This painting of the Madonna is such a delight. The artist manages to create an image deep in pathos, vibrant with light, sublime in its simplicity. It is an example of devotional art par excellance. It is an image you can sit with for hours, and it touches the soul through the use of skill and a love of colour, capturing a mood through an understanding of darkness, light and mystery. 

Now some people would be surprised that an iconographer should speak so warmly of such a 'naturalistic' image. Some authors take quite a delight in condemning any Western art as decadent and spiritually worthless. I understand the reservations about the use of concubines as models for the the Blessed Virgin, the cult of the artist etc. I also see that much art of the 16th century onwards had perhaps only a passing nod towards any depth of spirituality, instead using religious themes as an excuse for experimenting or simply showing off. Having said all that, you can't but see the beauty, and the sublime depth, of paintings such as this one. And I am not alone in appreciating this, as the dominance of such imagery even in icons (now usually referred to as 'decadent')  from the 17th century onwards.

I have wrestled with this, and what might help in untangling this is to differentiate between liturgical and devotional art. 

In east and west Christian art was almost entirely liturgical until about the 13th century. In the east Russian iconography took an extremely ascetical, almost ethereal path, which in the west Christian art split between a continuing liturgical art in such things as stain glass and statuary, and a new devotional art. A good very early example of this is the Christmas Crib started by St Francis of Assisi. The point of this devotional art was to make it more immediate on the imagination and emotions, in other words it was something intended to be very intimate and personal to the individual, rather than something essential communal and transcendent. I am suggesting that both forms didn't include personal and communal elements, but the balance was tilted in particular directions which gave each artistic movement its particular characteristics.

What got me thinking about this distinction was reflecting on the purpose of the Crib: to give people a means of imagining themselves back in the cave, at the crib, alongside the shepherds and kings. This was very much trying to get back into history, very different to iconography where it is the manifestation of the eternal in the now. It was also appealing to the more superficial elements of the human person, the emotions, feelings and imagination, something looked upon with suspicion among the classical traditions of monasticism and asceticism. However, Francis' movement was breaking out of those traditions in a number of ways, with a much more immediate, passionate, populist, accessible spirituality. Here I think we find the roots of the much more accessible, emotionally appealing movement in religious art which came to dominate not just religious art in the western church but among the eastern churches too.

The problem is that this more spiritually superficial art not only had great appeal, but its populist appeal debased the richness of Christian art as a whole. The profound, and more demanding, liturgical art was swept away as people opted for something much more emotionally accessible, more easily 'read'. The new art not only had popular appeal, it was also novel and exciting for artists wanting to explore new horizons. This also happened at a time when Florence, Venice and other Italian states were becoming very powerful trading states and hence very wealthy and so a vast amount of energy and resources were poured into the workshops of those developing this new art, and art I call 'devotional'. 

I use the word devotional because it suggest that personal religious activity which is very interior and emotional. It has its place, especially among the non-ascetic contexts of domestic life. Liturgical art had by the 12th century become very hierarchical, controlled by the bishops and in the hands monks. The theological developments were dynamic, but the liturgy was becoming more remote from the ordinary believer. In both east and west screens become larger and more divisive, with the altar and the sacrament increasingly remote, less and less frequently received and located in a sanctuary where women, for example, were excluded completely. I think this hierarchical development led in part to a need for elements which could reach people and nurture their spiritual life more directly.


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