Introduction (aka dodging & procrastinating)
While outside the wind is howling and rain is battering the windows I’m rummaging through bunches of old postcards. Souvenirs devoutly brought home from pilgrimages to Europe’s great museums and galleries. And the mere sight of these reproductions helps to dispel my Sunday-gloom. So often, while brooding, we pass too pessimist a judgment on life and its dreariness – all but forgetting the invigorating jolt art can bring.
Representational images & aesthetics …. by what masochistic reflex have they so often been discredited or even banned? Human history is strewn with self-righteous iconoclasts, ranging from Jewish, Christian or Islamic purists over rational Positivists to trendy, secular Post-Modernists .
And after the decline of the Antique mastery of representational art, it has been a very close call indeed for Western Art. Not only had artistic skills been lost, but also there were the deep-rooted theological suspicions of all images, nay of anything remotely pleasing to the senses.
Fortunately Christianity has always had its fair share of casuist sophistry, so the icono-phobic fundamentalists could be swayed from their ascetic course by arguing that “the dull mind rises to truth through that which is material” (1) and “man may rise to the contemplation of the divine through the senses” (2). Wise words indeed! Paving the way for an extra-ordinary blossoming of religious representational art in the next 500 years or so.
- I am not a devout catholic.
- I am not a sentimental person.
- I do not burn candles in front of effigies.
What I really wanted to write about :
Well, after having disclaimed what had to be disclaimed, I can now confess that what I really wanted to write about today is my own love of madonna’s (3) …
Take those very early medieval statues. They’re so clumsy and sturdy, and yet so suffused with love and trust. The Madonna as a solid fortress, as the Seat of Wisdom – knowing of all the worries and all the slings and arrows of this outrageous world. Or the Madonna warily looking out into the world, broodingly holding the child on her lap – stern, even with a hint of premonitory sadness. Yes, the kind of figure, full of compassion and wisdom, one could pray to in dark & violent times. Sometimes these medieval statues are in torn and worm-eaten wood – almost sharing our own transience. Is it idolatry then when I gasp and even have to fight back tears whenever I meet one of those time worn statues in a dusty museum room? (4)
Over the centuries madonna’s became ever more graceful & gracious, gently swaying with tender love. From figures painted or sculpted with honest pathos they became staples of sentimentality or of vacuous, almost abstract virtuosity. (see (5) for a rant about Raphael)
But then there is a painter such as Giovanni Bellini, whose paintings are endowed with a sense of atmosphere and light that soothes and elates. And who has painted many a sweet Madonna for many a village and city church. Sentimental? Perhaps, but a brooding, contemplative sentimentality that evokes thoughtfulness and compassion. His pictures are saved from corniness by “the imprint of sadness, that none of his madonna’s altogether lacks” (6)& (7)
No-Nonsense Footnotes and links to more pictures!
(1) Abbot Suger : pioneer of breathtakingly sensual gothic art
(2) Pseudo-Denis : famous but obscure early 6th century theologian
(3) When you Google-query madonna , the first two hits are about madonna, the singer…. (& she dominates the first page). Sign of the times indeed (or rather indicative of the, perhaps, hum, ever so slightly outdated nature of this pre-occupation of mine ). But anyway, here’s a primer on madonna’s in art (with lovely pictures! Do click on!!! )
(4) Blurry pictures devoutly taken in Lille, Auxerre, Namur, and one Liège Postcard
(5) I am quite allergic to the madonna’s painted by that paragon of renaissance art,
Raphael. However formally brilliant, his madonna’s exude not an atom of felt life, give no hint of any inner life whatsoever, let alone that they would convey any intimations of human suffering.
(6) This is in fact a phrase borrowed from the art historian Friedlaender and he wrote it about another painter (Quentin Metsys), but well , it is so particularly apt for Bellini too.
(7) From the London National Gallery site