will become coordinates of a civilization in progress. With or without Child, in all these cases Mary is faced or flanked by other characters of the sacred narration. In another image of the middle of the 4 th century we see only Mary and the Child, presumably sitting on her knees, both of them looking at us. She raises her hands in a conventional praying attitude, with her arms open and extended. What does mean, evidently, she prays God for us. This painting in the Coemeterium Maius at Rome attests that a Madonna devotion had begun. Likely, it will influence a type of Byzantine Marian icons, in Greek named Platytera: “wider”, or more spacious. The space she embraces is ours own, and maybe much more, as suggests the appellative Platytera tōn ouranōn, “more spacious than the heavens”. In the 11 th century at Byzantium, that typology will evolve into “Our Lady of the Sign”, so called for a stylized Child repeating her gesture 4
or blessing with a hand, mostly within a round halo upon the chest of the standing Virgin. A partial variant is a 13th century mosaic in St. Zeno’s Chapel, inside the Basilica of St. Praxedes, Rome. There only Jesus opens his arms, seated on Mary’s knees. His left hand holds a written scroll: Ego sum lux, “I am the light (of the world)” (John’s Gospel, 8:12).
4 – Theotokos or Mater Dei (detail), S.ta Maria in Trastevere, Rome
As to early Christians, we may guess that an iconographic typology like the Platytera could express their longing for broader spaces, both in a literal and ideal sense. The Virgin will be represented in an orant pose, surrounded by martyrs, in a mosaic of St. Venantius’ Chapel at the Lateran Baptistery (640-642). She had to appear as an orant also in the lost mosaics of the old St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, particularly in the oratory and funerary chapel dedicated to Mary by John VII, a Greek who was pope from 705 to 707. Today the extant figure of this crowned Madonna can be watched in the church of the Convent of St. Mark at Florence, the same which will be frescoed much later by an inspired Marian painter as Fra Angelico.
With respect to the type Galaktotrophousa, it might have well reflected social requests related to elementary necessities, not absent in the early Christianity. Above all it was a familiar scene, which made the new creed close to common people, peculiarly to women. Among the followers of this tradition in the history of art, we like to signalize two 14th century painters specialized on the subject: Francescuccio Ghissi, with his Madonnas “dell’Umiltà” (to be found in the Vatican, Fermo, Sangiorgio), and Barnaba da Modena (Virgin and Child panels at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, or at the Diocesan Museum, Genoa). The most eminent will be Leonardo da Vinci, or his apprentice Giovanni A. Boltraffio, with the Litta Madonna (circa 1490; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This oil on canvas looks so beautiful, that the master’s lesson matters more than any controversial authorship.
5 – Madonna and Child fragment, S.ta Maria Antiqua, Rome
Out from the Depths of Catacombs By time the veneration to the “Mother of God” grew near to become a worship, not without worries by the orthodoxy, about the risk of a female perception of divinity not less than an adoration of images in themselves. At last, her status of Theotokos or Deipara was sanctioned by the Churches at the Council of Ephesus in 431, although there was no general consent about the modalities of the mystery of incarnation. Meanwhile, Christians had got free to profess their faith in open air. Little by little, they dismissed the catacombs as burial grounds. Still for a while, the sanctified crypts remained frequented devotional places. In the Roman Catacomb of Commodilla, a fresco of the Madonna and Child dates approximately from the first half of the 6 th century. They are nimbed, depicted in a majestic frontal position, among two saints and a woman patron, placed in a lower decentred position and looking at the other characters rather than out of the picture. The mother is sitting on a jewelled throne, with the son in her lap. Her right hand is softly put on Jesus, what already preludes a typical gesture of the Byzantine Hodegetria, pointing at him as “the Way” of life to redemption. If not yet a full apotheosis, the scene is projected into a hieratic dimension. Anyhow, previous representations in the catacombs had been somewhat more dynamic. The prophet indicating a guiding star, the Magi coming to pay homage to a child Jesus, the angel come to announce a virgin Mary, a lamb bearer walking out from the past to symbolize the Christ in an evangelical way: all these images denote the incoming of a messianic feeling of time, if not yet a progressive sense of history. Now again, for political even more than religious grounds, a more static perception of all that distinguishes the beginning Byzantine from early Christian art. The Middle Ages will be a re-elaboration of our civilization, and an incubation of the modernity, as born in a Christian context anyway.
6 – Madonna and Child with female Saints, S.ta Susanna, Rome
If we compare Commodilla’s catacomb picture with a contemporary icon in St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai, Egypt, their affinity is remarkable. The latter represents an enthroned Virgin and Child, surrounded by two saints in the foreground and two angels in background. The presence of angels is the main difference. The figures and the attitudes of both Mary and Jesus are so similar, that one could suppose either painting made by the same author or in part imitating a shared sample. Really, then the imitation of some patterns began to be a recurrent character in Byzantine art. And, we may reliably imagine, designs on religious subjects wide circulated among Christians since long before. One of the first Rome basilicas to be consecrated to the Virgin was S.ta Maria in Trastevere, the old Titulus S. Mariae trans Tiberim. In the Altemps Chapel, there is an icon of Our Lady of Clemency or Theotokos Madonna, dating back to the 7 th century or even before. Also here Mary is enthroned with her Son, portrayed in a stiff frontal position, between two archangels. Instead of a veil, now a diadem covers her head. She is so richly robed, as to look a Byzantine empress. In Latin, this typology is called Maria Regina, standing for Queen of Heaven. Greek versions are the Kyriotissa, or the more earthly
Nikopoia (“mistress”, and “bringer of victory”). Analogous representations “in majesty” can be found in the monumental mosaics of S.ta Maria Maggiore and S.ta Maria in Domnica.
7 – Madonna and Child (detail), S.ta Prassede, Rome
The picture in S.ta Maria in Trastevere is akin to a fragment of fresco in S.ta Maria Antiqua at the Roman Forum, an old church of the Greek colony in Rome. Uncovered in 1900, this work was perhaps executed in the first half of the 6 th century. More fragmentary over-paintings make it hard to discern. The whole appeared an unique pictorial palimpsest, until a new astonishing discovery in 1990-92, again in Rome beneath the Church of S.ta Susanna. This fragmentary fresco is similar to both precedents here above, but on both sides of the Madonna with Child there are female saints, St. Agatha and probably St. Susanna. If we reach the Basilica of S.ta Francesca Romana near the Roman Forum, in the past S.ta Maria Nova, in its vestry will find another icon dating to the 6 th century or before. 9
Discovered in 1949 under an approximate copy over the main altar of the church, likely it was brought there from S.ta Maria Antiqua. Somewhat damaged and altered, it may be well deemed a Proto-Hodegetria. A different successful type is the Glykophilousa, “She who loves most sweetly”, also called Eleousa, “Our Lady of the Tenderness”, owing to the affective gaze between mother and son or to their characteristic pose cheek against cheek. In the Byzantine imperial age, religious and political powers are about to coincide. That is what in particular the Kyriotissa or Panakranta and the Nikopoia represent. Yet the Glykophilousa or Eleousa went on interpreting universal demands for kindness and compassion, in a popular way. The most venerated image of S.ta Maria del Carmine in the homonymous basilica of Naples is also called “Madonna Bruna”, owing to her somewhat dark skin. It is told to have been carried from the Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, by refugee monks in the 8th century at the time of the Arab conquest, or later – and more credibly – in the 12th century during the period of the Crusades, aboard Amalfitan ships. A Glykophilousa by Berlinghiero of Lucca (c. 1230) is today in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
8 – Front mosaic (detail), S.ta Maria in Trastevere, Rome
No wonder, this figurative typology will survive assuming innovative forms in the modern age. Depicted on a column in the Roman Basilica of Aracoeli, an early Renaissance Madonna and Child can be ascribed to such a type; the century ought to be the 15 th. Unfortunately, its author is unknown. We have examples by Antonello of Messina or by Botticelli, the Benson Madonna and the Madonna della Loggia. The most famous Italian Renaissance Glykophilousas may be well considered the Tempi Madonna (ca. 1508; Alte Pinakothek, Munich) and the Madonna della Seggiola (1513-14; Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence), by Raffaello Sanzio. Along with other Madonnas by Raphael, his reelaboration of the theme makes him, we dare to say, a St. Luke of the incipient modernity. Actually, nothing renders the concept of Glykophilousa better than this comment on the “Madonna in the Chair”, in the tale The Madonna of the Future issued in 1873 by the American novelist Henry James: “Of all the fine pictures of the world, it seemed to me this 11
is the one with which criticism has least to do. None betrays less effort, less of the mechanism of success and of the irrepressible discord between conception and result, which shows dimly in so many consummate works. Graceful, human, near to our sympathies as it is, it has nothing of manner, of method, nothing, almost, of style; it blooms there in rounded softness, as instinct with harmony as if it were an immediate exhalation of genius. The figure melts away the spectator’s mind into a sort of passionate tenderness which he knows not whether he has given to heavenly purity or to earthly charm. He is intoxicated with the fragrance of the tenderest blossom of maternity that ever bloomed on earth”. Searching for the Right Way Of course, no tour around Rome Marian sites could ignore the ancient Liberian Basilica of S.ta Maria Maggiore, with its admirable mosaics. Yet here we prefer to enter the Pauline or Borghese, or else “Lady Chapel”. There is a renowned Madonna icon, whose Latin title is Salus Populi Romani (“Salvation of Roman People”). In the Middle Ages it was called Regina Coeli, “Queen of Heaven”. In its matronly dignity, still today it is regarded as a patron saint image of the town. This original Greek work has been dated to the 7th or the 8th century. Like other icons, it should have been carried to Rome from Byzantium or the Byzantine area during the iconoclastic crisis which troubled those countries after 730.
9 – Proto-Hodegetrias, Pantheon and S.ta Francesca Romana, Rome A related legend is more complex. According to this, some of the apostles built a church at Lydda in Palestine. Once they saw on a pillar an image of Mary, indeed we do not know exactly whether with or without Child, which had prodigiously appeared. St. Luke copied that picture. Later, the original or a true copy was translated to Byzantium. At the time of the iconoclasm, to save it from destruction, St. Germanos committed the icon to the sea. The waves pushed it as far as a bank of the Tiber, where Pope Gregory the Great came to welcome such an indirect gift from heaven. A varying story tells the painting begun by Luke but completed by the angels, and brought by St. Helena to Rome in the 4 th century. At any rate, it was considered “acheropite”, that is not painted by human hand. Maybe there is something historical especially in the former tale, we read of above. In fact, this type of icon looks precedent to the post-iconoclastic widespread model, which in Greek is named Hodegetria. Even better, it seems to be one of the patterns from which the ripe Hodegetria will develop. In one sense, it would be an acheropite, prototype and archetype at once. Actually, a psychological explanation of the extraordinary success of such a typology might be that it deeply meets with an unconscious, very slowly evolving collective archetype. Before any radical change, it requires to be declined into all its potential forms.
10 – Madonna and Child (detail), S.ta Maria in Aracoeli, Rome
However, the difference between a prior and a subsequent stage is that in the former the Virgin stretches forth her right hand to embrace her child; in the latter, mostly the same hand points at him to show the right religious way. What betrays a probable ecclesiastic care to clearly subordinate Mary’s special sanctity to Jesus’ divinity. As to him, he rests on her left arm, raising his right hand in blessing and in the other holding a book, reliably the Gospels. What reminds us of a Byzantine styled ivory plaque on a Codex Aureus in the Monastery of Lorsch near Worms in Germany, illuminated in about 810. The cover relief represents an enthroned Madonna, holding her Son by her left arm. With her right hand she points at him whereas, with his small one, he points at an Evangel codex in his left hand. Notoriously, an episode in John’s Gospel refers to the town of Cana in Galilee, where the adult Jesus worked his first public miracle. To the wedding at Cana, he and Mary were invited together. At the height of the feast, it occurred a disappointment: “When the wine 14
failed, the mother of Jesus said to him ‘They have no wine’. And Jesus said to her ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee? My hour has not yet come’. His mother said to the servants ‘Whatsoever he said to you, do it’” (2:3-5). Then, pure water was changed into such a wine that the guests were amazed, for it was better than the former they had been offered to drink.
11 – Salus Populi Romani, S.ta Maria Maggiore, Rome
If we examine well the matter, best Mary’s iconic attributes are already present here. The Galaktotrophousa takes care not merely of nourishment, but of a surplus too. The Eleousa compassionates not only our sorrows, but also minor deprivations. The Hagiosoritissa, we will consider further on, pleads with the Christ on behalf of us even before we might ask for. Finally, the Hodegetria guides and shows the guidance, with discretion and no dogmatic pretensions. Not only as for the incarnation she is Theotokos.
With Latin formulas, she is Mater amabilis, Advocata nostra and Sedes Sapientiae at once. Was this latest role fully consistent with a Church, proposing itself as mater et magistra? Reflecting a divine Sophia, in one way she promotes and addresses our perception of divinity, even before her Son will reveal himself as the divine Logos. Below an icon of Madonna and Child by the early Roman School (late 12 th century; Museo del Colle del Duomo, Viterbo), we can read a singular Latin hexameter: Alma Virgo parit quem falsa sofia negavit, “The Virgin gave birth to One, who was denied by false wisdom”. After St. Paul in the First Letter to Corinthians, this falsehood should be the “wisdom of this world”, opposed to that of the Christ as God. But we cannot exclude any allusion to the Byzantine view, where the Saint Sophia was so central, as to be sometimes allegorized in a female form. If besided by Jesus, such a representation could even resemble a Madonna and Son. The problem of such a possible interference is also evoked by the Madonna delle Grazie from Sivignano, a late 12th century icon currently in the National Museum of Abruzzo, L’Aquila. This “thinking image” is rather complex and a little contradictory. It is an enthroned Virgin and Child. Portrayed in frontal position, she holds her son with the left hand and a mirror in the right. In a Byzantine iconic tradition this “theurgic mirror”, in part reflecting the Divine Wisdom, is usually an attribute of the Archangel Gabriel. But below our image itself we can read a Latin warning: In gremio Matris fulget sapientia Patris (“Father’s wisdom is shining within Mother’s womb”). Id est, evidently, Jesus himself. Nor was the uncertainty fully cleared by a 12 th century inscription in S.ta Maria in Cosmedin at Rome, where the “Mother of God” is defined as genetrix Regis summi Patris alma Sophia.
12 – Madonna of the Carbonara, Museum of the Cathedral, Viterbo
The Importance of Becoming One might object, all above concerns a Judeo-Christian graft into our compound civilization. Nevertheless, going back to Hellenic culture long before Christ, we bump into the archetype of a goddess pointing out the way, in order to penetrate the mysteries of the universe. She appears in the poem On Nature by Parmenides, whose long fragments survive. The city wall door, before which she taught the philosopher, still exists in the ruins of the Greek Elea, to the south of Naples. It might be not a mere coincidence, throughout the southern Italy the Hodegetria will be the most represented and venerated Madonna. If the former dealt with a generic raison d’être, the latter hints at the reasons of our existences. Just only in Sicily, we have 35 churches titled with reference to the “Odigitria” or “Maria d’Itria” or else “Madonna dell’Itria”, which are local transcriptions or corruptions of 17
the name Hodegetria. An Odigitria fresco is in the Palatine Chapel, within the Palazzo dei Normanni at Palermo. It dates from the 12th century, a century before the Odigitria of Calatamauro: a splendid mosaic fragment on the same subject now in the Regional Gallery of Abatellis Palace, at Palermo again. And in Apulia, at the Cathedral of Bari, a Madonna Odigitria is the patron image of the town. As customary, it is told to have been painted by St. Luke, eventfully translated from Constantinople/Byzantium to Bari in 733. Unluckily, today’s icon is only a late 16th century copy of the original, accidentally lost or destroyed.
13 – Madonna di Calatamauro, Regional Gallery Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
Yet sometimes this diffuse devotion was forgetful of an exemplary announcement by the Annunciate, distinguishing her from the way-showing goddess of Parmenides. To be in consonance with an eternal inexhaustible Being, we have to grow able to change. Jesus’ evangelical reply to Mary itself, “My hour has not yet come”, implies an admission of the 18
importance of becoming and of confronting ourselves with a changing world. Despite all, such a dramatic undertaking made Christianity less dogmatic not only than other religions, but than metaphysics too. The more the modernity approached, the more a different image of Mary began to spread also over that South, which had been Greek and Byzantine once. An inner peculiarity of this kind of representation, the Virgin of the Annunciation, is to be turned to the future even more than the Hodegetria. If central Italy will give the history of art sweet Raphael’s or enigmatic Leonardo’s Madonnas, the South begot the pensive Annunciates by the Sicilian Antonello of Messina (Munich and Palermo, ca. 1470) or by the Neapolitan Bernardo Cavallino (1650; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). In these cases, we can see no announcing angel, supposed to be out of the frame of the picture. So as the Hodegetria, an Annunciate by Antonello stares at the spectator, while distracted from reading a Bible. But her right hand is outstretched in a perplexed gesture, as if already wondering about the implications of that expression “My hour has not yet come”.
14 – Glykophilousa (detail), Cripta del Crocefisso, Ugento 19
Like in central Italy, the flourishing of a Renaissance art had been preceded by a transition period, which may be defined as Proto-Renaissance. Peculiarly in the South, it was a work of transformation inside the Byzantine art. The zone where Byzantine culture persisted longest was the Salento, in Apulia. There, some people speak a Greek dialect still today. All over the Apulia, Greek artists were operating in the Middle Ages. A Hodegetria icon at Cerignola, the Madonna of Ripalta, dates from before 1172. Inside St. Mary of the Cross at Casaranello, a Kyriotissa fresco is dating to the 11th century. A Glykophilousa in the Crypt of the Crucified Christ at Ugento, 13 th-14th century, is one of the nicest frescos of its kind: Mary and Jesus are portrayed not only cheek against cheek, but also hand in hand. The Hodegetria fresco, in the Church of St. Antony at Botrugno, is a local production of the 15th century. In the mural paintings of St. Stephen’s Church at Soleto, a Madonna and Child is another impressive example difficult to be classified, since surmounting known types and styles. Depicted in the second half of the 14 th century, it shows Gothic influences. Nonetheless, its origin remains transparent. It is a Byzantine way to the Renaissance, with the addition of a Mediterranean sense of the colours, not easy to be found in other European productions. The modern idea of Renaissance, as an exclusive Tuscan or Florentine goal, is no longer tenable. Rather, it is the confluence of various, even anonymous contributions.
15 – Madonna and Child (detail), St. Stephen’s Church, Soleto
Just only a glance at northern Italy and Tuscany, what would merit a longer speech. So called “Lukan” icons reached Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence, in different ways and times. Not by chance, Venice’s protectress is a Nikopoia type, as this town wanted to emulate Byzantium. History or a story tells it plundered at Constantinople in 1204, during the alleged Fourth Crusade. Since then, it is kept in St. Mark’s Basilica. Bologna’s patroness image is a Hodegetria, the Madonna of St. Luke, told to have been carried from Byzantium by a pilgrim in 1160. A long porch joins the centre of the city to its sanctuary, on the green hill “della Guardia”: exactly 666 arches and one pillar more, along a slope of 3.5 km. A monumental mosaic Hodegetria is also enthroned between the archangels Gabriel and Michael, in one of the apses of the Basilica of St. Justus at Trieste. It is an artifact by Venetian craftsmen, made in the 12 th-13th century, but incredibly similar to an apse mosaic of the Cathedral of the Virgin at Gelati, in Georgia (ca. 1130). Other Hodegetrias are 13th century Tuscan works in Byzantine style by Guido da Siena and Coppo di Marcovaldo, or 21
by Berlinghiero of Lucca (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and even by Cimabue (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). For the Renaissance artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari, particularly the latest was the first to detach himself from the now contemned “Greek manner”. Actually, the acme of Byzantine art was also a prelude to its fertile decay.
16 – Duccio di Buoninsegna, Crevole Madonna, Siena
If really the Madonna of the Chair by Raphael and the Litta Madonna by Leonardo may be considered respectively the best Glykophilousa and Galaktotrophousa ever depicted, then their equivalent as Hodegetria is the Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna today in the Museum of Siena’s Cathedral (also called “Crevole Madonna”; 1284-6). At least, in no other Italian painting such a figurative type achieved a so ripe expression, forerunning the end of Middle Ages. According to an aesthetic more than chronological criterion, we ought to consider that this masterpiece was preceded by three variations on the 22
general theme, by the same author: a Madonna with Child and six Angels, in the National Gallery of Umbria, Perugia; the Madonna and Child in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Triptych of Madonna and Child currently in the National Gallery, London. Each of them shows a disconcerting detail. An index of the Virgin does not point at her Son, but to the ground. That is, as to say: “Remember, dust you are and to dust shall return”. The same detail can be noticed in a Virgo lactans by Barnaba da Modena at Genoa, in the Madonna and Child by Simone Martini from Lucignano d’Arbia at Siena, and – long before – in the above mentioned Madonnas of St. Maria Maggiore at Rome or “della Carbonara” at Viterbo, or else in the frescoed Madonna Achiropita in the Cathedral of Rossano in Calabria (in all these cases, the indicating fingers are two instead of one, what makes also think of a blessing attitude: “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death”). Mostly, these vanitas vanitatum Madonnas gaze at us rather than on their mortalimmortal babies. By time, with less discretion this pictorial memento task will be assigned to Mary Magdalene, the best female friend of Mary and Jesus in the evangelical narration. With the arrival of the Renaissance, the Hodegetria type knew a decline in the Italian figurative art. One of the last examples like that is an admirable pictorial fragment, today in the Museum of St. Francis at Mercatello sul Metauro, in the Marche. It has been variously attributed, to an Umbrian painter as Pietro Perugino, or to a Tuscan one as Luca Signorelli. More probably, it is a product of value by one of their respective apprentices. For certain, it is datable to a period between the late 15 th and the early 16th century. This wall painting, once in the local Church of Pieve Collegiata, is recognizable as a Hodegetria especially thanks to a partially extant hand of Mary, graciously indicating her lovely baby.
17 – Madonna and Child fragment, Museum of St. Francis, Mercatello sul Metauro
Looking for an Origin of Originals Anonymous or authorial, artistic inspiration about our theme was wavering between the perceptions of a “joyful” or a “sorrowful mystery”, from a Mater amabilis to a Mater dolorosa. In modern art, often both feelings seem to join. Yet let us return to medieval times. Also in Rome, mature Hodegetria-like examples are not lacking. Their precedent should be the image in the sacristy of S.ta Francesca Romana, of which above. According to a tradition firstly referred to its later covering Madonna, in 1100 the icon was brought by Angelo Frangipane, while returning from the Holy Land. Some scholars have argued it is the truest copy of an original, once displayed in the Monastery of the Panaghia Hodegetria at Constantinople. An enamelled Madonna and Child of the 10 th-11th century, at S.ta Maria in Portico in Campitelli, proves the Hodegetria type began to be known even before 1100. 24
This small icon, once named Romanae Portus Securitatis (“Port of Roman Safety”), owns the main features of a Hodegetria. At the same time, it does not look a conventional Byzantine production. Its background is not golden as prevalently usual. On the contrary, the yellowish figures stand out against a dark one; some details are white. An impression of landscape is given by a stylized design of leafy tree branches, skimming around the images of Mary and Jesus, in order to suggest a paradisiacal garden setting. Above all, both characters are not so severe looking as in most Hodegetrias and derived representations. Something dreamy and playful permeates the scene, almost like in a childish drawing.
18 – Romanae Portus Securitatis (detail), S.ta Maria in Portico in Campitelli, Rome
Our Lady of Perpetual Help, or Our Mother of Perpetual Succour, is today in the Church of St. Alfonso De Liguori, after having been exposed in St. Matthew’s Church, no longer existing. Likely this popular image is a Cretan work of the 13 th-14th century, brought 25
to Rome in about 1499 by a pious merchant. Though of a derived type, it is not a real Hodegetria, for the mother does not point to the child on her harm. So as the Madonna della Salute in the Basilica of Cosmas and Damian, by Roman school of the 13 th century, she holds his hand in her hand. He looks back at a small Archangel Gabriel, holding up a cross in his hands. On the other side of Mary, an Archangel Michael carries a lance and a sponge. All these are instruments and symbols of Christ’s future passion. The transparent moral is that he found consolation in the arms of the Madonna, such as the faithful hope to find. To less devout people, this Madonna “hand in hand” suggests reciprocal comprehension and solidarity, along with a transcendent help. The more anonymous artists strove to imitate and dared to vary actual or presumed prototypes, the more they approached an archetype, which is a holy mystery too. Paradoxically, sometimes the archetype assumes the form of a new type, the imitation of originals fosters the achievement of originality. That is, meanwhile the Hodegetria and its “Lukan” companion icons had become dynamic patterns of the mind. Every variation had its own meaning and was an addition of sense, in a visual way even illiterate people could perceive. A step on such a way is the icon of S.ta Maria del Popolo, “Our Lady of People”, above the high altar of the homonymous church. Usually dated to the late 12th or early 13th century, it must be preceding 1231, when was translated by Pope Gregory IX to the current location from the Sancta Sanctorum of the Saint Stairs at Lateran. Whatever aged and wherever made, this Hodegetria depicted on a gold background in the Byzantine tradition invites to a freer interpretation of the stereotype.
19 – Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Church of St. Alfonso De Liguori, Rome
Another pertinent example is a Madonna and Child in the Church of St. Bartholomew, on the Tiber Island. Probably executed in 13 th century, this singular wall painting betrays Byzantine and Romanesque influences. In a hand of the infant Jesus, an archaic detail is a scroll of paper instead of the Gospel current codex. Such a mixture of elements denotes a stylistic transition, by time going to produce emerging individualities – Cavallini, Torriti, Filippo Rusuti – as well as a detachment from Byzantine artistic hegemony. Frescoed in the Church of St. John the Kalybite on the same isle, the contemporary gracious Madonna della Lampada, once Sancta Maria Cantu Fluminis, announces the pictorial development of a Proto-Renaissance in the late medieval Rome and Tuscany, implying a more realistic adherence to religious subjects in their living context. Within the Basilica of S.ta Maria in Aracoeli, the ancient S.ta Maria in Capitolio, in the Chapel of St. Pasquale Baylon, a fresco of Mary with Child between St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist was uncovered in 1994. It has been attributed to Pietro Cavallini 27
or to the Franciscan friar Jacopo Torriti, or else to an unknown master of the same Roman School, and dated to a while from the second half of the 13 th to the first half of the 14th century. This wonder Madonna shows an overcoming of the glorious Hodegetria scheme, which will return soon, in the Madonna del Divino Amore at the homonymous suburban sanctuary. Yet, if you prefer an old fashioned Hodegetria in a historical Greek milieu, nothing better than a visit to St. Mary’s or St. Nilos’ Abbey at Grottaferrata near Rome. The earliest certain information about is dated 1230; the icon could be a century older, at least.
20 – Our Lady of People, S.ta Maria del Popolo, Rome
In the Basilica of S.ta Maria in Cosmedin, or Schola Graeca, a Byzantine Hodegetria icon is dating back to the 13th century. Heavily restored in the past, it appears irreparably altered at present. A suspicious detail is a Greek inscription, whereas the Child is blessing at the “Latin manner”. Indeed, discoveries do not stop surprising. In the Church of Sancta Maria ad Martyres alias the Roman Pantheon, the main altar icon of a Madonna and 28
Child is an approximate Hodegetria. It did not look particularly attractive and was dated to the 13th century, until a previous layer has been singled out under over-paintings. Probably, this original is from 609. With the exception of catacomb paintings, that is one of the most archaic in Rome, rivaling with its sister icon at S.ta Francesca Romana in deserving the title of “Proto-Hodegetria”. Today, it is preserved in the Chapel of the Canons at the Vatican. The latest surprise has been in 2006, when it was completed the restoration of the Madonna della Strada (“Our Lady of the Way”), in the homonymous chapel inside the Jesuits’ Church of the Gesù at Rome. Devotionally enshrined and covered by ornaments, so long it had been believed to be a painting on canvas or on board. Finally, people admitted to watch the restored work realized it is a fragment of fresco on slate, coming from an older church in the same site and dating from the late 13 th to the early 14th century. Out of any preceding pictorial scheme, this Virgin and Child is a further evidence about the flourishing of a Roman art school at that time, with its own characteristics and with a large following.
21 – Pietro Cavallini (?), Madonna and Child (detail), S.ta Maria in Aracoeli, Rome
A Flight of 124 Steps to Heaven S.ta Maria in Aracoeli means “St. Mary on the Altar of Heaven”. That is not only an allusive metaphor. To reach this old abbey, become very important in the Middle Ages, we have to go up 124 steps. In 1249-50, the original Byzantine interior was restored into Franciscan forms. Nonetheless the Madonna of Ara Coeli is a Byzantine styled icon, datable from the 10th to the 12th century, though a legend narrates of the year 594. The edifying story tells it was painted by the evangelist Luke, so as other celebrated Madonnas in Rome and around Europe. Placed over the main altar, this Madonna looks sad like presaging Jesus’ passion, almost a Lady of Sorrows indeed. Yet she has been revered so much by generations of believers, as to be invoked as Virgo advocata (“Advocate Virgin”). That is, qualified to intercede against people’s pains, also because she herself knows them well. Another icon entreated likewise is the Madonna of St. Sixtus or “del Tempietto”. Since 1931, it is sheltered in the nunnery of St. Mary of the Rosary at Monte Mario. Its presence in Rome is attested since the 9th century at least, migrating from the monastery of S.ta Maria in Tempulo to the Basilica of St. Sixtus on the Via Appia and lastly to the current location. Obviously, that too was pretended to have been made by St. Luke. Anyhow, a restoration in 1960 dated it to the 7th century. Likely, this Madonna depicted with gilded hands added was carried from Byzantium to Rome by Greek monks or nuns, who founded the old convent escaping the iconoclasm in the 8 th century. If not the original, it should be a copy of the Hagiosoritissa, so called for a shrine containing a presumed Marian girdle with the icon itself. In a candid way, thus the cult of images had been associated to that of relics.
22 – Madonna della Strada, Church of the Gesù, Rome
The prototype of the Hagiosoritissa ought to have been in the Church of St. Mary Chalkoprateia at Constantinople. Other Marian “souvenirs” and holy icons, among them one of the Platytera, were kept in the Basilica Theotokos tōn Blakernōn, beside the Blachernae imperial palace. Yet, no doubt, the Hagiosoritissa – or Deomene – is the shared paradigm by the Madonnas of Ara Coeli and of St. Sixtus, as well as by two Madonnas more of the type “Avvocata”: the former, in the Church of S.ta Maria in Via Lata; the latter, once in the Convent of S.ta Maria in Campo Marzio, today exhibited in the Barberini Gallery at Rome. Datable to the half of the 12th century, both of them have been attributed to a local school, which was already painting with some autonomy from the so called “Greek manner”. Instead, the name itself of the analogous Madonna of Edessa, in the Church of the Saints Boniface and Alexius, suggests it is of eastern origin, carried to Rome in the 13 th century. Mostly, we are used to see Mary portrayed together with a referent character: Jesus or St. Joseph, the Archangel Gabriel, a visited St. Elizabeth, St. Luke as painter... As to the Deomene, on the contrary it appears what for some lonely Annunciates, implying the presence of the announcing angel in the original composition. The effect of this exclusive 31
focalization is deeply impressive, even a bit disconcerting. All these Madonnas without Child look at the viewer, but turned toward an understood interlocutor, who is an adult Christ himself. They move both hands, as to ask him for an intercession (in Greek, Deësis). So as in some Byzantine icons of the same type, in the Madonna Avvocata at the Barberini Gallery actually we can see him at the upper left of the picture, like an apparition. What does it mean? Rather than presaging Jesus’ passion, she might be experienced of it, what may explain her sad expression and middle aged look. Let us go back to the tale about St. Luke painter. Even some legends have their own logic. Luke was not an apostle, but St. Paul’s friend and close collaborator. When could he portray Mary or copy an “acheropite” of her? The most “realistic” portrait he could sketch, reasonably, was a Hagiosoritissa.
23 – Madonna of St. Sixtus (not to be confused with the homonymous work by Raphael Sanzio), Convent of St. Mary of the Rosary, Rome
Often, artistic sensitiveness followed another logic, playing with an indeterminacy in the 6th century original tradition. This is the case of not a few representations of “Saint Luke painting the Virgin”. Also there, mostly the picture inside the pictures is a Hodegetria, as in a juvenile production by El Greco (1560-67; Benaki Museum, Athens) or in an analogous one by the Guercino (1652-53; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City). Yet other types are not lacking. The most famous example like that, by Rogier van der Weyden (1435; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg), shows a breast-feeding Mary. And the Madonnas with Child in similar works by Jan Mabuse (ca. 1525; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), or by Carle Dauphin (1655; Church of St. Luke, Vallongo, Italy), are sweet Glykophilousas… At last, let us enter the Basilica of Aracoeli and sit down after the long stairway. With all its columns, it resembles that one built by St. Peter and St. John, such as told in the apocryphal legend. Enshrined above the high altar, there we may discern Mary’s icon, and better recall the story. Invited to the consecration of the early church, then the elderly woman could not go, but said to the apostles: “Go in peace, I shall be with you”. When back to Lydda, they saw the picture of her, miraculously imprinted on a column of the building. That is a true model, later St. Luke will copy. In the 8 th-9th century, this apologue was used against iconoclasm in Byzantine controversies. Yet it has something to do with the essence of the sacred itself. With a philosophical play on words, that is the presence of an absence.
24 – Jacopo Torriti (?), Madonna delle Grazie, Church of St. Mary Major, Tivoli
Depicted as standing alone or with her Son, the active prototype is the Madonna herself. Her vera effigies, “true image”, is an input as well as the output of so many slow varying representations. Likely, in this peculiar sense it is to be read an odd Latin reference to the icon of the Madonna della Clemenza at S.ta Maria in Trastevere, in an ancient pilgrimage guide to holy places in Rome: quae per se facta est, “which has been made by itself” (De locis sanctis martyrum quae sunt foris civitatis Romae, A. D. 640). In any case, such is a modern meaning we may give to a concept as “acheropite”. The hands, above all the talents, of those unknown artists were autonomous instruments of a high inspiration. Not a few of them believed a price and the way, to that state of grace, was their anonymity itself. Their works were windows on entity, with no need of a personal identity support at all costs. Unfortunately, an iconography not evolving with times runs a paradoxical risk, to not correspond any longer to its original samples. Most icons of which above do not meet with 34
as much devotion as in the past, or have been replaced by other objects of cult. Some of them are not so pleasant, as to satisfy the taste of the day. In one sense, later western Europe art was farther sighted than official religion. A capacity to adapt new forms to basic contents made these more easily understood or agreeable by contemporary people. Its skill was in melting old patterns and different styles into a synthesis we call modernity. Well known artists of genius were able to disclose not yet perceived aspects of such contents and forms. Yet either old artifacts or modern artworks are all steps of a same flight to heaven, or to a wider consciousness. Without those precedents, it could have been no Renaissance art at all. The renowned Post-Renaissance painter Guido Reni is told to have been used to pray the Madonna of St. Luke or “della Guardia” at Bologna before, while and after, painting his own Madonnas. What does mean perhaps there was no longer a technical relation with ancient models, but a spiritual connection remained close. In the history of religion, there are well grounded doubts we ever had authentic “Lukan” icons. St. Luke’s best pictures of Mary are the words of his Gospel itself. In the history of art though, surely we have several “Lukan” artists. For them, she worked as the main source of inspiration, their orienting star.
25 – Madonna Avvocata, National Gallery of Ancient Art in Barberini Palace, Rome
This conclusion lets us value a judgment pronounced by the theosophist Rudolf Steiner, in a lecture of 1909, as questionable as that of old copyists devoted to imitate more or less fabulous prototypes: “These Madonnas are, it is true, greatly changed from the simple figure of the catacombs in the first Christian centuries, where we find Madonnas with the Child groping for the mother’s breast. From this first simple figure, having little to do with art, it is a long way to the fifteenth century, to Michelangelo and Raphael, where after many transformations the Child and the Madonna have become in the modern sense much more in accordance with art – in accordance with the art of painting” (in the pamphlet Isis and Madonna: its translator from German is unknown; Mercury Press, Toronto 1987). Particularly, we feel to dissent from some a contempt of such auroral figures as “Madonnas with the Child groping for the mother’s breast”. That may evoke certain moralistic biases by old Counter-Reformist critics, as the archbishop of Milan Federico 36
Borromeo in his treatise De sacra pictura, more than the indulgency to popular devotional images in Ascent of Mount Carmel by the Spanish mystic John of the Cross (respectively, 1624 and 1585; it was a time, when even Sistine Chapel’s nudes appeared so indecent, as to deserve to be partially covered). On the contrary the first sculpture by Michelangelo, the Madonna of the Stairs (1490-92, Casa Buonarroti, Florence), is a Virgo lactans as well as his Medici Madonna of 1521-31, today in the Sagrestia Nuova, San Lorenzo, Florence. Moreover, in his painting of the Manchester Madonna at the National Gallery of London (about 1497), Jesus Child indicates an open Bible held by the Virgin. Yet half breast of her is still bare, as if her baby just stopped sucking. Nature and culture, matter and spirit, art and religion, there look reconciled on the same plane if not level, coinciding with the surface of the painted scene. As other Michael Angel’s masterpieces, this one too might be willfully unfinished, somewhat like Mary’s projection through centuries itself. In this sense, the new classicism differs from ancient classic art. The latter was concluded inside its static perfection. The former is walking within the mobile horizon of a remote completion.
26 - Madonna of Ara Coeli, S.ta Maria in Aracoeli, Rome
Copyright email@example.com 2008 Articles by the same author on similar subjects, at the Websites here below: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2531940/Space-and-Time-of-the-Annunciation; http://www.scribd.com/doc/2681466/The-Cat-and-the-Angel-of-the-Annunciation; http://www.scribd.com/doc/2913375/The-Hands-of-Mary-States-of-Mind-in-theAnnunciate; http://www.scribd.com/doc/2988387/Hail-Mary-Nazarene-and-PreRaphaeliteAnnunciations; http://www.scribd.com/doc/3817130/Women-and-Angels-Female-Annunciations; http://www.scribd.com/doc/4597267/Byzantine-Annunciations-An-Iconography-ofIconography; http://www.scribd.com/doc/8650381/The-Flight-into-Egypt-A-Transcontinental-Trip; 38
http://www.scribd.com/doc/9568413/A-Long-Way-to-Emmaus-Almost-a-SamaritanStory; http://www.scribd.com/doc/11517241/The-Bodily-Christ; http://www.scribd.com/doc/12902607/Magdalenes-Iconography.