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Our Lady in all her guises

26 Jan 2013 10:50 am

Reviewed by Robeir al-Faris


Two days from today, on 29 January, the Coptic Church celebrates the Dormition of the holy Virgin. To mark the occasion, Watani International offers its readers a review of the most recent publication in Egypt on the holy Virgin: an Arabic translation of Estelle May Hurll’s Madonna in Art

The book Mariam al-Athra’ fil-Fann (Madonna in Art) by fine arts researcher Estelle May Hurll (1863 – 1924) was translated from English into Arabic by al-Hussein Khudeiry and published by the State-owned Akhbar al-Youm Publishing House. Hurll takes her readers on an interesting, profound journey among some of the most renowned painters and sculptors in the history of art, artists who turned their skills towards creating images of the Madonna.12312 (1).jpg These artists included Duccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Caravaggio, Rubens, Salvador Dalí and Henry Moore. 
The book begins with portraits of Madonna: Madonna enthroned; Madonna in Heaven; rural Madonna; Madonna the tender Mother; and Madonna the eyewitness. 
Hurll travelled to churches all over the world in her search. In effect, her journey began some 15 centuries ago when Madonna and Her Infant were first depicted in art. Hurll writes: “Motherhood is a subject that attracts all types of people; a subject that is not hard to understand. An artist pours his soul in such a dominant feature of a mother’s love.”
 Madonna in Byzantine 
Throughout the centuries, Hurll writes, a huge amount of images of the holy Virgin have accumulated, a number no-one can even begin to count. 
The first portraits of Madonna were in the Byzantine style. Religious art was not, however, limited to the monumental decoration of church interiors. 
One of the most important genres in Byzantine art was the icon, an image of Christ, the Virgin, or a saint, used as an object of veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes alike. Significant changes in Byzantine art coincided with the reign of Justinian I (527 – 565). Justinian devoted much of his reign to reconquering Italy, North Africa and Spain. He also laid the foundation of the imperial absolutism of the Byzantine State, codifying its laws and imposing his religious views on all his subjects by law. The most famous Byzantine image, the Hodegetria, was originally of this type, although most copies are at half-length with a gold-paper background. 
In this period Madonna was depicted with a slim face, humble eyes and serious expression; her heavy, dark blue veil covered her with many folds. Hurll writes that this look was far from attractive.
Madonna the queen
In the chapter entitled ‘Enthroned Madonna’, Hurll says: “The Virgin is a Queen in every house; enthroned on Her loving children’s hearts. According to theological thought, there are two significations that must be kept in mind when looking at the ‘Enthroned Madonna’; they are the Virgin Mother, and the Queen of Heaven.”
Along the evolution of art history, according to the author, the ‘Enthroned Madonna’ begins when Madonna’s portrait ends. This goes back to the 13th century with Cimabuae of Florence and Guido of Siena.
Outstanding is the panel painting by the late medieval Italian artist Duccio di Buoninsegna from 

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Siena, originally commissioned by the Societa di S Maria Virginis for the church of Santa Maria Novella, but now residing in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The painting depicts the Virgin and Child enthroned, surrounded by angels on a gold background. The panel is the largest one from Italian 13th century, measuring 4.5 x 2.9 metres. Constructed from five poplar panels glued together, both the frame and the painting of the Virgin and Child were created to be harmonious. Painted in tempera, the Virgin’s robe was painted with azurite, a discovery made after its 1989 cleaning. The Virgin is shown looking directly out at viewers, as the Christ Child is seen sitting on her lap, giving a blessing.
The first versions were usually depicted on a gold background or surrounded by angels’ faces. The second version, however, was mostly used in the early paintings of the ‘Enthroned Madonna’; the subject that has become glorified.
Madonna as a beauty
The Venice school of art depicted the Madonna in a more modern style, as a beautiful woman with handsome delightful features. That extreme beauty, Hurll says, did not deserve to stay in a manger in Bethlehem; a more suitable abode would be a royal palace. She clearly belonged to a wealthy and secular world.   
The turn of the 16th century saw the production of the first painting of the rural Virgin in its most elevated form. Even though there was not a great number of paintings that displayed a true enthusiasm in landscapes. Few artists granted us such treasures; topping the list was Raphael who had shown a great interest in landscapes in the splendid features of Umbria—a common background in most of his paintings. Raphael’s model of classicism dominated the academic tradition of European painting until the mid-19th century.
Madonna depiction remained a sacred subject removed from any realism. In her chapter “Madonna in the house”, Hurll writes that the Virgin was depicted in the house with a deal of skepticism. This subject was rarely tackled except in few paintings. 
Yet northern artists saw it fitting to depict Madonna as a hausfrau (housewife) in their works of art. This, they believed, did not reduce any of the Virgin’s holiness. Nevertheless, Madonna the Mother amabilis is the most popular subject—and certainly the easiest to understand.
Madonna the tender mother
The Madonna and Child depicted in many representations show the tenderness of the Mother. She holds Him in Her arms; holding Him closely to Her heart; touching His cheek to Hers; kissing and playing with Him.  
This tenderness was manifested in the Enthroned Madonna by Quentin Massys, who depicted the Virgin kissing Her Child, while in Angelico’s Madonna in Glory, She holds Him close to Her cheek. 
The Madrepia is a depiction of the Virgin glorifying Her Son, represented in humbleness. A new sense of overwhelming responsibility is thrown upon Her shoulders; here is the highest honour that could be granted to a woman; She receives it with joy and reverence, believing that She does not deserve it. Sometimes, She bends over Him, and sometimes She holds Him seated on Her lap. 
Whatever the physical perspect was, it expresses the most elevated and tender aspects of

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 motherhood, considering childhood not a purpose of love, but of venerable humility 
Even though the book is, on the whole, a joy to read; and even though it was published by a State-owned publishing house in apparent defiance to the conservative Islamism that appears to be taking over the country, there are a few remarks that tarnish the beautiful image. The language of the translation is rather specialised and may not be easily understood by non-Christians; and the images are all printed in black and white, which takes away from their attractiveness.  This despite the fact that a number of advertisements are included, and these have been printed in full colour.
WATANI International
27 January 2013


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