Autumn Beauty: On Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna Of The Small Trees”

Lately I have been thinking a lot about a particular image of the Madonna and Child in an autumnal landscape by the Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini, and since today is the first day of Autumn, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on this piece with you.

Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) was the most famous member of a family of painters, which included his father Jacobo and Giovanni’s older brother Gentile, as well as his brother-in-law Masaccio. This particular member of the Bellini clan (and I will refer to him as “Bellini” for the sake of clarity throughout this piece) was not only a highly accomplished artist in his own right, but also the teacher of some of the most important artists who came after him. His most famous pupils were Titian, the greatest of all the Venetian painters, and the enigmatic but short-lived Giorgione.

Many of Bellini’s larger works, which were commissioned by the rulers of Venice, have unfortunately not survived due to fires and natural disasters. Yet his smaller-scale religious pictures, such as his beloved “St. Francis in Ecstasy” (1480) at the Frick Collection in New York, are arguably to Italian Renaissance painting what the work of Jan Van Eyck is to Flemish painting of the Northern Renaissance. They feature careful attention to detail, jewel-like colors, and inviting landscapes.

Bellini completed his “Madonna of the Small Trees”, now in the Accademia in Venice, in 1487; we know this because he signed and dated the picture on the painted slab of green marble on which the Christ Child is standing in the painting. We see Jesus and His Mother standing against a pea green, silk moire curtain with a cut velvet border in pink coral. Beyond the curtain is a dry landscape in early Fall, featuring two small trees – hence the title of the painting – along with some tree-covered hills and blue mountains in the distance, all beneath a very Venetian sky. It is a wonderfully quiet and still scene, and the rich colors of the fabrics provide an eye-catching contrast to the more subdued landscape colors in the background, which is composed almost entirely of graded blues, autumnal browns, and mottled grays.

This work is related to several other paintings which Bellini produced of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus around the same time, including his “Madonna of the Red Cherubim” and his “Alzano Madonna”, both painted in 1485, and both now in the collection of the Accademia Carrara in the city of Bergamo. However this one happens to be my favorite from this period, in part because Autumn is my favorite time of year, and in part because there is a pensive, dignified, but slightly sad quality to this picture. Given the size of the “Madonna of the Small Trees”, which is roughly 2 feet wide and 2.5 feet tall, it was almost certainly painted for its original owner to use at home, as indeed were the aforementioned paintings.

In making this point I can’t emphasize enough when, as I often do, I point out to my readers that paintings such as this were not intended to be simply decorative objects. Aesthetically pleasing though they undoubtedly are, they were meant to be USED in everyday life. In creating works like this, Catholic artists like Bellini were, in part, trying to help their clients, who were men and women seeking to develop a deeper relationship with God through a more active prayer life. The fact that we can look at a painting like the “Madonna of the Small Trees” and find it beautiful is only logical. Yet if we look at it and miss the intent that went into the commissioning and the execution of this piece, then we have moved out of the spiritual into a purely material and incomplete appreciation of this work of art.

For the wealthy in particular, the challenge of being a good Christian during the Renaissance while living in a world of profit and loss, war and diplomacy, plenty and famine, was no small burden to bear. Paintings such as these helped to remind them of their Faith, and to encourage them to remember the tenets of that Faith in their dealings with others, even if (admittedly) they were not always successful in their attempts. We can see this as hypocrisy, or we can see it in the light that Evelyn Waugh would have, as in his famous letter to fellow writer and Catholic convert, Edith Sitwell: “I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the Faith.”

In following the art world as I do, trying to keep up with what is going on in the auction rooms, museums, and galleries, I often find myself losing heart or even my lunch. The creative, the well-to-do, and our own cultural institutions are generally not interested in commissioning beautiful objects, let alone devotional ones, and instead are intent upon creating and acquiring works of profound physical and spiritual ugliness. Because we live in a time when all seem to act with deadly, fixed intent upon appearing and behaving in as unattractive and crass a fashion as possible, it is to be expected that our art reflects or indeed anticipates our culture.

All the more reason then, to retreat as needed back into the Age of Faith, when beautiful pictures such as this not only celebrated the beauty of the physical world, but also the spiritual beauty of God made Man: an act of selfless beauty which, like Creation itself, God brought about on our behalf.

Reunited and It Flemish So Good

Beginning tomorrow, the Morgan Library in New York will reunite the components of a magnificent 15th century work of art, which have never been displayed together in America before. Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece is a rare opportunity to see the reassembly of an individual expression of faith achieved through the collaboration of priest and painter. At the same time, the show is another example of how Christian spirituality has been stripped of its meaning, and turned into an art market commodity.

Hans Memling (c. 1440-1494) was one of the greatest members of the so-called “Flemish Primitives”, a group of several generations of artists working in 15th and 16th century Flanders which included his teacher Rogier van der Weyden, as well as Jan van Eyck, Gerard David, Hieronymus Bosch, and others. Although a German a birth, after Memling moved to Brussels to study under van der Weyden, he rapidly absorbed the new technique of oil painting. This medium produced minutely detailed, jewel-like works, which made Flemish art of this period prized all over Europe.

The Triptych of Jan Crabbe was probably painted sometime between 1467-1470. Memling had just moved to Bruges in 1465, and while not large in size (about 2.5 feet tall and just under 4 feet wide when fully opened), the piece was nevertheless a major commission for the young artist. His patron was Jan Crabbe, the Abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of the Dunes in Koksijde, a town on the North Sea coast of Belgium. During Memling’s time the Abbey was a major spiritual center, although today it is a ruin, having been smashed to pieces by Protestant iconoclasts.

The details of the Triptych, and the presence of specific figures in it, demonstrate that this was intended to be a very personal piece for the Abbot. The central panel depicts the Crucifixion of Christ, witnessed by the kneeling Abbot Crabbe himself, as we can see on the right. The Abbot is accompanied by his patron saint, St. John the Baptist, as well as a Cistercian saint (probably St. Bernard of Clairvaux, founder of the Cistercian Order.) On the other side of the Crucified Christ we see the familiar Biblical figures of the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Mary Magdalene.

The flanking interior wings of the Triptych show St. Anne with an old woman, Abbot Crabbe’s mother Anna Willemzoon, and St. William with a young man, who was probably the Abbot’s brother or nephew. We can deduce from the presence of these two saints, and the fact that Abbot Crabbe’s mother was named Anne, that his brother (or nephew) was named William. The exterior wings, when folded over the central panel, formed an image of the Annunciation, with the Virgin Mary on the right and the Archangel Gabriel on the left.

While the combination of religious imagery with family portraiture in works from this period was frequently found on public works of art, such as those commissioned by the aristocracy for local churches and cathedrals, the relatively small size of this particular piece suggests that it was something which Abbot Crabbe intended for his own use. Its limited dimensions meant that it could stand quite nicely on an average-sized desk or table, while still leaving plenty of room for reading, writing, or the resting of hands folded in prayer. The Abbot may well have used it when celebrating Mass privately in his cell.

In this commission, Memling would have had to work closely with the Abbott, not only in terms of deciding upon the subject matter, but also in getting the details right. The wonderfully realistic face of the Abbot’s mother, for example, is so direct and specific despite its small size, that we must assume that she sat for Memling when he was making preparatory drawings for the piece. The storm clouds gathering over Golgotha, and the charming view of a hilly, fortified Jerusalem behind – which is really the Flemish countryside – allowed the Abbot to imagine what the Holy Land must be like, even though he himself would never be able to visit there.

At some point in the 18th century, the Triptych was divided into its component pieces and sold. The central portion ended up in Vicenza, Italy, the inner wings in New York, and the outer wings in Bruges. Although the pieces have been brought together for exhibition before, this is the first time that this will take place in the United States. Because such events are extremely rare, this is all the more reason for you to drop in, should you find yourself in New York during the exhibition’s run. It is a great thing for art connoisseurs that the Morgan has managed to bring about this temporary reunification of some of Memling’s earliest known art.

That being said, regular readers know that I have a love-hate relationship with these kinds of shows. In seeing how this beautiful, deeply personal work of Catholic devotional art was chopped into pieces for the sake of greedy art collectors, I am reminded – perhaps appropriately given the subject matter – of Psalm 22:19: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” While both Hans Memling and Abbot Crabbe would be pleased to see their Triptych made whole again, albeit only temporarily, I suspect that they would be saddened to discover that it is no longer being used for the Christian purposes for which it was originally intended.

“Hans Memling: Portraiture, Piety, and a Reunited Altarpiece” is at The Morgan Library in New York from September 2, 2016 through January 8, 2017.

The Dangerous Christian

After the horrific death of Father Jacques Hamel at the hands of Daesh supporters on Tuesday, a number of commentators pointed out that, theoretically, Father Hamel could become the first canonized saint to be martyred in Europe this century. Admittedly this is an extremely premature notion, since being named a saint by the Church can take quite some time, even centuries. I will not get into the technicalities involved in this process, which are best left to others more versed than I in such things. Yet Islamic terrorism aside, Christians have long been considered dangerous creatures by many in power, even in our supposedly more enlightened times.

Saint Jaume Hilari Barbal i Cosán (1898-1937) was born in the tiny village of Enviny in Catalonia, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Today, the village boasts a population of only 27 people, plus a lovely Romanesque village church where the very devout Barbal served as an altar boy and discerned his vocation. He left for the seminary at the age of 12 but, plagued by hearing problems, he eventually had to drop out and return home.

In his late teens Barbal was able to join the Christian Brothers, and became a teacher in the schools run by that Order. He was particularly concerned with making sure that the poor received the best education possible, and with instructing his students in the catechism in order to provide them with a good moral and spiritual foundation. Unfortunately, Barbal’s hearing continued to deteriorate, until he finally had to give up teaching altogether. He then became the gardener for his Order’s House of Formation in Tarragona, a city about an hour south of Barcelona by train.

In July 1936, Barbal was traveling back to his home town of Enviny in order to visit his family, when he was arrested and charged with the crime of being a member of a religious order; he was then put on a prison ship along with other members of religious orders, where he was held awaiting trial. Barbal admitted to being a member of the Christian Brothers, even though technically by that point he was only working as their gardener rather than as a teacher, and in January 1937 he was sentenced to death. As he was led to his execution, it is said that he commented to the young men who made up the firing squad, “To die for Christ, my young friends, is to live.”

The volleys from the squad did not kill him at first, as it is claimed that at least some of the men fired wide on purpose out of guilt. In any case the squad dropped their weapons and fled, so the head officer personally shot Barbal five times at close range, in order to finish the job. Barbal thus became the first of 97 members of the Christian Brothers alone (not including other religious orders or secular clergy) who were executed by leftists in Catalonia between 1936-1938. As an aside, this incident should give you some idea of what the so-called democracy that existed in Spain before the Civil War actually looked like.

Perhaps if there had been more parishioners at the morning Mass, Father Hamel would not have been killed. Perhaps if the young men in the firing squad had restrained their commanding officer, St. Jaume Barbal would not have been killed. In either case, their deaths provide us with an opportunity to reflect on how very fortunate we are to be able to worship anywhere at all.

The barbarism that led to the killing of both St. Jaume Barbal and Father Jacques Hamel seems completely out of place in a civilized society, and yet here we are. We are extremely complacent, in Western democracies, when it comes to our religious freedom, to the point that we often take it for granted that we can worship or live out our vocations without fear of violence or retribution. As the lives of both of these men show us, Christian persecution in the West is by no means a thing of the distant past. It is still dangerous, after nearly 2,000 years, to try to preach and live the Gospel.