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Madonna and Child with Saint Simon and Saint Jude
Federico Barocci - Circa 1567
Talent accosted by jealousy
The painting is a delight to behold. The rich colors alone beckon one’s attention, but it is the outward gaze of Saint Jude that lures the viewer into the scene. His richly ornamented halberd elevates the eyes upward over a canopy of luxurious textiles, only to fall downward again along the jagged-toothed edge of the saw held by Saint Simon. Two donors of the work are represented in the bottom right corner, and the finger of one points to the very heart of the painting. There the Madonna is seated with the Child Jesus in her lap and a book in her hand as he playfully turns its delicate pages. Such serenity, beauty, and happiness belie the fact that the saints hold in their hands the instruments of their grizzly deaths, and the painter himself was painfully recuperating from an assassination attempt made by jealous artists who had tried to poison him during a picnic.
Federico Barocci was born 1535 in the town of Urbino to a family of artists, and it was there that he first received his training. He had long admired the work of Raphael, who had also been born in Urbino, and, like his idol, he went to Rome to further his career. There he managed to secure a commission to decorate a papal pavilion in the Vatican, and he gained the special attention of the aged and venerable Michelangelo. Perhaps this was what triggered the jealousy of the other painters, for in 1563 he fell violently ill while eating a salad at a fete hosted by young artists, and nearly died. The treacherous meal had damaged his stomach lining. He left Rome in a panic, never to return. The pavilion went unfinished, and for a long period of time he found himself unable to paint at all.
A partial healing leads to careful preparation
Barocci returned to Urbino and lived there for nearly another half century. But henceforth it would be the life of an invalid. The partial cure he did attain he credited to his intense devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He became a lay member of the Capuchin Order, and resumed painting under great duress. His stomach malady caused him to vomit after every meal. He slept fitfully and was plagued by nightmares. He found that he had energy to paint for no more than two hours a day. Yet the daily cross he had to bear is nowhere to be seen in the joyfulness of his beautiful paintings.
He rose above his infirmities to paint pictures that followed the forward-looking principles set down by the Council of Trent. Artists were not to get bogged down in fable but to represent clear and direct stories that would touch the hearts of the people. Barocci dedicated himself to creating works that would draw the viewer to contemplation and penance. No wonder that the bulk of his oeuvre is profoundly religious. This painting, nicknamed La Madonna di San Simone, is a testament to his faith and his conviction that the Virgin cured him to the point where he could work again.
The procedure he adopted was slow and meticulous. He made numerous preparatory drawings of each figure. Then, in planning his composition, he created wax figurines on which he would drape textiles to study color, light, and shade. Elegant poses and gestures were incorporated to animate the scene fully. He included nothing in his paintings that he had not previously studied carefully. And because of this prior preparation, his brushwork was allowed to have the appearance of spontaneity. He also developed a sfumato effect that made defining lines appear to dissolve into smoky mists. This gave his figures a sense of perpetual motion, and underscored the intangible nature of the mystical experience.
A loving expression and spiritual sentiment
Barocci was noted for his skillful representation of children, because of which women particularly cherished his work. The Christ Child’s expression is full of grace and charm. The connection between mother and child is so self- contained that they pay little or no attention to the figures around them, not even the cherub who floats overhead bearing a garland of flowers.
Perhaps because he is the only sainted figure in the painting who is actually involved in a gaze of adoration, the focus and informal title of the painting centers on the Apostle Saint Simon. He is called “the Zealot” in Scripture to differentiate him from Simon Peter and emphasize his zeal for Jewish law before meeting Christ. Simon and Jude were thought to have preached together in Persia, where they reportedly met their deaths—Jude beaten with a halberd or club, and the older Simon sawed in half longitudinally.
But now, in this scene of privileged intimacy, the weapons of torture have no trace of blood. They gleam and shine like trophies. And in the tilted head of Simon, with its spiritual wonderment, one can imagine that the artist has deposited his own personal sentiments, enlivening a figure that overcame all earthly pain to gaze upon the face of divine innocence.
Madonna and Child with Saint Simon and Saint Jude [aka La Madonna di San Simone]
Federico Barocci - Circa 1567
Gallery/Museum: Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino, Italy
Father Michael Morris, o.p. (Professor, Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology, Berkeley, CA)
“Self-Portrait” of a Hand
Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464)
A detail of the celebrated painting by Rogier van der Weyden († 1464), Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, illustrates this month’s cover of your Magnificat.
By introducing into their work the theme of “a painting within a painting,” that is, a painter painting a painter painting, Renaissance artists sought to reconcile writing and image. The personality of Saint Luke, said to have been as inspired a painter as he was a writer, perfectly suited this end. No less would do, given the ancients’ mistrust of the image, considered a betrayal of reality and thus deeply corrupt. However, if Saint Luke portrayed the Blessed Virgin Mary in both words and paint, it was because the language of writing and the language of the image are of two different but complementary orders in their relationship to truth. So it was that, in the realm of Christian iconography, the image could be happily accepted as fertile and overflowing with meaning. With the promotion of Baroque art, the Catholic Reformation that followed the Council of Trent would add an unprecedented dimension to that fertility, while, conversely, Protestantism adopted the very mistrustful, willfully intolerant concept of the image as corrupting Scripture.Here, the artist is doing a preparatory sketch. In silverpoint, he attempts to bring his model’s face alive on paper—a singular mission when the model is the Mother of God! And so, here we have, under the pretext of the hand of the painter Saint Luke, a “self-portrait” of the hand of van der Weyden, a hand seen as the “enactor” of his vision, his talent, and his goal. Captured in the act of capturing the fullest of grace, this admirable hand suspends its work, time for the eye to gauge the resemblance between the image and the living face, time to authenticate the portrait of the one who is more beautiful than the angels. What a great mystery, this hand of the creator: from the lines of a face that the eyes see, it manages to express in lines of silver the interior view of the artist upon an invisible soul…
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin’s Portrait (detail), Rogier van der Weyden (1399–1464), Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium. © Lukas–Art in Flanders VZW / Bridgeman Images.