Art Lesson: Getting Down With Jesus And Mary

When strolling through a church or an art museum, it is quite easy to become bewildered by the profusion of images of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. The casual viewer, seeing century after century of different interpretations of the Madonna and Child, could be forgiven for thinking that these images were created entirely at random. Yet this is in fact another example of why paying attention to detail, and knowing your history, is so important in understanding Western culture.

The earliest known example of Mary holding Jesus dates to about 150 A.D.; it is located in the Greek Chapel inside the Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome. Since that time, there have been tens of thousands of different depictions of the Madonna and Child. Because the Bible does not tell us what Jesus or Mary looked like, and we have no contemporary images of either to use as reference points, artists use their imagination in the creation of these pieces.

The majority of earlier paintings, sculptures, or mosaics typically depicted Mother and Son in one of two ways. Either the Virgin Mary was shown seated on a throne, holding the Christ Child in her lap, or she was shown standing and carrying the Infant Jesus in her arms. There are countless examples of these two archetypal images in Early Christian, Byzantine, Romanesque, and Gothic Art, and they are still popular today. The seated image, in particular, was often used as a way of representing not only Christ’s Divinity and Majesty, but also of His Mother’s own special role in salvation history.

Beginning in the 14th century however, and lasting up through the early 16th, an interesting way of depicting Mother and Son became popular. This was a form called “The Madonna of Humility”, which was particularly popularized by the Franciscans. While this sometimes took the form of Mary breastfeeding the Infant Jesus, more critically this type of image showed the Madonna and Child seated, not on a throne, but either directly on the ground or on a cushion on the floor.

This is a detail one can easily overlook. When seeing a myriad of images of the Madonna and Child in a gallery or cathedral, the eyes can blur over, and one painting or statue can seem very much like another. It is an important detail to remember, however, because it goes to the intent of the artist.

Stop and think for a moment about what this type of image conveyed to the viewer at the time it was created. After having become accustomed to seeing the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ as lofty, regal figures in churches and public buildings, seated upon a throne, here was something quite different. This type of image reminded the Medieval viewer of the humanity and humility of the two people being depicted. In representing a Jesus and Mary quite literally come down to earth, showing them actually sitting upon it as we ourselves might, the artists who created these images were expressing that love of humility which was so much a part of St. Francis of Assisi’s spirituality.

Thus this seemingly innocuous detail, which we can so easily overlook, meant a great deal to the people of the time in which these works of art were created. It allowed them – and us – to reflect and mediate on how God humbled Himself to be born as a human baby, with a human Mother to care for Him. It also demonstrates why paying attention, when looking at a work of art, is so important in understanding the reasons why it was created, particularly in an age which has long abandoned not only Christianity, but also the study of Western history and culture.  


Playing Soccer With A Michelangelo

The Prado certainly seems to be on a roll lately.

First there was news of the new van der Weyden exhibition, which I wrote about last week, and now news that the only Michelangelo sculpture in Spain is being put on display for three months at the museum, following a twenty-year restoration. The work, a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist owned by the Dukes of Medinacelli, is not particularly impressive. And yet the story of why it needed so much restoration should not be swept under the rug, as art historians tend to do these days when it comes to those with whom they have anticlerical sympathies.

In about 1495 in Florence, Michelangelo carved a statue of the Young St. John the Baptist for Lorenzo de Medici, but no trace of it has been found in Italy. Current thinking is that the statue was one mentioned in correspondence as being given as a gift by Cosimo I, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, to Francisco de los Cobos y Molina, the private secretary of Emperor Charles V. He in turn installed the statue in his family’s funerary chapel.  De los Cobos’ titles, etc. eventually came into the Medinacelli family, as did the family chapel, located in the Andalusian city of Úbeda. 

There the statue stayed for nearly 400 years, until in the early 1930’s debate began to swirl around whether the work was the missing Michelangelo. At this point however, events took a tragic turn with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  Anticlerical leftist (laughably referred to as “Republicans” by most historians) troops sacked, burnt, and destroyed churches and ecclesiastical works of art all over the country, and the chapel housing the remains of the de los Cobos was no exception. Worse, the statue of the Young St. John was smashed to pieces, with the soldiers reportedly using the head as a soccer ball for fun.

In 1994 the Medinacellis had the fragments sent to Florence for restoration, which took twenty years to complete. Today, the statue is about 40% original, with the remaining 60% made of resin and other materials. It was put together using old images of the piece before it was damaged, and with the assistance of modern technological scanning and measuring through computer assistance, to achieve a truly remarkable result, given what the restorers started with. 

This being the first time that the more-or-less-complete statue will be on public display in a major city, for art historians and connoisseurs this will be a wonderful opportunity to finally air some of the questions, assertions, doubts, and so on that often come with uncertain attributions. Debate will likely be lively and ongoing for some time. It is unfortunate that such wonton destruction however, was the catalyst for it.


The statue after being vandalized

They Blew It: The Met Loses A Rubens

Those of us who follow the art world, even if only to a limited extent, are often dismayed to find ourselves confronted by glowing evaluations of poorly executed work. Part of the problem in this regard is the disastrously bad level of art education which most American children have been receiving in school over the past 40 years, thanks to an art establishment which seems incapable of agreeing on teaching anything of value. The problem is, the same slipshod attitude toward art history and appreciation may be having a negative influence on our artistic institutions as well.

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece discussing the fact that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York appears to have no end of rich suitors plying her with gifts. Of course, The Met seeks to prove herself to be just as attractive to tech and media barons today, as she was to industrial titans a century ago. Yet in seeking to stay current, one wonders if she may be falling into the trap described above, spending too much time on keeping up with the youngsters, and too little on actually caring for her treasures.

For many years, The Met owned a painting supposedly by the great Peter Paul Rubens, the Dutch master of Baroque painting. The portrait of a young girl, believed to be one of Rubens’ daughters, was not hugely appreciated in its time at the museum; when an art expert decided it was not by Rubens, the Met decided to sell it, so as to gain more money and space for other objects. This is a practice known as deaccessioning, and it happens in museums more often than you might think.

When the painting went up for sale, the initial sales estimate proved to be a bit too low, because others were convinced the portrait WAS a genuine Rubens. Since being sold the piece has been restored to the listing of works by the great Old Master painter; indeed, it is now on display in the artist’s former home in Antwerp. The painting provides a fascinating, informal insight into the family life of a man who was himself larger than life, one of the most professionally successful artists who has ever lived.

This has been called “the biggest deaccessioning blunder of recent times,” and it’s not hard to see why. The fact that the museum relied on a single expert is weird enough. Also it’s not only ironic that, as the expert in the piece linked to above points out, with so much more and better technology available that a slip-up like this could occur, the fact that it did so at this level of artistic institution may also a factor indicative of decline.

The ability to tell what is good and what is bad has not only faded away from the moral lexicon used by society, it has increasingly faded away from the world of high art, as well. That is an unpopular view, of course. Nevertheless the point does need to be made, that if the powers that be at The Met were more concerned with studying and appreciating the works they already own, rather than pining for things which they do not, this likely would not have happened. Perhaps some remedial art appreciation is what’s needed up on Fifth Avenue to stop this sort of disaster from happening again.


Portrait of A Young Girl (poss. Clara Serena Rubens)