THE VIRGIN MARY AND THE TRADITIONS OF PAINTERS.*
THE light thrown by Sacred Art upon the doctrines and practice of the early Christian Church must always be a subject fraught with interest to every unprejudiced mind, and starting with the proposition, well expressed by Mr. Clay, that to reach the highest excellence in painting it is necessary that beauty in the execution should be combined with truth in the representation of fact, we have in any study of the subject carefully to ascertain, if possible, at what point, through any complication of conflicting interests, truth has been made subservient to some arbitrary and one-sided standard of beauty, or the faithfulness of the painter been sacri- ficed to the interests of the hour. In the little volume before us, Mr. Clay has collected a careful amount of evidence as to the traditions of painters concerning the Virgin Mary, from the earliest era of Christianity to the present day. He points out that while Antioch, Alexandri, and Constantinople possess so few even frag- ments of art which can recall for us the era of their early Christian life, we have in Rome an abundant storehouse of material upon which to draw for illustrations of every successive period of Christian art. He seeks his first traditions of the Virgin among the rough specimens of art in the Catacombs which spoke to the living of the belief of the dead, and there is a singularly suggestive absence of all distinctive allusion to the Virgin Mary at all, in the earliest of these rude illustrations of Christian doctrine. We think Mr. Clay, in his first chapter, has sufficiently demonstrated that the earliest form in which the Virgin was represented in painting was as an Orante, not with the Holy Infant in her arms at all, but in the attitude of prayer, with her arms wide open in the form of a cross. And he quotes from Lanzin an account of a glass, kept in the Museo Trombelli, in Bologna, on which the Virgin appears as an Orante, with her name, "Maria," inscribed; and refers to a similar one, said to be in the Museum of the Pro- paganda at Rome, adding that "these glasses probably belong to the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century." Other examples are given, but during this early period there is no trace of art-teaching which gives any pre-eminence to the Virgin over the other saints. From the rude illustrations of the Catacombs, Mr. Clay passes to the sculpture on the tombs of the more wealthy Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries, and calls attention to the tomb of Junius Bassus, who died in the year 359. Upon it Christ is sculptured, seated between two Apostles. There are scenes from His life and other groups from Scripture history, • The Virgin Mary and the Traditions of Painfers. By the Rev. J. G. (Hay, M.A. Landon: J. T. Hayes. 1873.
but no appearance of the Virgin Mary ; and the same omission is noticeable on the sarcophagus of Probus, and on that of his son, on which Christ and' his Apostles appear. But the scenes repre- sented on large collections of sarcophagi present such sameness that Mr. Clay is led to the conclusion that the choice of them was not arbitrary, but that the artist was governed by some law, and he observes, "That law is what we have to discover." The pages which follow are full of interest to the careful student of sacred art. Mr. Clay establishes with considerable clearness that the artist did not suggest, but only illustrate the doctrines more or less plainly recognised, so that we have here a tolerably good clue to the date when any dogma of the Church was gene- rally accepted, and also of the periods when it was not recognised. After a careful examination of the list of subjects on the sarco- phagi, made out by Mr. Burgon, Mr. Clay gives his reasons for believing they were chosen to illustrate the ritual of the Church, and just noticing that there was no festival in the name of the Virgin till the end of the fifth century, he points out that the two earliest festivals of the Church, Pascha and Pentecost, are those most frequently illustrated. (We do not see that he establishes this, especially not with reference to Pentecost, the connection between Moses striking the Rock and the pouring-out of the Spirit not being to us sufficiently apparent.) The miracle of the loaves occurs twenty times, and the change of water into wine sixteen. To Mr. Clay, and the section of the Church to which he belongs, these scenes point to the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper ; to us they are simple records of two of the best known of Our Lord's miracles ; but the real point is that in this long list, the scene of the Nativity occurs only once, and the Annunciation not at all.
The Ascension of Christ has its place, and less frequently and at later date we have the Adoration of the Magi with the Child seated on the Virgin's lap. That became, says Mr. Clay, a subject for art, when the Epiphany began to be celebrated as a
festival in Rome. The first historical notice of this festi- val occurs in the year 361, and we have indirect evidence as to the state of the Church with regard to its Festivals in the casual observation of St. Chrysostom, " That the Church has three festivals, like those of the Jews, but more excellent, Epiphany, Pascha, and' Pentecost ; but here Mr. Clay calls our attention to the fact that the Epiphany was a feast of Eastern origin, and in the Eastern Church was the feast of the Baptism of Christ in Jordan ; that the adoration of the Wise Men at Beth- lehem was not connected with it, and therefore the Virgin had no part in it,—that, in fact, " the Epiphany in the Greek portion of the Church was the declaration of the divinity of Christ to the Jews, and not the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles." Chrysostom accepts this as the root-idea of the Epiphany, but when the festival passed into the Latin Church, though it retained its Greek name, " the lesson peculiar to the day was altered ; the sign given to the Gentiles took the place of the sign given to the Jews, and instead of the Baptism of Christ, the adoration of the Magi became the appropriate Gospel for the day." St. Ambrose in his teaching appears to have mingled the two ideas, while St. Augustine accepts the Latin one as a settled question. Drawing what seems to us a legitimate inference from facts carefully sifted, Mr. Clay observes, " We shall be near the truth in saying it (the festival of the Epiphany) was received into some parts of Italy unostentatiously in the latter half of the fourth century, a little before or during the episcopate of Ambrose." The point to be settled, we must bear in mind, is that the adoration of the Magi was not one of the earliest subjects of Roman art, and that it was not represented for the sake of the Virgin Mary, while the festival of the Nativity does not appear to have taken even equal rank, and in one of the earliest representations of it yet discovered, namely, that on a marble bearing date 343, the Virgin is absent altogether from the group. A. century and a half later, we get four examples of the manner in which the subject of the Nativity was treated in sculpture on sarcophagi. On one we have the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi, in separate groups. In the Adoration of the Shepherds the Virgin does not appear. With much patience and impartial judgment, Mr. Clay has studied the early pictures of the Virgin and Child, and traced the causes which. led to the gradual substitution of a higher form, both of thought and art, in the delineation of the subject, till the highest embodiment of the spiritual conception of the artist, when he would have illustrated the meekness, lowliness, and purity which he held essential to the character of Mary, but which was after- _ wards made subservient to the corruption of doctrine of a darker age.
Me. Clay commences this portion of his subject (which, by the way, we may mention, is here and throughout the book treated as a subject for historical and artistic accuracy, not in any way as a theological discussion), by a minute examination of the mosaics of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, executed soon after the year 431. He appears to have had no small difficulty in making
this research, but the result is full of interest. We have not, space to draw attention to much which he has noticed, but must confine ourselves to the main figure in the groups under inspection. Here we have " the earliest example of the Annunciation in exist-
ence." There is no example of the subject in the Catacombs or on the sarcophagi. And Mr. Clay observes, it seems here as if it were the attempt of an artist to treat an unfamiliar subject. The Virgin here is in the dress of a Roman lady of the time of Galla Placidia. In the presentation of Christ in the Temple the Virgin also appears richly dressed. Then there is a picture of the arrival of the Wise Men before Herod, on the interpretation of which Mr. Clay differs from Ciampini ; but as the Virgin is not in it, we have nothing to do with it at this moment. But the next is a picture of the Magi, in which the Child Jesus sits on a chair or throne by Himself ; the star is seen above Him, and near Him sits the Virgin on a separate seat. Her dress is quite different (we are quoting from Mr. Clay's obser- vations) from that which she bears in the other pictures of the same series ; " she is not dressed as a Roman lady of the period of Galls Placidia, but in the garb of a Madonna of the middle-ages.. The Wise Men are there, but only two ; the third is missing." To account for this, says Mr. Clay, it is necessary to bring an act of dishonesty to light :-
" The mosaic has been repaired and corrupted in modern times.. When Ciampini wrote his description of it, the first of the three Magi was standing before Christ in that place which the sitting Virgin now occupies, and the Virgin herself was standing on the other side of the throne. Such was the original arrangement of the group, and such it continued to be up to the end of the seventeenth century. Then the Romans would no longer tolerate the idea of a standing Madonna. The leader of the Magi was compelled to vanish from the place which he had occupied for centuries, that he might leave a vacant space for a sitting Madonna. The stratagem was contrived with the design not only of placing the Virgin on an equality with the Child, but also of placing her between Christ and the two Magi, so that they appear to address them- selves full as much to her as to Him. And the Virgin so introduced is not dressed in the fashion known to art in the time of Galls Placidia, but in the garb which was assigned to her in much later times. The change and the reason of it are equally plain to be seen. No one, at all acquainted with sacred art, could suppose for a moment that the figure of the Virgin, as it appears in the Adoration of the Magi, could be of the same epoch as those which appear in three other compositions which form part of this series. The work is modern ; and tho change cannot be called a restoration, it is a falsification."
Passing to the treatment-of these subjects as works of art, Mr. Clay enters into the difficulties with which the Christian artist of that early period had to contend. He was called upon to paint, perhaps for the first time, scenes in Nazareth, Bethlehem, and
Jerusalem. " He has painted them as if the actions represented had taken place in Rome of the fifth century. The artist was- evidently ignorant of all that belonged to another age and country. Sacred art in Rome worked with Roman ideas." And thus up, to this period we have the Virgin painted in scrupulous imitation of the best Roman fashion of the time. The Roman patrician was the artist's highest idea of dignified character, but then comes the attempt of art, as we have before hinted, to find a better mode of expressing that which is sacred. Thus we find the Virgin in the dress of a nun, a mode of attire which, as Mr. Clay remarks, scarcely corresponds with the sentiments of the Magnificat. Still, the difficulty with which the artist was contending was one which commands our sympathy ; it was an endeavour to express spiritual rather than temporal greatness, and we wish we had space to transcribe a few pages in which in masterly fashion Mr.. Clay has grappled with the difficulties of his subject, but we must condense, though too much escapes in the process. One passage we must give :—
" In the rich language of Scripture images of earthly things had been used abundantly to signify the righteousness and the reward of the Saints. These images may be used with good effect in the elevated style of poetical description. Rainbows, thrones, crowns, precious stones, white garments, trees of life, and the heavenly Jerusalem, are beautiful images when used as figures of that which is invisible. It is understood that they have a meaning beyond anything that we can realise, and that they are not to be measured by the rule of human experience. They stand as signs of glory and happiness inexpressibly great. They suggest to the mind ideas beyond those which the finest productions of nature can supply. But when these images of the sacred writers are taken literally, and translated into painting, and made visible by the artist as material objects within the narrow compass of a few feet of wall, then they lose their figurative nature, and at‘the same time they lose all their moral force and beauty. To give a spiritual character to his work was the difficult task which the Christian artist had to accomplish: In this respect the artist laboured under greater disadvantages than the writer or the preacher. Christian art had to learn what it could do, and what was beyond its power. Art can paint the sublime and beautiful so long as a simple idea is presented to the eye. But art cannot paint metaphor. A metaphor is a combination of ideas, which can be received into the mind together, though they cannot be brought together before the eye in one picture. No artist can paint the oil of gladness, or a ray of hope, or a sea of troubles, or the winter of our discontent. ' A crown of righteousness which fades not away' is a beautiful image for the poet and the orator ; but the art of the painter, which cannot connect the ideas of righteousness and immortality with flowers and leaves, can give us nothing but the picture of an ordinary chaplet of flowers and loaves that wither. The poet can use figures of speech which the painter cannot express in form and .colour. And when celestial glory is put upon canvas in the shape of crowns, jewels, and gorgeous robes, that which we behold is no longer spiritual glory, it is a feeble copy of the glory which passes away."
Mr. Clay observes that his meaning may be rendered clearer by a consideration of the Parables of our Lord, which he divides into Allegorical and Metaphorical,—the allegorical easily repre- sented by art, the metaphorical impossible to render, except at the .expense of the parable, as, for instance, " The censorious man with the beam in his own eye, when the attempt is made to paint him, becomes a caricature," which leads up to the conclusion that art fails when it borrows the riches and grandeur of the world as images of the righteousness of the saints. But we come to a time when the Church had utterly declined both in doctrine and practice from its primitive simplicity, and demanded a crowned Virgin and a Queen of Heaven as the grand object of homage ; and it is at this, the darkest period of the Church's history, we come upon the pictures of the Assumption,—about which Mr. Clay has many things to say, one of the most noticeable being a remark on a painting found in an ancient church, buried and forgotten for centuries, but recently discovered beneath the floor of St. Clement's, at Rome. The painting is supposed to be one of the most ancient on the subject of the Assumption. The crypt of the church in which it is found is as old as Constantine, or older, but Mr. Clay has, we think, proved most conclusively that the picture is not itself earlier than the eleventh century. A Pope Leo and St.
Vitus are both in the picture, and Mr. Clay brings a curious amount of evidence to prove that St. Vitus lived after the time of Photius. The history of the request of the Empress Pulcheria for relics of the Virgin is of itself proof that the doctrine of the Assump- tion was unknown, certainly unaccredited, in the early ages of the Church. We get a great deal of indirect evidence on the subject
of picture doctrine from the remonstrances of the Catholics against the Iconoclasts under Leo the Isaurian, and notwithstanding the wide-spread superstition of that period, it took many years longer before the Roman Church demanded the invention of the coronation of the Virgin and the doctrine of the immaculate conception. Mr. Clay does not obtrude his own convictions on the reader ; he has given the result of much research with perfect impartiality, and apparently a simple desire to separate the true from the false. We imagine him to belong to the Ritualistic section of the English Church, but he has done good service in dissipating the fog which hangs over the question of which he writes. We share his hope that sacred art may have its place as a living power among the nations of the future. Even now we think we discern indications of its resurrection to a new and