The unique splendour of Humility - Museo Thyssen

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The unique splendour of Humility
Guillermo Solana
(Extract from the essay published in the catalogue of the exhibition)
The motivation behind the present selection of works, in addition to displaying
masterpieces that have never been previously brought together in the Museum, is to
analyse the differences between two iconographical types used to represent Mary and
Christ and which prevailed in Trecento and Quattrocento painting in Italy: the Virgin in
Majesty and the Virgin of Humility. These two initially different models were used as
alternatives but were later combined at a key period in the history of western art.
[...] Throughout the Middle Ages, the title of Queen applied to Mary often
appears in the context of the Benedictine Order and was subsequently confirmed after
the Cistercian reform. The famous antiphony Salve Regina misericordiae, already
known in the 11th century, is the most typical expression of the way in which these
monks prayed to the Virgin. From the mid-12th century, Mary would be represented in
art as the crowned queen, seated on the throne next to her Son, also depicted as
crowned. The Virgin in Majesty, the Regina coeli of the ancient hymn, appears
enthroned with the Christ Child on her lap and surrounded by a retinue of angels, saints
and donors. She is both seated on her throne and is also the living throne of Christ, who
blesses the faithful. This Virgin-Queen typology, identified with the Church, was
disseminated throughout Italy with the name of Maestà, a model of which there are
outstanding examples in the work of Cimabue and Giotto, Duccio and Simone Martini.
[...] We can now return to Fra Angelico’s Madonna. Although described for
many years in the catalogues of the Thyssen Collection as a “Virgin enthroned”, the
figure of Mary is not depicted seated on a throne, but rather on a cushion on the floor.
This was not the first time that the artist adopted this model, nor would it be the last. The
painting conforms to the type of Virgin of Humility that Millard Meiss investigated in his
classic article of 1936, reproduced in this catalogue and on which these notes are
based. As Meiss noted, the type of Madonna dell’Umilità, probably formulated by
Simone Martini, achieved enormous popularity in Sienna and was subsequently
adopted in Florence (in the circle of Bernardo Daddi). Having spread rapidly
throughout Italy, by around 1375 it had reached Spain, France and Germany.
[...] The remarkable success of the model of the Virgin of Humility in the late
Gothic era responded to a new religious sensibility, more naturalistic and emotive,
disseminated by the friars of the mendicant Orders. In contrast to monks of the earlier
type, such friars did not remain cloistered in their monasteries, but rather moved from
one place to another preaching the gospels. The Franciscans in their dun brown or grey
habits and the Dominicans in their white or black robes shared a profound devotion for
the Virgin. In consonance with their spiritual interests, the new type of the Virgin of
Humility involves an unprecedented closeness to the celestial realm: we sense that the
holy figures move in our own sphere and act and feel as we do.
Despite the innovative spirituality which this type represented, the Virgin of
Humility was not lacking in pictorial precedents. [...] For Meiss, the group of Mary and
the Christ Child in the Nativity scenes by Daddi and Taddeo Gaddi reveals a profound
affinity with the Virgin of Humility type and was furthermore its principal source. The
Mother and Child then disengaged themselves from the narrative composition of the
Nativity to become a separate devotional image.
[...] As Meiss observed, “the Virgin is the Regina coeli and also the Nostra
domina de humilitate, and thus Regina humilitatis”. This dialectic which combines the
high and the low, the humble and the sublime, is marvellously represented in the
Thyssen Maddona. While the throne itself has disappeared, Fra Angelico’s Virgin has
other attributes of her royal majesty such as the rich embroidered cloth of honour which
covered the throne of the Virgins in Majesty, the pedestal on which she is elevated, the
attentive trio of angels above and the music from the two below, which rises up
towards her. Adorned with these attributes and transfigured by the very colours of the
panel, this round-faced young woman appears before us as simultaneously simple and
solemn, earthly and celestial, radiant with the unique splendour of her Humility.
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