Saturday, November 20, 2004

Catholic Masterpieces VII: "The Ansidei Madonna"

[Updated on 18 February 2009 to fix inactive image.]

This week's Catholic Masterpiece is yet another painting from the National Gallery's collection. Only 2 out of the 7 art pieces that I have featured so far have not been from this museum. Because of my recent trip there, and because I have the museum's companion guide, it is easier for me to write about paintings from that museum. As the weeks go on, I will have to spend a bit more time looking for some that aren't in the National Gallery. There are plenty of places that I can look to for assistance.

This painting is known as "The Ansidei Madonna." It was painted by Raphael in 1505. It was originally an altarpiece in the chapel of a family whose name was Ansidei. It belongs to a type of altarpiece known as sacra conversazione ("holy conversation"). These altarpiece feature an enthroned Madonna and Christ Child, who are communing with saints. In this case, the saints are St. John the Baptist (on the left), and the patron saint of the chapel, St. Nicholas of Bari.

St. John the Baptist is wearing a tunic of camel's hair (Mark 1:6), and a red cloak, signifying his death as a martyr. He points to the Child, while looking up towards the inscription above Mary's head, which says Salve Mater Christi ("Hail, Mother of Christ). St. Nicholas of Bari, who was a bishop, is dressed in bishop's garments, and at his feet are three gold balls, which represent bags of gold which he donated as dowries to three poor girls.

What isn't immediately obvious about this painting, especially to those who aren't familiar with traditional Catholicism, is the eucharistic symbolism contained within it. Below Mary's feet are three steps, which an archiectural feature that can be found leading up to most traditional altars. Mary herself can be thought of as Christ's first "tabernacle" on earth. She is in the center of the painting. What is found dead-center above the main altar in churches built before the 1960s? It is the taberacle. Above the Virgin's throne is a baldachin, another architectural feature found in the sanctuary of many churches, above the altar. Raphael, who was obviously familiar with these features, incorporated them into his painting. It's a wonderful testament to traditional artistic "language" of the Church.


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