In one of the scenes in “Gabriel’s Inferno,” two of the characters visit the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in order to view a visiting exhibition of Florentine art.
(Parenthetically, it should be noted that the snarky narrator does not like the recent renovations to the ROM and he says so, in his own inimitable way.)
The painting I chose to highlight in that scene is Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Madonna with Child and Two Angels,” which was painted in 1465.
Fra Lippi, (1406-1469), lived a very colourful life. After he was orphaned, he was placed under the care of the Carmelites and eventually became a friar. At the height of his career, Fra Lippi enjoyed the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici. The Medici were, perhaps, the most powerful family in Florence. Fra Lippi’s most famous student was Sandro Botticelli.
The life of a friar did not appeal to Lippi and he caused a great scandal by running off with a nun, Lucrezia Buti. His seduction of the young and lovely Lucrezia began when he asked her to model for a painting of the Virgin Mary. Despite the attempts of her father to recover her, Lucrezia remained with Fra Lippi and bore him a son, Filippo (c. 1457-1504). Filippo the younger became the great artist known as Filippino Lippi, who was an assistant to Botticelli.
(It’s possible that Filippino is mentioned obliquely in “Gabriel’s Inferno.”)
Look at the painting. One of the first things to notice is the way in which the artist has painted Mary’s halo and veil. They’re transparent. Note also the way in which the figures are situated in layers – Mary and the Child and angels appear to be sitting outside the picture frame, while a landscape looms behind them. The figures, the frame and the landscape provide perspective and dimensionality to the painting.
But what is far more interesting is the way in which Mary is positioned. Her head is bowed in reverence.
Follow her eyes. Is she staring at her child?
No. She’s bowed in reverence and staring at one of the angels, who smiles knowingly at someone outside the painting. Perhaps he’s smiling at the artist, himself.
Why isn’t Mary looking at the Christ child?
Some have hypothesized that the model for Mary was Lucrezia, Fra Lippi’s lover, and that the model for the smiling angel was Filippino, their son. One could theorize that the reason why Lucrezia isn’t focused on the Christ child is because her true son is in the picture. Her attention and focus is on him. (I’m sure one could make much more of this by pointing out that Lucrezia eschewed the life of a nun and a nun’s attachment to Christ in order to pursue a life with Fra Lippi. Her shift in attachment is signified in the painting.)
In future posts, I’ll take a closer look at some of the literary references in “Gabriel’s Inferno.”
All the best everyone and thanks for reading,
The landscape in the background makes me wonder if the artist intentionally included an earthly theme to the painting, instead of limiting himself to the loftier, heavenly aspects. If so, it seems Lippi’s Madonna really is focused on the angel/child who is actually their son.
My attention is always drawn to the different expressions on the faces of the two babies who are most prominent. The Christ child is serious and seems almost annoyed, perhaps because the Virgin is not looking at him. The angel supporting him has a wide smile and seems very happy. Perhaps they are both vying for the Mother’s attention, and the earthly child is more successful. Again, that could mean the boy is the artist’s and model’s son. But is it also a reflection of Lippi’s attitude toward religion, given his dissatisfaction with his life as a monk?
What is the significance of the transparency of the halo and veil? Does it have something to do with leaving the religious order?
I haven’t been to the museum in Toronto (someday!). But the pictures I’ve seen remind me of a comment made by an architectual historian friend who was horrified by “improvements” made to the storefront of an otherwise beautiful Victorian building here. He compared it to a man wearing a tuxedo suit with Bermuda shorts. The juxtaposition of the Ontario museum’s addition and the main building seems…jarring.
I’m really enjoying your posts on the artwork in “Gabriel’s Inferno.” They’re perfect complements to the story.
Just as much of the art you use to enhance your work has layers of beauty and detailed symbolism, so, too, does your writing. Your stories unfold masterfully and with each reveal we are treated with more significance. What a treasure your work is and an honor to read it. Thank you for the exhaustive research that goes into what you present to your readers. It’s always interesting and is very difficult to put down. You challenge the reader to bring something to the party. We become intellectually and emotionally engaged and leave with much to mull over. What is gifted to your reader is more than the enjoyment of good literature. It’s accompanied with a salving of the soul. Thank you for what you do. You’re simply awesome, SR.
Thank you so much for sharing all this insight and beauty. Even without it all your book was a like a beautiful painting, a tapestry of color, honesty and feeling. You put yourself in this book and it wasn’t hard to see that. It is such a treasure. I feel so lucky, as do all of us that you decided to poke your head in cyberspace and write for us. The best stories are when someone believes no one will care about their art but regardless they put their blood, sweat,and tears into it to the point people can’t help but notice. The icing on the cake is you are such an amazing person! People can feel that as well. You deserve success but mostly you deserve people who stand by you and never let you forget that what you did is amazing and you are amazing.
Thanks for your comments and your kinds words.
I think we’re going to move on to literature next week.
There are a few comments by other readers over on my Goodreads profile.
All best and thanks for reading,
Will be looking forward to discussing the literature professor SR. 😉
snowball sniper says
I loved your way of looking into this painting. I also noticed the way Christ is wanting attention. He wants her attention, but her complete focus is on her child-the angel. It’s almost like Christ is saying “Look at me, take me into your arms” and will be throwing a tantrum sometime soon.
I wish you had been my art history teacher. You weren’t in California sometime in the 90’s teaching Art History once a week were you? 🙂
Thank you, SR, for another illuminating post. This is a wonderful painting and I remember admiring it when I visited the Uffizi Gallery last summer. Having the opportunity to see the famous paintings close and personal is an overwelming experience. I haven’t been to the ROM yet but I hope someday to go and see it( and the renovations)!
What always caught my attention in this painting is the child’s expression. In art, the Christ child is usually represented as content in His mother’s arms, while here he’s like trying to get his mother attention, to make her look at Him. And of course, like you said above, Mary doesn’t seem to be looking at her child, whereas she usually does in other paintings.
And I don’t know if I’m right, but it seems to me that Mary ,in the painting, could be pregnant(even though she has already given birth to Christ). Could this be sort of a hint to the observer? Like, Mary is in fact Lucrezia who is expecting Filippo’s child and so she’s looking at the angel with their son’s face, thus stressing the connection between them.
Also,Mary’s face really reminds me of the female figures in Botticelli.
Again thank you for your posts and for giving us the opportunity to admire and analyse these beautiful works of art!