The cover of the month

Mater Ecclesiae by Fleur Nabert-Valjavec

Over the course of his years in Rome, Pierre-Claude-François Delorme so immersed himself in the work of Raphael that he managed to capture the same mysterious stillness of eternity that envelops the Italian master’s Virgins. Mary here seems animated by a breath so light it is almost even more imperceptible than the wisp of veil draped around her shoulders. That said, this 19th-century composition is totally different from a typical Renaissance work: no Tuscan sky, no hills of yew trees standing out against the horizon. Instead, Mary looks down in perfect mystical stasis at something absent from our view.

Of course, our thoughts naturally imagine the cradle of the baby Jesus. But, if we look closely at Mary’s hands, the work of perspective is quite clear: they reach out over and above the picture frame. In fact, the Virgin is casting her benevolent gaze down upon the whole world. Delorme had decorated the domes of many Paris churches, including that of Notre-Dame de Lorette, and the Lady Chapel of the Church of Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais: he well knew what architecture could bring to his art. And indeed, the whole object of the Virgin’s prayer here lies outside the frame, in the space beyond the canvas. As for the artist’s chosen palette of red and blue, as traditional as these colors may be to symbolize Mary’s queenship, gained through the shedding of her Son’s blood, they are dimmed by a sfumato that all but extinguishes the golden glow of the Virgin’s sash—as though the world she watches down over were radiating a dark light. But this serves only to enhance the brilliance of her ivory hands.

Here again, Delorme’s architectural sensibilities come into play: seventy-four years before Auguste Rodin, he transforms these hands into a true Cathedral, made even more vivid by those slender fingers forming a living steeple. In a modern age slowly beginning to dechristianize, Delorme thus painted a sublime Mater Ecclesiae watching out over our world.


 The Virgin (1834), Pierre-Claude-François Delorme (1783–1859), Château de Compiègne, Chapel, France. © Dist. RMN-GP / Michel Urtado.