Catholic Masterpieces VI: "The Virgin in Prayer"
I haven't been to many art museums over the course of my lifetime. The most famous one that I have visited is the Louvre (I went there in 1997). I have also visited the National Gallery of Art twice over the past 2 years. More recently, I toured the National Gallery in London with a good friend of mine in September 2004. It was here that I saw one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen up close.
This painting, "The Virgin in Prayer" was painted between 1640 and 1650 by Giovanni Battista Salvi, who was also called Sassoferrato. He began his artistic career in the service of the Benedictines. At the age of 21, he painted copies of pictures at their monastery in Perugia. He then moved to Rome, and worked for many different employers over the course of forty years.
The deep blue color of the Virgin's cloak comes from the use of a pigment known as ultramarine. The main source of this pigment is a mineral that was mined in present-day Afghainstan, its only source for hundreds of years. Due to the remoteness of its source, ultramarine was expensive to obtain, and the highest-quality ultramarine equaled - and sometimes surpassed - gold in price.
The companion guide to the National Gallery describes the painting in the following manner: "The Virgin in Prayer, her veil leaning out of the painting into our space, is praying over us, for us, as an example to us, in submission to the will of the Father, to the Son. She has been abstracted from narratives of the Annunciation, the Adoration, the Nativity, so that we may pray through her, lose our fretful egoism in her infinite mercy and humility, as the artist has submerged his handwriting in the icon. Her eyes are lowered, but if we look up at her from a hassock or a prie-dieu, a sickbed or a deathbed, her tender glance will fall on us. She is alone, without the Child, our [M]other, our nurse, intercessor on our behalf, and Sassoferrato's message is that to submit to her is to reclaim our strength, our freedom, and our dignity."
I don't know who wrote that description, and if he was Catholic or not, but they are fitting words for this painting, even though I think words cannot describe the beauty of this painting, which in turn, is a depiction of God's most beautiful creature. I ended up buying a print of this painting in the museum's gift shop, and I hope to get it framed someday. It just goes to show that Catholicism has inspired some of the most beautiful art in the history of the world.