Woman in Art/Chapter 20 - Wikisource, the free online library


Motherhood in Art


Gospel of Beauty. Mary of the Hebrews; Saint Monica and Her Son. Mothers in Renaissance Painting.

"A woman who creates and sustains a home, and under
whose hands children grow up to be strong and pure men
and women, is a creator second only to God."—Helen Hunt.

The poetry of art is drawn from the poetry of nature. All pictures are not on canvas, nor are they wall paintings. Here is a picture to listen to. Let your mind supply the color, the light and shade and the spirit, which is the life of all true beauty. The sketch is from life, from the "Birks o' Aberfelde," hidden amid the Scottish Highlands.

The Sabbath morning air was radiant, pure and clear. At the foot of the birches on the steep hillside the woodland stream rushed, rippled, and splashed into sparkling light and glee.

The church bells had chimed, and the breezes
Had wafted the echo along,
Till lost in commingled music
Of the forest's leafy song.
The birds above and around me,
In a carnival of glee,
Poured forth their sweetest praises
On wing, on bush, and tree.

The slender white steeple of the little kirk pierced the thick foliage. Neat white homes faced the road that surrounded the sacred precinct of the village common, hedged about by hawthorn in full bloom. Each side of the common had a stile of its own. No one was seen on the street till the bell called them, then from every doorway, with reverence in voice and mein, old and young turned their steps toward the door of the kirk. Young men and maidens carried the Bible, but more often James took that of Janet with his own; or Donald plucked a spray of bluebells that blushing Ruth accepted and tucked in the edge of her bodice, as he handed her over the stile. O that stile, with its three steps up and its three steps down! There was need of the helping hand. The elderly gentleman tenderly helped the little old lady up those three steps and down on the other side amid forget-me-nots and clover. Her fringed shawl caught on a thorn, his eager fingers quickly disentangled it, and with a lover's look under the brim of her prim gray bonnet he questioned, "All right now, mother?" They had walked life's path together for well nigh sixty years, and babes once cradled in her arms were leading their stalwart sons and daughters to the house of prayer and praise.

It truly is beautiful!—and that beauty is all spirit, from nature and the human heart.

A minister in his prayer one Spring morning thanked God for the blessing of beauty and uplift that comes to us in sunshine, in the fresh budding and bloom of Spring; for the beauty written in books, painted in pictures, and carved from marble. That thought prompted the theme given here, the Gospel of Beauty.

What is a blessing? A gift with the good will and love of the giver. It promotes happiness and well-being. We know that beauty answers to that description, but how many of us ever thought to thank God for beauty? We are a working people in this world, and those who appreciate what life means are earnest workers, and the thing that appeals to a busy man or woman is the thing that is of use, that is worthwhile.

The Giver of our blessings never gives with meager hand, holding back a part till we deserve the whole, but with a largess boundless as the love that comes with the gift. He gives all gifts, and only love requires. So we have a great assortment to choose from, beauty of nature and beauty from the handiwork of man; the appealing beauty of helplessness and the compelling beauty of strength; the pulsing physical beauty, and the fadeless beauty of spirit, also the combined beauty of power and restraint producing grandeur.

Man-made beauty has man's thought in it. Nature's beauty has God's thought in it. We have already learned to recognize an artist by his work. Two or three canvases from one man's easel will acquaint you with his character, his thought and technique, choice of color scheme and subjects. Let your mind recall canvases by Corot, Inness and Waugh.

When mediaeval man was tempted by brush and color, it was sorrow and suffering that gave his pencil power. His thought was of the dead. The dying Christ, emaciated by pain, fasting and grief of soul far more than pain of body, was painted for the saving grace that the God-man brought to the earth-man.

The motive of those painters was religious.

In that non-age of books (save the Latin of the clergy) such sad and gruesome panels in church and cloister enforced the lesson, "A life for a life." None of us enjoy those paintings of the pre-renaissance period, but we learn something of the thought and development of that time through those agonizing pictures. They began with the fact of sorrow and suffering. As the effect of that redeeming sacrifice and the love that prompted it grew through the centuries, enriching the hearts that accepted it, artists painted from the cross back to the cradle. They painted disciples, Magdalens, cripples and suffering humanity that crept and crowded with the throng, reaching out to touch the robe of the human-framed Divinity who healed their diseases. Backward were those painters led through the dark of sin and suffering till they gazed on the Morning Star and found the Babe of Bethlehem.

That epoch marked the dawn of the renaissance of art, of faith, of letters, and the Christ-child became its most luminous cause and effect. Correggio's "Holy Night" illustrates just that, for the light that radiates from Him, the Bethlehem Babe, reveals Himself to those who seek him. He is the Light of the World. If one looks long at this painting it seems to increase in luminousness. Note the woman shielding her eyes from the light.

Art and religion went hand in hand and the Psalm of the Psalmist began its fulfillment in the hearts and on the canvases of men,—"And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us." And the beauty came, not from without, but like the beauty of the lily it came from the inner growth outward.

The renaissance was not confined to painting; it was the awakening of soul, gifted with new vision, new thought, and looking higher for its inspiration. No wonder painting was considered a divine art. Artists brought a scripture knowledge to their work in chapel, church, wall and window. No immoral person was permitted to work on any sacred edifice.

Mothers with children in arms or trailing at their skirts stood awestruck before Nativities, Miracles, Crucifixions and Ascensions. Remember, there were no books, no libraries for the populace, and adults as well as children learned of the Bible and life from pictures. The Lamb symbolized meekness. The dove taught a fluttering lesson of incomprehensible spirit and peace. The faces of men and women were changing, influenced by a change in environment, but more by the development of the spirit within. Those were years of strong contrasts—a reconstruction period. The world is passing through another in our day.

The art of the renaissance, or of the Italian masters, presents human development more vividly than do books, for man not only expresses himself in his work, but his enlightenment makes him faithful to his subject. Madonnas chosen fifty years apart chronologically show an uplifting influence.

In the subject of Motherhood In Art we see much beside the painter's craft, manifold as it is in technique, drawing, composition, color, etc. History, development of character and science, all depict the working of the spirit in the life of man, or the lack of it, which saddens the life.

Much in art had expressed the symbolic in the beginning of the fourteenth century when, thanks to Massaccio, the knowledge of perspective and foreshortening, the more perfect study of the human form in the handling of light and shade, gave more of naturalness to the results of art, and figures stood out independent of their background, and the phrase and fact of "realism" was applied to art.

Fra Angelico was the first of the Dominican Order to claim art as his birthright, and the last of the great painters to express his love of beauty in the terms of symbolism. Not all of his drawing was after the perfection of the Greeks, yet much was superior to the art prior to his time.

As "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh," so was the spirit of the man expressed in the output of his brush. Love, purity and peace seem dominant in his nature, and on his canvas or wall. Of the angels and Madonnas that illumined the gray convent walls, the "Madonna of the Star" is typical of his work and subject, that subject being uppermost in his religious thought and life, and the technical being the result of his youthful work as illuminator of letters and borders of manuscripts. His angels of music, with their jeweled wings and elaborately bordered robes, emphasize the fact of his early training in that particular and minute form of art. "The Madonna of the Star" is very beautiful in its color against a background of radiating gold lines, signifying the sacredness of the mother and child, and which, as an accessory to a painting, was reminiscent of Byzantine art and symbolism.

Madonnas were usually represented seated, enthroned, and there is a churchly dignity in the standing Madonna, the child on her arm, but the
Woman in Art - Die Verlobung der heil. Katharina.png

It is now in Dresden


Andrea del Sarto—1486—1531

attitude is not that of mother and child; rather is it that of a model, as undoubtedly the original was, a model who was not a mother but a woman whom the baby knew or it would not have rested its forehead against her check. The lack of the spirit of motherhood is the reason for choosing this masterpiece of five hundred years ago as a criterion of art to start from.

Practically a hundred years later Andrea del Sarto gave to the art world "The Marriage of Saint Catherine" which represents the enthroned Madonna, the Child on her knee about to put the ring on the finger of Saint Catherine who, kneeling, extends her finger to receive it. Saint Barbara sits grace- fully to balance the picture, while on the lower step a little cherub has his arms about the neck of a young lamb. A cherub on either side holds back drapings of the canopy, thus forming a harmonious composition.

It is the only Madonna we recall which has a smiling countenance; her position is graceful and with no suggestion of posing for a picture; and the baby, balanced by the mother's left hand on his shoulder, is just a dimpled, winsome little human of about a year old, his face one bewitching smile, his interest fastened on the lamb and cherub on the lower step,— the most lovable babe in the realm of Italian renaissance painting. The mere thread of glory above each saintly head is in marked contrast to the Byzantine disks of gold.

A contemporary painter with Raphael, being but three years older, but living thirty-five years longer, was Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1555), who sweetly expressed the spirit of motherhood in his painting of the Madonna, the Christchild and the young St. John the Baptist, which is one of the beauties of the Dresden Gallery. The mother, simply and artistically gowned in the period of the renaissance, sits by the open window that gives a view of a bit of landscape. The Child lies in her lap leaning toward St. John who is leaning against the mother's knee as he receives the caress of the infant Jesus,—a painting which the mind easily locates in the home at Nazareth, and for that very reason adding to its influence as a churchly picture of motherhood.

In marked contrast to such simplicity and truth, the great master of color, Titian, painted a most ambitious Holy Family for a wealthy Venetian official. There are ten figures grouped on the marble steps of a portentous, pillared facade, aside from the Madonna and Child, who are merely accessory to the Pesaro family. The head of the family monopolizes the center of the canvas as Saint Peter, the large key of heaven, attached to his great toe, pendant on the marble steps. Kneeling men in the foreground display the richness of Venetian brocade in mantelletta and cope, and the turbaned head of Mohammed inclines to the substituted figures of Frederick II, who upholds the elaborated embroidered banner of Venice. A monk, of the tonsured crown and rope girdle, stands on the opposite side of the canvas speaking to the Infant in the arms of the mother, who is seated on the base of the column. A floating cloud bisects the great columns, and within it appear two cherubs holding a small cross. The whole is a masterpiece of Titian's color and the magnificence of Venice.

Raphael painted seventy-four Madonnas in his short life, beside stanzas, signatura walls, church pictures, etc. The Madonnas painted in his earlier years seem more spiritual, of a more inspiring countenance and younger in years, thereby expressing a scriptural and traditional statement concerning the youth of the Virgin. Some of the holy mothers depicted in art give an impression of a careworn spirit, when perhaps it expresses such a fact in the life of the woman who served as model. In contrast is the Madonna di San Sisto in the Dresden Gallery, considered the most wonderful of all representations of the Virgin. In that rare face we read the heart-thoughts of the young, the wondering mother. We wonder, we question as she must have questioned many times and oft, concerning the meaning, the mystery, the mission of her Son.

Mary, of the Hebrews, was not only versed in the prophecies of their scriptures but her mind and spirit had been imbued by the Holy Spirit, and an angel of God had foretold her of the birth of the Child she holds in her arms. Inspired by the sacred honor of motherhood and the mystery and fact of prophecy fulfilled, with yet more to be fulfilled, the San Sisto Madonna looks into the future with wonderment and awe. The responsibility and love that has come to her with her sweet and marvelous babe gleams from her face and from her clasp of the little one to her breast. He is hers yet not hers. He is born with a mission, and the mother is God's helper in preparing Him for that mission. The throng of thoughts that mean motherhood can be read in that saintly face, and so powerful is thought to the human soul that the soul of the Child seems one with hers.

Such is the beauty and mystery of spirit.

It was the mystery of prophecy that gave Mary the words of the "Magnificat": "My soul doth magnify the Lord, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.'" Relative to the women who emerged from the brush of Raphael, we quote from one of his letters to his friend, Count Castiglione: "I should think myself master if it (his painting of Galatea) possessed one-half of the merits of which you write To paint a picture truly beautiful, I should see many beautiful forms but beautiful women being rare, I avail myself of certain ideas which come into my mind. If this idea has any excellence in art I know not, though I labor heartily to acquire it."

Not all painters of saints and Madonnas were as spiritual as was Raphael or as gifted in ideals as he.

One of the most human, hence motherly, of his mothers, is called "The Madonna della Sedia," and the incident that has sometimes accompanied the enjoyment of the picture in the Pitti Palace, savors of a fact. In brief, the artist, sauntering through a bit of woodland for recreation, happened upon the hut of a woodman. A mother was hushing her little child to sleep; an older child was playing at the doorstep. The artist paused and asked permission to make a drawing of the babe in her arms. Having no material with which to work, he wandered further and found a part of a barrel head; then stirring the ashes where the family fire had been, he found a bit of charcoal and made his sketch. It is one of the most loved of all his Madonnas.

Let us see what later painters show concerning the influence of the Mother and Child. Another incident of the early Christian centuries leads to the subject of the painting.

A Christian woman had an only son for whom she worked and prayed, fearing the influence of the wild youths of Alexandria during his adolescent years. One day he told his mother he was going to Rome with a number of the "fellows." Her efforts and entreaty made him the more determined to go. She knew enough of the wickedness in that city of crime to fear its result on the boy she had loved and prayed for since his birth. Her heart was breaking, and one night she went out on the sea shore, and kneeling on the sand, poured out her heart in supplication that God would not permit her boy ,to go to Rome. Above all things the mother prayed that he should become a Christian, and wanted him where she could shield him from evil influences. She prayed all night in her agony of soul, so strong was her mother love and her faith. In the morning she learned that he had sailed. Her son was a scholar, and the lure of study was the real object of his journey. In time, this object took him to Milan where he heard Ambrose, the great father of the Christian Church, preach again and again. It led to the conversion and baptism of Augustine, who became the most potent of the four great fathers of the early church.

Ary Scheffer has given the world a wonderfully spiritualized painting of that mother of prayer and faith, whom we know as Saint Monica, and her son St. Augustine. Did the mother's faith and influence prevail? The artist has pictured them seated on the rocky coast of Southern Italy, seemingly looking over the blue sea toward their native Idumia. They are in deep thought, peaceful, tranquil, mother and son in loving spirit communion, hand in hand. She is his mother, he is her son. God made that relationship with a great purpose in it. They do not yet know that full purpose. They are illumined by two great lights : the glow and glory of the setting sun and the indescribable rapture of the spirit light in the soul.

They seem thinking over the experiences of the bygone years when with the eagerness of a strong will and a spirit determined in its search for the truth the youth was dipping and delving into the philosophies, creeds, and writings of the various nationalities and cults, that pervaded the intellectual atmosphere of that tumultuous period. Not only had Augustine been saved from degradations of life in Rome under the most degrading and wicked of all the Caesars, but he had been saved and prepared for the mission ap- pointed him by the Son of the Mother of Bethlehem, for in the name of the Son of God, Augustine preached and wrote, shedding spiritual light where humanity was groping in midnight darkness.

What Plato uttered in 400 B.C., Paul preached in 52 A.D., and fourteen hundred years later no less a painter than Botticelli set it forth in his day as a new truth—"The principle of beauty lies within." Particularly is this true of motherhood, for the child learns from the mother's spirit before it can speak or understand a word. A woman is never so beautiful as when she is mothering her children, which includes her teaching them this principle of beauty that lies within and develops character as well as beauty.

It is indeed a fine art that can express soul in the painting of the human face, that can illumine the countenance with spirit.

One of the world's twelve masterpieces gives a beautiful example of such high art. The face, pose, and spirit that you feel as you look upon it, is full of a holy beauty. In Murillo's "Immaculate Conception" the Virgin is exalted in spirit to the spirit realm. She is graced with purity and meekness. The space above her is vibrant with the spirits of babes — cherubs we call them. The Virgin's foot on the crescent moon is symbolic, but note that
Woman in Art - S. S. Monica and Augustine.png


By Ary Schaffer

you do not see the foot. Every bit of nudity in painting was forbidden in Spain, so the spiritually minded Murillo concealed the foot in cloud and drapery. The penalty for disobedience in such matters was excommunication, a fine of fifteen hundred ducats, and a year in exile. Perhaps no painting of the Virgin has such a beautiful influence on young mothers as this masterpiece by Murillo. The Virgin is in a holy rapture. The Spirit has told her that she is to be the mother of a holy child, "and thou shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High."

Later we have the exquisite painting of the promised fulfillment. It has come to us through four hundred years of admiration and adoration as "The Holy Night." Night is the admirably painted background and through the open door of the manger the outline of a hill is seen dimly against a horizon that would seem to indicate the fourth watch of the night. In the darkness one feels rather than sees Joseph just outside, leaning against the donkey; and within is more of the Rembrandt suggestion of things not seen. The Infant in swaddling clothes is held close to the mother's breast by her encircling arms, her face of ineffable sweetness, bending over the heavenly "Light of the World." How beautifully Correggio has made manifest that "Light" in our darkened world! All the light in that scene radiates from the Babe of Bethlehem, suffusing the mother with a beauty not of earth. A shepherd and two women are sharing the wonder of this Nativity, one shading her eyes with her hand from the wonderful light. Spirits in the upper air who have come to proclaim Messiah's birth are touched in their cloud-wrapped forms with the light that belongs to heaven but descends for the blessing of earth.

About ninety years later, Carlo Maratti was inspired to put his conception of this same subject on canvas. He, too, did it worthily, although the idea of the spirit radiance from the Christ-child may have been borrowed from Correggio, with whom it was original. Yet the expression and the thoughts prompted (?) by Maratti's brush are not the same. The Child is older, and the face of the young mother makes one think she is pondering on that miracle of God in life, and recalling all the things foretold of him. It was not a case of Bible study with her, she was living the facts that we revere. She seems realizing the life and responsibility—both God-given. She was young and inexperienced, you think? Yes, but so are we all young and inexperienced when we enter school, and motherhood is an experience in life's schooling. The curriculum is of the highest grade, and the longest; it extends through life. Once a mother, always a mother. There is no divorcing, no stepping down and out; only the graduation from earth to the spiritual plane.

The benefit is mutual; the love and uplift reciprocal. If every young woman could realize her privilege and responsibility in being a woman, a wife and mother, and shape her life, its pleasures, duties, and daily influence for the truest, sweetest, and strongest principles and precepts she knows—there would be such a turning and overturning of human life and affairs that the Lord's Prayer would be answered in two generations.

Woman is coming to her own as fast as she is qualified to fill her sphere. But let her not forget that the most important, vital qualifications are those of heart and mind. Live the Golden Rule and the Kingdom will come. Be true and you will be lovely, and beloved. Be helpful, and you will find true happiness here and hereafter.