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Madonna and Child with the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Meeting of Joachim and Anna (1452, tondo)
Fra Filippo Lippi, o . carm , (c. 1406–1469)
The tondo: a new form of painting
Fra Filippo Lippi ’s painting is a tondo, a form derived from the painted round trays that artists of the time created as gifts for a couple on the occasion of the birth of a child. Such commercial commissions provided struggling artists with much-needed supplemental income. Soon artists such as Fra Filippo began to incorporate the round form into some of their religious paintings. In this painting, the association of the tondo form with childbirth reinforces Fra Filippo’s theme, focused as it is on the Infant Jesus and on the conception and birth of Mary. A tondo is not a traditional painting onto which a round frame has been placed; rather, it is organized in terms of circularity with one scene flowing visually into the next.
Cycles of conception and life
In the foreground is found the traditional and iconic grouping of Madonna and Child, but the treatment is innovative. The elaborately carved throne upon which Mary is seated announces, by its intricate, curving forms, the circular and intersecting organization of the painting’s three scenes. Mary is depicted as a young Florentine mother, in terms of her features and the style of her hair. Jesus is seated upon her knee on a cushion. Both are holding a pomegranate, symbolic in religious art of life and fecundity, given its many seeds. Jesus has taken one seed and holds it up, as if offering it to his Mother. But the pomegranate, with its blood-red color, also suggests Jesus’ future Passion and Death. This may explain why Mary is not looking at her Son but rather is staring pensively into space, very likely reflecting upon his future mission, somehow intuited and already known to her. Despite these associations of suffering and death, the overall impression of this first scene is of life, of vitality, of the Infant’s playfulness, and of Mary’s youth and gracefulness.
The viewer is now invited to move visually up and to the right, into the next—somewhat stark—scene, depicting Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim. Joachim is ascending steps, at the top of which Anna prepares to greet him with an embrace. This is the moment when, according to some theologians of the time, Mary was conceived. One tradition held that the location of this embrace and subsequent kiss was the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, but Fra Filippo has reduced the encounter to its bare essentials. Thus it is in this scene that the process of conception and birth begins, which leads us, ultimately, to the foreground scene of Mary and Jesus where we began.
Our attention is now drawn to the left, to a scene as detailed and elaborate as the previous scene was minimal and bare. Here the birth of Mary to Anna unfolds in an opulent Renaissance interior. Anna reclines in her bed and is attended by maidservants while others enter from the right, one gracefully carrying a basket on her head, and another followed by a child. Fra Filippo provides a genre-like narrative of domestic life typical of Netherlandish art. The coffering of the bedroom ceiling creates credible perspective and draws the eye more deeply into the scene, framed by partially opened curtains, symbolically suggestive of both conception and virginity. As the eye exits this scene, it returns, front and center, to Mary and her Child, where the circle ends and from which our visual exploration had begun.
The many rectilinear lines of the bedroom walls, windows, doors, and ceiling in the background play against the multiple curvilinear forms, such as Mary’s seat, her pleated hair, the agitated and twisted garments of various figures, and the movement of servants, all repetitive of the tondo’s circularity. This is further accentuated by the way in which Fra Filippo manages to create contour lines around his figures—such as the Madonna with her halo and the servant carrying a basket on her head—further accentuating subtly the painting’s linear dimensions. This creates an almost sculptural quality to his figures, evidence of the influence of Donatello’s sculptures upon the artist in his formative years.
Truly we have come full circle. The cycle of conception and new life continues as the Baby Jesus offers a seed of resurrection and life to his Mother. It is the color red that most unifies the various elements and scenes, starting with the red cushion upon which Jesus sits, the fruit, Mary’s inner tunic, the red inlaid marble tiles of the floor to the right, Joachim’s cloak, the partially opened curtains of the bedroom on the left, and the bedspread covering Anna.
Fra Filippo Lippi has thoroughly inculturated these three scenes into 15 th -century Renaissance Italian life in terms of figures and setting, a kind of artistic incarnation in which Mary, Jesus, Anna, and Joachim become enfleshed in the culture, and therefore spiritually accessible to the Italian viewer of the mid-Quattrocento.
Models of self-giving
More than one commentator has suggested that Fra Filippo Lippi’s place in Quattrocento Italian Renaissance painting is unique, that in paintings such as this, he is totally innovative and cannot be compared to any of his contemporary colleagues. Certainly his technical virtuosity is beyond dispute but, more than any artist of his time, he succeeded in offering a very touching interpretation of fundamental scenes from salvation history, rendering profoundly sacred moments in a spiritually accessible and warmly human way. Beyond that, he offers, through the confluence of these three scenes, generational models of self-giving, each of whom, by his or her unqualified yes to God’s will, have allowed God to bring forth new life and to engender hope.
Francis J. Greene, Ph.D.Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Saint Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, NY
Madonna and Child with the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Meeting of Joachim and Anna (1452, tondo),Fra Filippo Lippi, o.carm, (c. 1406–1469), Pitti Gallery, Florence, Italy.
« He is like God, known only by his works,” they say about Bernardino Luini († 1532). Indeed, the basic facts of his life are unknown to us. He was above all a painter of frescoes, exhibiting in that art form an original genius equal to that of the greatest masters. His works on canvas in the form of portraits, like this Virgin and Child, are discussed more often, mainly because of their astonishing similarity to the style and manner of Leonardo da Vinci († 1519).
In the 19 th century, the Romantics praised Luini’s portraits to the skies. Balzac and Stendhal admit that they borrowed from them the faces of his heroines in their novels. However they attributed some paintings by da Vinci to Luini and vice versa. In the 20 th century, Luini’s fame declined, to the point where he appeared to be nothing but a charming imitator of da Vinci. No one realized that the portraits of women by the two painters are so similar because, on the one hand, both were trained at the same time by the Lombard School and, on the other hand, da Vinci’s women and Luini’s women walked the streets and the countryside of Lombardy (northern Italy), and all are wondrously beautiful. Stendhal used to say about these women: “Something pure, religious, the antithesis of vulgar breathes in their features.” Thus Leonardo was not the one who influenced Bernardino, but rather Lombardy served as the master and model for both artists.
Here, then, is the Mother of the Savior. She is no longer a girl, but she nonetheless preserves the freshness of a woman in her first flow- ering, a woman whose loveliness has never faded or been marred in the least. Her angelic modesty does not veil the human beauty of her face; her tenderness does not conceal her seriousness. Her almond- shaped eyes look deep into those of her child, and this gaze expresses the closeness of motherly love as well as the distance of adoration. What a mystery: this Child and his Mother, eye to eye, peering into each other’s souls! With familiar gestures imbued with a mysterious grace, Mary holds her Child with one hand, and in the other carries her book of hours—her Magnificat, so to speak. It is true enough that praying the psalms and canticles daily provided her with the words and images for her spontaneous hymn of thanksgiving.
The Virgin and Child (early 16th c.), Workshop of Bernardino Luini (c.1480-1532), The National Gallery, Londres, Royaume-Uni. © Dist. RMN-GP / National Gallery Photographic Dpt.