>A Painting for a Snowy Day

>After what was quite possibly among the worst-ever commutes in the history of the Nation’s Capital, much of Washington is shut down this morning, to allow snow removal crews to do their work and for the public to stay safe at home and out of the way. The snow itself is not particularly impressive – at least not compared to last year’s Snowpocalypse II and III, in particular. Though to quote JFK, in this “city of southern efficiency and northern charm”, it does not take much for things to grind to a halt hereabouts.

So a brief post today, to highlight a painting I have always liked: Sassetta’s “Madonna of the Snow”. Painted in 1432 for the Duomo of Siena and now in the Uffizi, this massive altarpiece celebrating the miraculous snow in Rome that led to the construction of Santa Maria Maggiore, is a classic example of the Sienese School of painting. Siena is, sadly, sometimes considered a dead end of the development of Western art, though its influence spread to many parts of Europe, including Ferrer Bassa’s glorious Chapel of St. Michael at the Royal Monastery of Pedralbes or Jaume Huguet’s gold-tooled Last Supper. Once one becomes familiar with the works of painters active in Siena, they are easy to distinguish from the work of painters in the city’s deadly rival, Florence, for several characteristic elements.

Perhaps the most classic, tell-tale sign of a Sienese painting is found in the representation of human eyes. They are elongated, almond-shaped eyes, reminding us somewhat of ancient Egyptian or archaic Greek art. Poets and novelists of the 19th century, when Siena began to be re-discovered as an artistic center among collectors, often expostulated on the mysterious, haunting quality of these eyes, particularly those in the work of Simone Martini. This, combined with a certain mystical tendency in much of these works, rather than focusing on realism, makes them all the more suited for the introspective admirer.

Another factor in Sienese art during this period is the continuity in Siena from Byzantine and Medieval tradition of not always painting a group of figures to scale. If Christ or the Madonna are located in the center of a devotional image, as the most important people in a panel, they will often be portrayed in gigantic size, at least as compared to the rest of the figures in the painting. In the Madonna of the Snow we see that, although she is seated, the Virgin Mary is a giant compared to Sts. Peter and Paul who flank the throne. Her head rises above theirs even from her sitting position.

Other tell-tale signs that an altarpiece is probably Sienese include the favoring of a gilded background whenever possible, rather than naturalistic landscape or architecture; the use at times of unusual color choices, particularly for the garments of the figures; and a love for repetition of complex patterns, whether in an architectural detail of a structure shown in a painting. While the Florentines were exploring linear perspective and realism in their work, the Sienese remained immersed in their own stylistic tradition to the point where, in the view of others, they eventually came to be looked on as out of step and out of fashion by their contemporaries in other cities. Still, archaic or not, their work is of extraordinary beauty, and their slightly strange-but-spiritual quality puts them into a category comfortably populated by other, equally slightly strange-but-spiritual artists such as El Greco.

Of course, Sassetta does not actually show any snow in this picture, and with all of that gold it would have been difficult to represent. One cannot imagine the artist portraying the Baby Jesus seated in the corner making a little snowman. Still, on a wintry day like today, it is nice to reflect on sacred art such as this, which takes us out of the cold, ice, and slush, and even if trapped indoors, brings us to reflect on matters eternal.

Madonna of the Snow by Sassetta (1432)
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

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