First Sunday in Advent: Donatello, Tiepolo

Virgin and Child, painted plaster, 1440-50; known to have been cast in his workshop from a mould, since lost, of Donatello, Florence, Italy, 1386-1466.

There is a usually a stillness, a posing, a freeze,  in most representations before modern times of the Annunciation and of Mary and Jesus.  Not to speak of the sanctity, piety.

What a surprise to find this high up on a wall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This woman is not still.  She is alert and protective; her right hand grasping her son’s left leg through her cloak.  Not a whiff of sanctity about her:  only the blue of her cloak and headdress denotes that this is Mary with Jesus.  Her child, plump-cheeked and plump-bellied, sucking two fingers, is straddled across his  mother’s arm.  The child looks out with the momentary, intense curiosity of a baby’s gaze.  His right hand is clenched and in a moment he will unclench it and will twist in his mother’s embrace and let out a whimper.  Time to go.

One can imagine this and, after all, we have been expected to believe and not just imagine.  I have seen, I am sure we have all, many representations of the Annunciation and of Mary and Jesus. Mary, we are told, is the most represented figure in the Western tradition.  As beautiful, powerful as have been these representations of  Mary with her son, they have almost all dissolved in my mind.  They are not for real.

These are the representations which express the belief, piety, hope, generosity or the faintly anxious foreknowledge of the painter or of his (her) patron.  The received tradition.


Madonna of the Goldfinch, Giovanni Batista Tiepolo, Italian (Venice) 1696-1770; oil on canvas.  The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

I am wary of received traditions. They encode the view and values of the very few with the earthly power and most of the goodies on earth.  I  imagine, given its date, that the Madonna of the Goldfinch is part of the propaganda program of the Counter-Reformation.  I don’t like the piety of the eyes-downcast Madonna even if I have sympathy for the child showing us his goldfinch.

The question is:  what actually happened 2000 years ago?  And what kind of people were these?  What does it mean now?  So much is hidden behind the frozen sanctity.

And as to why this is important:  people  and institutions continue  to draw from the ideology of this tradition.  Some of their purposes  are harmful to the health and happiness of ordinary people.   In the hands of the French National Front with their insistence on the Catholicity of France, who knows where this ideology will go when they come to power, as expected, in  two or more regions of France in December.  One example.

Here, from Donatello’s hands, is a human portrait which I can recognize: a woman, eyes open and alert,  with her child. She has experienced a cataclysm. Then she gave birth.  Unexpected visitors. What to expect next?

She is on the point of moving.  How does a woman remain still, frozen, with a child, wide awake, in her arms?



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