Monday, 1 October 2018

TOO MANY MADONNAS

Perugia, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

I found it in a basket of eggs.

I struggle with religious art: the repetitive subject matter, so many pictures in which the only women are Madonnas or Magdalenes, so much iconography I don't understand.  I feel like an alien in a strange land.  I need something that can connect me to this world so many centuries before my own.

I think of Dante, contemporary with some of the paintings I am looking at in the gallery.  He wrote from the viewpoint of medieval Christianity but was strongly critical of individual popes and clerics and of the abuses and hoarded wealth of the church.  This doesn't help me relate to the paintings with their lavish use of expensive pigments and gold.

But then I notice a small narrow panel, depicting the Nativity.  it was painted in 1425 by Rossellio di Jacopo Franchi.  The Madonna is standing, looking serious.  Joseph is seated with a puzzled expression on his face.  It is as if both of them are struggling with the shock of parenthood for the first time.  They appear to have had words - hardly surprising given their inadequate accommodation.

The ox and the ass put their heads above the manger, from which the infant Jesus seems to have slipped.  The animals' portraits are as realistic as those of the human figures.  I imagine a farmer fondling the hair on their foreheads as he shuts them in the stable after a day's hard work.

To the right of the scene two shepherds have turned up.  They wear knee-length tunics and tights, a functional fashion so everyday in the 15th century that it has become today an instantly recognisable cliche of amateur pageants and plays.

The brief (? too brief) description beside the panel states that it is a predella, that is, a painting along the horizontal frame at the bottom of an altar-piece.  Originally it would have been dominated by the important, now absent, middle part of the painting.  But, being at a lower level, the predella would catch the eye of the worshipper going to receive the sacrament.

One of the shepherds is carrying a wicker basket, a present for the Christ child.  I look closely and see that it is a basket of eggs.  Perhaps the eggs were destined for the next day's market and the shepherd had grabbed them impulsively, feeling he should bring something and that was the only thing he could think of.

What a wonderfully practical gift.  The holy family - no room at the inn - would have been forced into self-catering, Mary had to keep her strength up and there were all those visitors to feed.  Soon they would have to flee into Egypt - there might be a few boiled eggs left to take on the journey.

No doubt there is some iconographic significance that I have missed - the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection maybe?  But I like to think that a woman kneeling to receive the host on her tongue in 1425 would have been as charmed by that basket of eggs as I am so many centuries later.


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