Figures of Absence in the History of Art


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Ariadne abandoned, the penitent Magdalene, the Virgin Advocate and Annunciate, John of Patmos, are all frequent themes in the history of art. In one sense, they are figures of absence at once. By relevant samples, here the aim is to make clear which kind of absence: abandonment, loss or expectation, but also – mainly in sacred art – the paradoxical effort to represent the presence of an absence. Something, what has to do not only with the past, but maybe with our future too.

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Figures of Absence in the History of Art

  1. 1. Pino Blasone Figures of Absence in the History of Art 1 – The Finding of Ariadne by Dionysus, Greco- Roman mosaic; Hatay Archaeological Museum, Antakya (ancient Antioch), Turkey Ariadne Abandoned Figures of absence, especially in the sense of loss or abandonment, were not lacking in the Greek mythology and Latin literature. Let us think of the fables of Orpheus and Eurydice, or of Eros and Psyche, in the former case; of the characters of Medea, Ariadne or Dido, in the latter. What difficult to perceive today is that often those myths were expression 1
  2. 2. of a pagan religiosity. By merging different versions, here we will resume that of Ariadne, also famed as the “Mistress of the Labyrinth” with a Minoan appellation, or identified as Libera by the ancient Romans. Notoriously she was a Cretan princess, daughter of King Minos and half sister of the beastly Minotaur, who had been interned in the Labyrinth. Ariadne helped the Athenian prince Theseus to penetrate the maze and escape from it, after he slew the anthropophagous monster, thanks to the proverbial thread she had given him. Perhaps since it does not include what usually thought to be a happy end, the continuation of this story – in part, narrated by the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid – is less known. Sailed from Crete to Athens, Theseus, Ariadne and her sister Phaedra halted at Dia or Naxos (isles as Cyprus, Naxos, Ithaca and Patmos, were variously important in the Greek imagery). Albeit engaged with her sister, the ungrateful hero fell in love with Phaedra. They plotted to forsake Ariadne on that wild island, while she was sleeping. So late she awoke, as to discern beloved Theseus’ ship disappearing at the horizon. So long she complained of such a desertion as much as of their betrayal, that at last felt worn out falling asleep again. Meanwhile, the god Dionysus landed at Naxos too. He discovered and admired the young woman, sunk in a sleep as sound as death. Then he took pity, woke up and married her. A sad variant tells that she committed suicide, hanging herself maybe with her golden thread. 2
  3. 3. 2 – Dionysus Discovering Ariadne Asleep, Roman wall painting; Villa di Arianna, Stabia Rightly celebrated for its iconic pregnancy is the exordium of Propertius, Elegies, I 3, where the Latin poet compares his beloved to a sleeping Ariadne: Qualis Thesea iacuit cedente carina/ languida desertis Cnosia litoribus,/ […]/ talis visa mihi mollem spirare quietem/ Cynthia consertis nixa caput manibus (“As languid as the girl from Knossos lying on desolate shores/ while Theseus’ vessel sails into the distance away,/ [...]/ just so Cynthia seemed to me, softly breathing a quiet sleep/ with her head reclined on her folded hands”). Yet an appeal by Ovid, in his poem The Art of Love, is not less meaningful and revealing at once: “Fear no longer, Knossian maid. You will be Dionysus’ bride./ For your gift take the heaven. You shall be gazed at as a star up in the sky” (I 555-56). Something alike will be proclaimed by the archangel Gabriel in the Annunciation account, Luke’s Gospel: “Fear not, Mary, for you have found favour with God...”. With the due distinctions, such an analogy suggests that in the former case we are on a border line between profane and sacred love. Quite obviously, a lot of literary or musical “Laments of Ariadne” have been composed in the past. Since Pompeii and Herculaneum frescos, pictures of an abandoned 3
  4. 4. Ariadne were not few, as well as of her as Dionysus’ spouse. Yet the emblematic subject of the heroine while asleep was preferred, in the field of fine arts. Her sleep became a figure of female beauty and abandonment, and maybe something more. In a mysterical way, Ariadne’s thread, lament and sleep, might be interpreted like symbolic stages in a path of the soul, lost in the labyrinth of the self, toward a rejoining with divinity. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure about the eventuality of such an awakening. Nay, we may suspect, the mystic marriage is only a dream of redemption. This dramatic suspense recurs in the artistic representations of a sleeping Ariadne. Likely, it is not the least motive of their fascination. 3 – Francisque Millet II, Ariadne Asleep: Landscape with Fountain; Private Collection Indirectly though, the above guess is corroborated by the Greek Plutarch, in his legendary life of Theseus. He reports a strange tradition, told by Naxos inhabitants at his times. According to it, there were two distinct persons, an earthly and a celestial Ariadne. Abandoned by Theseus, the former actually died in Naxos. In the same isle, the latter was married to Dionysus, growing similar to a goddess. In this apologue a Platonic philosophical reflection, but also an ascetic and psychological meaning, are transparent. In the initiations to religious mysteries, such as emerging from the frescos of the Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii, a sort of dissociation of the personality was typical. Through that spiritual trouble, 4
  5. 5. inside the pious initiate a renewed soul was going to replace his old self. Mysteries were the core of pagan religiosity, so that their influence on artistic imagination is remarkable. Nay, artistic production seems the most proper source to make out and interpret the phenomenon. In a singular floor mosaic at Ostia Antiqua, near Rome (House of Bacchus and Ariadne, Hadrianic period), Dionysus and Ariadne are shown while watching a wrestling match between Eros and Pan, who stand for an idealized love and a bestial sex. No doubt, the former will prevail. In the Villa of Ariadne at Stabia, the god is frescoed winged, like Eros or even a Christian announcing angel. In his Images the Greek Philostratus the Elder so chastely described Ariadne, as to make almost think of a Christian saint instead of a heathen heroine: “Look at her, or rather at her sleep; for her bosom is bare to the waist, and her neck is bent back and her delicate throat, and all her right armpit is visible, but the left hand rests on her mantle that a gust of wind may not expose her” (I 15; trans. Arthur Fairbanks). Yet, unlike in a certain Christian tradition, there is no apparent inhibition of the joy of living. 4 – Sleeping Ariadne, Roman copy of Greek statue; Vatican Museums, Rome Those images of Ariadne asleep had to hold one sacred value to the ancients. No longer earthly as an unlucky maid, not yet celestial as in not few artworks titled “Triumph of Dionysus – or Bacchus – and Ariadne”, she was portrayed in a lying down position, like suspended in the middle of a daring metamorphosis. Sometimes she was pictured as 5
  6. 6. isolated, other times while the god was discovering her, as in a mosaic at the Antakya Museum in Turkey (2nd-3rd century A.D.). There, Dionysus’ figure is badly damaged, as if some scratched out it when religious vicissitudes required no longer representations of pagan deities. In the rear, a little winged Cupid has survived, to symbolize a falling in love of the former god. An analogous mosaic today in the Miho Museum at Shigaraki, Japan (3rd-4th century A.D.), rather shows an attempt to Christianize the context of the scene. In the Greco-Indian art of Gandhara, the myth is even found as adapted to a Buddhist context. Dionysus surprising the sleeping – or awakening – Ariadne is also the subject of wall paintings in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii and the Villa di Arianna at Stabia (about 1 st century A.D.), of a fresco in the Jamahiriya Museum at Tripoli in Libya, of a floor mosaic in the Knight’s House at Volubilis in Morocco. Sometimes, the image of a winged Eros or a flying Cupid is included too. Nor were scenes lacking, of Ariadne initiated to Dionysian mysteries, as in a Roman cameo at the Archaeological Museum of Naples, what confirms a mysterical involvement of the myth. Divae reverere soporem (“Respect the Sleep of the Goddess”) is an inscription in the far later painting Ariane endormie, une paysage avec fontaine, by the French Jean-François Millet also named Francisque Millet II (1666-1723; Private Collection). Yet what there represented is the old statue of a deified Ariadne. This extraordinary and scarce known painting contributes to reveal the face of modernity as an archaeology, with all its nostalgic and bewildering representation of an absence of the past. 5 – Arianna dormiente and Ariadna dormida, Roman copies of Greek statue, details; Villa Corsini, Florence, and Museo del 6
  7. 7. Prado, Madrid A Sleeping Ariadne The most famed image of a sleeping Ariadne was a now lost Greek statue, probably made at Pergamon or Rhodes in the 2 nd century B.C. We have convergent Roman replicas of it, in the Vatican Museums at Rome, in the Villa Corsini at Florence and in the Prado Museum at Madrid. Another statue in the Louvre Museum at Paris is to be considered a variant, rather than a copy. All these marble sculptures share a detail: one arm raised over Ariadne’s head, in a quite usual gesture of a slumbering person. In the original, the other hand softly supported the head itself. As a result, both arms keep a position like that they had during Ariadne’s waking lamentation. On her nice face, an expression of despairing exhaustion as well as the effects of a cheerful vision can be already perceived. The long pleated garments let us – and, in the fable, Dionysus – discern just a bareness of her body. The whole composition will arouse a lasting impression on future artists, although generally it assumes a profane value, or is transposed into a different setting. For instance, in Titian’s canvas Bacchanal of the Andrians in the Prado Museum at Madrid (1522-24), the naked nymph at lower right of the picture recalls the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican, unearthed at Rome in 1512. In Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; 1809-14) and Ariadne (National Museum of American Art, Washington; 1888), respectively by the American painters John Vanderlyn and Wyatt Eaton, her unveiled nudity becomes central in a wild country landscape. On the contrary Ariadne, by the British Pre-Raphaelite John W. Waterhouse, returns to wear a red dress but inserted in an exotic scenery with panthers – conventionally escorting the god of inebriation – and a vessel sailing on the sea in background (Private Collection; 1898). 7
  8. 8. 6 – John Vanderlyn, Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia In all these paintings an ascendancy of the Greek masterpiece, through its various old copies, is quite evident. Instead, Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus, by the Swiss Angelica Kauffmann (Houston Gallery of Fine Art; 1774), or Ariadne in Naxos by the English Evelyn De Morgan (The De Morgan Centre, London; 1877), is still a waking and complaining one, lost in the desert of her despair. Emma Hart, the Future Lady Hamilton, as Ariadne, by the French portraitist Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (Private Collection; 1790), sure is a more cheerful albeit ambiguous image. Slowly, a problematic modernity penetrates the modalities of representation anyhow. Whereas the Ariadne by the Dutch Paulus Bor is a disconcerting one, overshadowed by a disquieting Dionysian invisible presence (Muzeum Narodowe, Poznań; 1630-35), another impressive Ariadne by the British Symbolist George F. Watts (1817-1904), half length portrayed, is a sleeping one again. Just an impression of white sail can be discerned in the distance. Were both abandonment and redemption but one dream? Both Kauffmann and Watts returned on the same theme, varying it more than once. Ariadne’s legend inspired so many artists, that it would be impossible an exhaustive account here. As a tendency at least, the specific of an abandoned Ariadne seems to have been more congenial with the sensitivity or life experience of female painters. Besides it is to note that, already in the Heroides by Ovid, the character of the Cretan princess herself claimed: “Cruel 8
  9. 9. sleep, why did you hold me unmoving?/ Or else once and for all I should have been pressed down by an unending night!” (Ariadne’s Epistle to Theseus, lines 111-12). On a red figured Italic vase, now in the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston, the winged god Hypnos – “Sleep” – drips Lethean water on Ariadne’s head. He was a brother to Thanatos, the god of “Death”. And such water, which the dead drank in the beyond, usually caused a perennial oblivion. 7 – John W. Waterhouse, Ariadne; Private Collection The Hellenistic prototype of a sleeping Ariadne will re-emerge with force, in a group of “metaphysical” works executed by the Greek-Italian painter Giorgio De Chirico in the years immediately preceding the First World War. There, the image of the ancient statue is projected into surreal or oneiric settings, where the frequent insertion of urban and modern details creates a bewildering effect. In one sense, the fabulous betrayal by Theseus to Ariadne coincides with a treason by the traditional metaphysics, to prejudice of the modern soul. In 1931, De Chirico will depict no longer a sculpture but a real woman, in Bather in the Sun, or the Abandoned Ariadne (Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin). Her expression is relaxed, as if she is absorbed in a dreamy vision. Against a solar background seascape, a mood of self abandonment succeeded the anguish of abandonment. The “metaphysical” paintings by De Chirico are told to have been inspired by the philosophy of Nietzsche, and by his poem Ariadne’s Lament. Two of them, where Ariadne’s statue is present, are The Awakening of Ariadne (Private Collection, 1913) and Melanconia (Estorick Collection, London; 1912). What kind of melancholy? Which is its Nietzschean 9
  10. 10. sense? More than an indefinite one, it looks a modern feeling, as well as modern is the setting of the picture. Paradoxically, the modern civilization provoked a diffuse sensation of absence, deprivation or abandonment. The disenchantment from metaphysics was a source of nostalgic disillusion. Our “age of anxiety” seems to be a period of transition, while longing for a further awakening from a hopeful dream. But we cannot yet know which this actually is, and whether it is positively realizable, or is a new illusion not free from dangers. 8 – Paulus Bor, Ariadne; Muzeum Narodowe, Poznań, Poland (cf. Ovid, The Art of Love I, lines 555-56) “I am your Labyrinth”: thus Dionysus, the “god unknown”, addresses Ariadne in the verse by Nietzsche. A graffito was scored on a post in the atrium of the House of Marcus Lucretius at Pompeii, before a volcanic eruption of Vesuvius buried the city in 79 C.E. It depicts a maze. Few cryptic Latin words still stay inscribed around: Labyrinthus, hic habitat Minotaurus (“Labyrinth: the Minotaur lives here”). They might have been a polemical 10
  11. 11. allusion to the personality of the owner, or his facetious warning to unwanted visitors. In our case, the sentence well sounds a companion to that by Friedrich Nietzsche. Inside any “god unknown” or, all the more reason, divinity to come, there is one uneasy uncertainty. If you prefer so, any renewed consciousness has to cross the wilderness of the unconscious. The Virgin Advocate For any sacred figurative art, a limit to overcome is the representation of what difficult to represent, but in a symbolic way. Sometimes, such an allusion becomes an exclusion from the view: better to say, an understood presence to which references or clues inside the picture drive our intuition. Not seldom, these figures of absence are icons of loss at once. In the Christian iconography, that is the case of a Byzantine type of image called Deomene, with reference to Our Lady, the virginal “Mother of God”. In Greek, Deomene means “suppliant”. Originally, she was a character in a scene of Deësis or Paraklesis, what is “supplication”. Other prominent characters are a Christ enthroned and John the Baptist; possibly, with saints or angels alike. Both Mary and John are standing, flanking Jesus and facing toward him. Their hands are raised, in a gesture of intercession on behalf of mankind. 11
  12. 12. 9 – Giorgio De Chirico, The Awakening of Ariadne; Private Collection Early, the Deomene became an autonomous representation. Its original and replicas were also defined Agiosoritissa, from Agia Soros: “holy shrine”, where a belt and an edge of dress were kept and venerated as relics of the Virgin, in the Chalkoprateia sanctuary at Constantinople. There, such a prototype was sheltered too. A legend ascribed it to Luke the Evangelist as a portraitist, and told it was carried from Palestine in the 5 th century. Likely, it got lost during the iconoclastic crisis in the 8th century. Usually this Madonna is half length portrayed, dark veiled, shown almost in profile. Her just open arms are stretched in the direction of an implied presence, out of the picture. Mostly, her pitiful and doleful gaze is turned to the viewer of the icon. Even more than deriving from a scene of Deësis, she seems the foremother of so many “Ladies of Sorrows” in the iconic tradition, the Orthodox Agia Katafyge included. The Christ, she is pleading with, no longer lives in our “vale of woe”. Along the Middle Ages the typology of the Deomene or Agiosoritissa spread over 12
  13. 13. Italy, assuming the Latin title of Virgo Advocata (“Virgin Advocate”) because of her intermediary and intercessory task. Sometimes these icons were imported artefacts; other times, local copies or imitations. Related legends flourished, in order to credit their Lukan authorship, their provenance from Constantinople or their miraculous virtues. Often they grew objects of popular devotion. The most famous is St. Mary of the Ara Coeli (“Altar of Heaven”). Although it might be older, presumably the painting on wood dates from the 11 th century. Still today it can be admired above the main altar in the homonymous basilica, on the Capitoline hill at Rome. Leading up to the church, a flight of 124 steps was erected at the time of the plague in 1350, and dedicated to this Madonna as protector of the Romans. 10 – Deomene icons; Church of Ekatontapyliani, Paros (15th c.), and Kremlin iconostasis, Moscow (late 14th or early 15th c.) Let us compare it with a later icon, the Madonna delle Grazie above the main altar of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Tivoli, dating back to the period 1288-1292. We will realize, they are very similar to each other. Probably, the former influenced the latter, whose original has been attributed to the Roman artist Jacopo Torriti (unfortunately, what at present we have of it is a modern true copy). Yet there are some meaningful differences. In the upper corners of the picture, we can see the small figures of the Saviour and of an angel. Of course, the Virgin is turned to Jesus, as to recall the faithful to whom her intercession is 13
  14. 14. addressed. Moreover, she is less mournful in her dressing. A decoration on the veil over her head resembles a crown or a diadem, as to make us well aware of her dignity or majesty. The detail of the angel can also remind the episode of the Annunciation to the young Mary, as suggested by the Latin inscription below the image: Ave gratia plena, Dominus tecum (“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you”: notoriously, such is the salutation of Gabriel, the announcing archangel, in Luke’s Gospel). We can even guess, those two apparitions represent nothing but the best memories of her unique life. What there is a simple apparition, it enlarges into a full vision in another painting of the same type and epoch (12th century), and by unknown author, now in the Borghese Gallery at Rome. Above the portrayal of this Virgin Advocate, a blessing Christ is visible, nearly in the same scale of the figure of his mother. In the lower part of the picture, a Latin inscription can be read here too: Sancta virgo virginum (“Most holy among the virgins”). In some a didactic way, it is like Roman iconographers strove to render less lonely the appearance of their Greek model. 11 – St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven and the Madonna of St. Sixtus; Basilica of S.ta Maria in Ara Coeli and Chapel of the Most Holy Rosary, Rome The Blessed Virgin and mourning mother returns to be represented alone in the icon of St. Mary in Via Lata, preserved in the homonymous church at Rome. Also this painting – 14
  15. 15. likely executed by one Petrus pictor in the late 12th century – is very akin to the Madonna of the Ara Coeli, albeit less stern in the expression and adorned with nice jewels. Such a detail is well concordant with the Marian conventional appellations inscribed below the image, Fons lucis and Stella maris: “Spring of Light” and “Star of the Sea”. Nonetheless, reliably the most ancient and beautiful Virgo Advocata in Rome is the so called Madonna of St. Sixtus, currently in the nunnery chapel of the Most Holy Rosary. This icon is so old and refined, that even some art critics were inclined to believe in its story, that it was furtively translated to Rome during the Byzantine iconoclasm in order to be rescued from destruction. According to those scholars, the artwork may date back to the late 5 th or early 6th century. It has been also titled “Madonna with Golden Hands”, with reference to the precedent that the devotes had gilded her miraculous hands. At this point, a question rises spontaneous. If not really a live portrait by St. Luke, is that the original Agiosoritissa of Constantinople? Her incredible eyes, the piercing gaze and the deep compassionate look of her face, seem to say: “Yes, I am”. Unfortunately, this is not enough for a reasonable answer. What we can ordinarily consider is the pictorial quality. It still keeps some softness and sweetness of the Hellenistic lesson. Not yet it shows the hieratic stiffness of the Byzantine and medieval arts. In one sense, this is an icon of transition from antiquity to Middle Ages. What we may insinuate is that her sad expression denotes an awareness of the epochal crisis, even more than the full confidence in a human capacity of co-redemption. 15
  16. 16. 12 – Madonna delle Grazie; Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Tivoli As a mediatrix with divinity, indeed the Deomene herself is called to assume that role of co-redeemer. This is an assumption of responsibility on behalf of humanness too. No doubt, a subliminal part of the fascination exerted by all those Virgins Advocates was due to the expedient of a complementary contrast, between the gestures of their hands and the inquisitive gaze. The formers are addressed to what we can define the presence of an absence. The latter is directed to sound our lack of presence, in the religious faith as much as in well doing on earth. No iconoclasm could prevail over the veneration of such icons, for a simple reason: they were rooted in the minds, before than pictured on wood or canvas. Nevertheless they no longer “show the way”, as their sister image Hodegetria, by pointing at her Baby Jesus. Rather, they reflect the soul, lost in a period of troublesome transition. An extant example of Agiosoritissa can be found in the Cathedral of Spoleto too. A relevant detail is one closed hand, whereas the other is open in the intercessory gesture, almost to symbolize sorrow and hope in our lifetime. Actually, a rare and a bit disconcerting 16
  17. 17. variant developed from the Deomene is the late Byzantic Agia Katafyge iconic type (“Holy Refuge”). Most of her figure is covered by a dark cloak, her hands included, so as to express the intensity of her grief while reflecting a popular Mediterranean mourning custom. Such as the Virgin in the scenes of Deësis, she may be full length portrayed, not necessarily alone. Particularly in an icon of the 14 th century in the Archaeological Museum at Sofia, she is depicted by side of St. John the Theologian, that is as projected into a timeless dimension. 13 – Virgin Advocate; Borghese Gallery, Rome A Penitent Magdalene The Virgin Advocate, or Deomene, is not alone to deal with the holy mystery of the presence-absence of Jesus. Particularly, the earthly Christ was missing another Mary whom the Gospels respectfully mention: the Magdalene. No wonder, her iconography is huge in the history of sacred art, sometimes with allusions to her controversial past. That is the 17
  18. 18. typology of the Penitent or “Repentant Magdalene”, portrayed after Jesus’ resurrection and his short new stay on earth. In such representations, usually penitence and hope in a celestial rejoining with the Redeemer are accompanied by a deep sense of loneliness, or temporary loss and even abandonment: a “human, all too human” feeling. Often in the picture, a jar of perfumed oil or of balm – supposedly used to anoint Jesus’ feet, or his corpse for burial – represents the memory of the Beloved, whereas a cranium is an ascetic memento mori. No skull is found in the most celebrated Penitent Magdalene, an oil by the Italian master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, in the Doria Pamphilij Gallery at Rome (circa 1596-97). Only a vessel full of nard unguent, made of transparent glass, captures the light on the floor of a dark room, beside few jewels. A string of pearls is broken, as if its owner did it while stripping of her precious ornaments. Seated on a low chair, with untidy hair and in a disconsolate attitude, this Magdalene is still elegantly dressed, just like a late Renaissance courtesan. Her hands are strangely joined on her womb. Her head is sadly bowed and her gaze is cast into the void. Actually no image in the history of painting better communicates what an inner void may be produced by a recent, irrevocable absence, so that we have to presume the very moment here considered is soon after Christ ’s violent death. 18
  19. 19. 14 – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Penitent Magdalene; Doria Pamphilij Gallery, Rome The skull recurs in a set of images – almost shots of one sequence –, the French Caravaggist Georges de La Tour dedicated to our subject in the first half of the 17 th century. There, it is put close to a lamp flame, lighting in the dark. It can be also associated with a mirror, a crucifix or some books. Presumably these are sacred texts, but might even be not. In such a case, they could hint at a vanity of profane culture, as well as dismissed or broken jewels at a vanity of mundane beauty. This sitting Magdalene is already modestly dressed. Mostly, we cannot see her face, what determines a mysterious effect. Let us consider those at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and at the Louvre Museum in Paris or at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, quite similar to each other. They share a disconcerting detail. The skull is near the woman’s womb too, and this looks gravid. In the last one here mentioned, her hands are folded on the skull, like on the womb itself in Caravaggio’s above painting. Meanwhile, some jewels are dismissed or broken on the floor and on a toilet desk. 19
  20. 20. Both in Caravaggio’s and De La Tour’s works, some an allusion to a today well known esoteric Magdalene legend may be easily read. Then, the reflected flame she is staring at inside the looking glass might assume a pregnant symbolic value. If we add that at the National Gallery of Art in Washington and the copy of a lost original Magdalene with Crucifix, in a private collection, either by the latter author, the whole series of images may be well completed with Magdalene in Ecstasy reliably by the Caravaggio. Her interlocked hands seem to rest on a gravid womb again, so as to preserve her alleged secret (Collection Croce, Rome; 1606). It is also true, not necessarily such a pictorial licence has to look like a blasphemy. Not less than many daring metaphors in the mystic literature of the 16 th century, that is nearly in the same period, it might be interpreted in an allegorical and spiritual way. 15 – The Caravaggio (?), Magdalene in Ecstasy and detail; Collection Croce, Rome However, we try to go on about this topic by signalizing less problematic samples. The Madeleine répentante by the French James Tissot is portrayed not in an interior but in open air, while walking along a street wall (Brooklyn Museum, NY; 1886-1894). Her hands joined in praying attitude, and a long dark veil, make her a philological figure of mourning. Her eyes are still looking for, like when she vainly sought Jesus’ corpse around his burial 20
  21. 21. ground. Magdalene at the Sepulchre, described in John’s chapter 20, is found depicted by the Italian Gerolamo Savoldo in the National Gallery of Art at London (ca. 1524). There the risen Christ does not appear yet, but an unnatural gleam irradiating the picture – and the incredible reflecting silver mantle of Mary of Magdala – already announces his presence. In the history of sacred art, such is the narrative antecedent to so many paintings titled Noli me tangere, where at last Jesus is present again, and the Magdalene at first even mistakes him for a gardener. Like for Dionysus in the scenes representing Bacchus discovering Ariadne or for the Christ in the icons of Deësis, or else for the announcing angel in those of the Annunciation to Mary, there we deal with a supernatural presence. In these cases, we should rather theorize an iconography of presence. Actually, no absence can be entirely disjointed from the concept of a presence. Sometimes it happens, this background overturns into a foreground. Our memories or projections become so strong, that the representation grows a re-presentation, in the sense of being present again or otherwise to the mind at least. In such a miracle of the conscience, religion and art may well collaborate. 16 – Georges de La Tour, Magdalen of Night Light and The Penitent Magdalen; Louvre Museum, Paris, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 21
  22. 22. One of the most disquieting Penitent Magdalenes remains that by the so called Maestro della Maddalena, in the Museum of Capodimonte at Naples (17 th century). She is half bare, while hugging her skull with vacant nostalgic eyes against a dark background. This picture well works as a companion to others of the same period and style, such as the Magdalena penitente by the Dutch Johan Moreelse, at the Museo de Bellas Artes de Caën in Spain, or Die reuige Magdalena by the Italian Francesco Furini, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum at Vienna. In Moreelse’s case, a book rests open on the skull. An interesting curiosity is that Furini’s painting, where the skull is replaced with an open jar, was one of the favourite artworks of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis. As an allegory of the unconscious, with its reminiscent scent surely that jar ought to be more positive than a skull. Decidedly less sensual, in accordance with a certain Counter-Reformed moralism but also with some mystical trends of that time, is a Magdalena penitente by the Spanish Mateo Cerezo (1637-66), today in a private collection. Her beauty is a more spiritual one. Mostly covered by a dark habit and her long hair, she is gazing at a crucifix but pointing at a skull, here a symbol of biblical vanity of vanities, that is relativity of all things in this world. Typical of a Caravaggesque manner, the darkness in background has rather become a sort of “tenebrism”. If the main Renaissance sacred iconography had been that of the Annunciation to the Virgin, also thanks to its potential recalling the announcement of a new age, the Repentant Magdalene looks more congenial with a 17th century backward obscurantism. 22
  23. 23. 17 – Giovanni Gerolamo Savoldo, Magdalene at the Sepulchre; National Gallery of Art, London Which kind of absence was Jesus’ loss? “He vanished from their sight”: thus, Luke refers to the risen Christ and his disciples (24:31). According to a theological view, better than a presence-absence it is a latency. His historical apparition left a fertile void, we strive to fill with his living words. It remains a void despite all. In different ways, either the Virgin Advocate or the Penitent Magdalene are icons of a complex, even contrasting feeling. Passion and hope are sides of one coin as the religious faith, although the instances of love ought to come first, in a Christian perspective (cf. Paul, Corinthians I, 13:13). Those instances should concern the relative as well the absolute other, both inside and outside the represented scene. What is not properly current money, in our marketing world. It is also true, often art may work as a medium between these two existential dimensions. Not necessarily it needs to be sacred. The thinker Simone Weil once wrote, a true art of beauty is always sacred, all the more if considering a religion centred on the mystery of Incarnation. 23
  24. 24. The Virgin Annunciate In our general or generalized history, a convention makes the Modern Age start with America’s geographical discovery, in 1492. In the history of art, we might make it begin few years before, in 1476. In that approximate date and in Sicily, it was painted a so extraordinary and innovative artwork for its time, as to hyperbolically appear an icon of early modernity itself. If we agree in considering the Virgin Advocate, particularly in the version of the Madonna of St. Sixtus, as an iconic expression of the transition from antiquity to Middle Ages, all the more reason it could be taken into consideration a hazardous thesis: that the Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina, now in the Palazzo Abatellis at Palermo, is an image marking the troubled transition from Middle Ages to the Modern Age. 18 – Francesco Furini, The Penitent Magdalene; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (at lower left, a biblical Hebrew inscription: “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted”) 24
  25. 25. Isolated painted Annunciates were not an absolute novelty. Yet they were panels twinning with others representing Gabriel, the announcing angel, such as in the scene narrated by Luke’s Gospel. In the production by Antonello himself, we have a full Annunciation scene and another Virgin of the Annunciation, today in the Alte Pinakothek of Munich (1473). Both Annunciates by him are frontally portrayed and dark blue veiled, shown while interrupted at their reading, supposedly a sacred text as the Old Testament, by the disconcerting apparition and message of the visiting archangel. Nor was the image of a literate woman a novelty in itself. Already in the sacred art of the late Middle Ages, Madonnas and Magdalenes were begun to be represented while reading, with an open or closed book in their hands, or else well visible beside them. Whereas Munich’s one looks younger and more ingenuous, Palermo’s Annunciate is a mature and intellectual Madonna. In such a sense, this “Full of Grace” is the immanent heir of a Byzantine transcendental Sophia, even better than of the Middle Ages Sedes Sapientiae: “Seat” or “Throne of Wisdom”. Evidently well aware of the joyful as much as sorrowful mystery, the words of Gabriel propose to her, she is going to pronounce her free choice assent and assumption of responsibility. Before that, one hand of her is like stretched out of the picture, in an interrogative gesture (recent scans revealed several changes by the author to Mary’s hands). Let us remember the evangelical Mary’s question: “How can this happen?”. We will grant, such is the modern question of religious faith itself. Instead, Munich’s Annunciate is shown in the subsequent moment of her acceptance, her arms humbly folded on her breast. 25
  26. 26. 19 – Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation and Virgin Annunciate; Alte Pinakothek, Munich, and Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo Whereas the hands of the Greek Deomene or Agiosoritissa, as well as of the Latin version Virgo Advocata, were outstretched to an understood Jesus’ presence beside or over the picture, the hand of Palermo’s Annunciate is stretched toward a presence in front of the picture itself. Who is there? At first obvious impression, he is the angel of the Annunciation. Yet, indeed, we are in the same place. We may even suspect, our presence has substituted for the vacancy of him, here cut off from the sight. Temporarily at least, the human has replaced the sacred or the divine. Anyway, Mary’s enigmatic gesture is addressed to the angel as much as to us, assuming a different, nay reversed value in each of the two cases. “How can this happen?”, involves an absurdity of history. The solitude of this Annunciate grows our own, as cast as we are into this world. Then, her question might sound: “Which kind of modernity?” We should admit, not all historical answers were fully satisfactory. The Byzantine usual background for holy icons was golden. This colour was attributed to the sacred, or to Heaven. Among the Virgins Advocates in Rome, that of S.ta Maria in Via Lata owns a dark background, but we may presume it as a Latin exception. In the 15th century, the Florentine Fra Angelico still adopted a golden background in some of his paintings. In the Greek Madonna by the Venetian Giovanni Bellini, such background was partially substituted with a dark one (Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; 1460-64), and in his 26
  27. 27. Madonna and Child currently in the National Gallery of Art at Washington the background is wholly dark (ca. 1480-85). No wonder, in both Annunciates by the Sicilian Antonello da Messina the background is dark alike. It is the beginning of a pictorial custom, which much later will feature the Caravaggism. Actually, the conventional floodlight hue of the sacred began to be replaced by one better in accordance with the twilight depths of human psyche. 20 – Bernardo Cavallino, The Virgin Annunciate; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Nowadays in the National Gallery of Victoria at Melbourne, The Virgin Annunciate by the Neapolitan Caravaggist Bernardo Cavallino (ca. 1645-50) surely is more similar to Caravaggio’s Penitent Magdalene than to a Virgin Advocate. Indeed she may even resemble a “fallen girl”, almost a popular Ariadne in the circumstance of her abandonment. However, she boasts valid titles to be included in a selection of lonely Madonnas (provocatively an Australian friend, an estimator of Christopher Brennan’s symbolist poetry, claimed that she symbolizes the Australian soul far better than kangaroos or black swans). Like Caravaggio’s 27
  28. 28. Magdalene and Antonello’s Annunciates, her half length figure stands out against the darkness. She is portrayed not frontally but in profile, with her hands crossed on her heart. We cannot intercept her gaze, turned toward a source of light external to a side of the picture, presumably the archangel. In this case too, we are excluded from the vision of the sacred, as well as the interlocutor has been excluded from the scene. We might also object, it may be just only an illusion of her senses. As for the Annunciates by Antonello, likely hers is an insight vision and inner dialogue. This pensive Ancilla Domini is a specular image of our souls, longing for a presence, for a message, for an assent difficult to give but which discloses any possible vision and further speech. Nonetheless, her glance is directed to the not yet being, much more than to the past. Even better than a submission, her acceptance seems to be a challenge, working as a conversion, like a new spark ignition in the course of history. Few steps more, and Mary herself will proclaim that, in the evangelical Magnificat. 21 – Franz Pforr, Sulamith und Maria, detail; Georg Schäfer Museum, Schweinfurt, Germany 28
  29. 29. If the Madonna Deomene was mainly an icon of condolence in loss and mourning, generally the Annunciate opens a hopeful window on the future. Beside a real window we can also admire a melancholic Maria by the German Franz Pforr (detail of Sulamith und Maria, Georg Schäfer Museum, Schweinfurt; 1810-11). Sitting alone in her chamber, she is reading and plaiting her hair with her hands. Here, the announcing angel is still to come. We cannot know whether or when. But a home cat – the representation of this animal in the Annunciation scenes has a pictorial tradition – is staring at the door like awaiting an imminent, uncanny advent. Absence may be expectation too. Not always the visitor waited for yet owns a defined form. The announcer might be the form of the announcement itself. Other times, especially woman painters substituted or represented the angel in metaphorical ways. In the Virgin Annunciate by the nun Lucrina Fetti, born in Rome but lived at Mantua, the angelic presence is replaced with a flying white dove conventionally symbolizing the Holy Ghost, even if we can easily imagine Gabriel as present just out of the picture (Palazzo Ducale, Mantua; ca. 1629). In Annunciation II, by the New Zealand living artist Melissa A. Scott, that presence is suggested by means of a hypnotic object: a hanging jewel (Private Collection; 2007). What appears unique is The Angel of the Annunciation, by the British Annie Swynnerton (Private Collection; 1898). There, we have a kind of figural merging and psychological splitting. Evidently, this archangel is his Annunciate at once. That is like to hint at a possible dissociation of the personality, inside the portrayed maiden. Furthermore, she is set within a seaside landscape, very similarly to an awakening Ariadne. 29
  30. 30. 22 – Annie L. Swynnerton, The Angel of the Annunciation; Private Collection A Visionary John Finally, we are at a philosophic issue. The concept of absence deals with a no longer or not yet being; rather, the presence, with a being as absolute, here and now like for ever. Paradoxically, the latter is a metaphysical condition so tied with our existential ground, that we cannot stop longing for it. Such a human contradiction inspired best figures of absence. In spite of all, the distinction between what no longer and what not yet being was quite clear in the above myth of Ariadne, Theseus and Dionysus. With peculiar reference to the derived images of the Virgin Advocate and Annunciate, or of a Penitent Magdalene, in the Christian narration that distinction gets much more shaded, as well as – consequently – the border between absence and presence itself. Our subjective opinion is that, for her own nature at least, above all the Annunciate expresses the invention of a new progressive mood: the nostalgia of future. Even though this may sound an absurdity, it results a fertile one anyhow. The ancients were used to theorize that art is imitation of nature. Surely there is a parallelism or continuity between nature and art. Whereas the former’s evolution is too 30
  31. 31. “slow” for being normally perceived, the latter develops its own history. If easily the nature may appear the representation of an absence, from a human point of view and in one metaphysical sense, not seldom in different ways the history of art deals with the transfiguration of such an absence. Better to say, it is history of a complex relation between presence and absence, as well as between the present and the past in a future perspective. Like in a surreal Labyrinth, places of the space as well as of the time become objects of an interchangeable dislocation impossible in the daily life, but plausible in the life of mind. That is why the figures of absence may be of some importance, not only for art historians. Their peculiarity of being mainly female ones opens a speech too long, as to be probed here. 23 – Antonello da Messina, Virgin Annunciate, and the Madonna of St. Sixtus; details. An inward and an outward gaze? Nevertheless, we can find one male character at least. He is the author of the Apocalypse, exile on the isle of Patmos in his mature age. Literature and fine arts dedicated works or attention to him, traditionally identified with John the Evangelist. We can remember a poet as Hölderlin, a writer as D. H. Lawrence, philosophers as Nietzsche or Heidegger and Gilles Deleuze, painters as Uccello, Bramantino, Bosch, Baldung, Titian, Tintoretto... Approximately, there are almost as many paintings of “John on Patmos” as of “Ariadne on Naxos”. Yet the connexion between the two titles, and related subjects, may be something more than an assonance. In both cases, the situation is of abandonment or loss. In both cases, we have a divinity to come, or to come back onto earth. In both cases, there is the hope in a metaphysical rebirth. What differs is the eschatological horizon. In fact, in the latter case the new “Jerusalem” will be born on the ruins of the old “Babylon”, violently 31
  32. 32. destroyed. No doubt, that “Babylon” stands for the Roman empire as much as for our world. In his essay on the Apocalypse issued in 1929, David H. Lawrence expressed a harsh judgement: the ancient raving text sounds so discrepant from a vital, parabling Christian doctrine of love above all, that hardly it can be considered an inspired script and ascribed to the Evangelist. As perceived by the British modern writer, mainly the apocalyptic absence is a figure of end. More than a century before, in his composition Patmos Friedrich Hölderlin was far more indulgent. So much John’s late solitude and nostalgia of the Saviour show up in the verse by the German Romantic poet, that the former can be compared to a Lady of Sorrows or a Penitent Magdalene. The evocation of a living and risen Christ is so intense and urgent, that not only Patmos but this deaf world had to appear a land of exile to John. Since the first famed lines of the poem, Hölderlin’s poetry itself grows a poetics of absence: “God is near, but hard to seize./ Yet where there is danger,/ the rescue grows as well”. 24 – George F. Watts, Ariadne (courtesy of and Study for Magdalen (Watts Gallery, Compton, England) Among the painters representing John of the Apocalypse, the Flemish Hans Memling and Giotto da Bondone adopt divergent solutions. The former depicts a still young man, while awake and describing the contents of his visions. In the background, an artist’s effort is to represent the main allegories which overwhelm the apocalyptic view, as projected into heaven or a fantastic scenery (Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges; 1474-79). The composition frescoed by the Italian master is more essential (Peruzzi Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence; 1320s). Few traits render an isle wilderness. Elderly and tired, John is portrayed 32
  33. 33. while sleeping seated on the ground: so similar to the old images of Ariadne asleep, indeed. Above him, we can see represented a few allegories of his dream. Yet it may be supposed also made of bright memories of the past, as well as of dark premonitions of the future. Better than the one blamed by Lawrence, this John resembles that interpreted by Hölderlin. How could the favourite Apostle and John of Patmos, the theorist of an everlasting Word and a wanderer of the vision, be the same person? Did the persecution – and the duration of an absence, or its delay in turning into a resolving presence – so change him, that the new message itself ran a risk to be altered by his trouble? How may the Word remain well present, without the persistence or recurrence of its Image? If were theologians, we might reply, Christianity is a doctrine of communion and proximity even before that of presence or absence. Let us remember Gregory of Nyssa’s notions of purification, reminiscence and participation (so similar to Plato’s katharsis, anamnesis and methexis, indeed), as stages of a lightened conscience where also what far or stranger may grow near. Yet what here we are most concerned with is that visionariness discloses visual possibilities. Referring to John the Baptist as a forerunner, already the Evangelist complains about “the voice of one calling in the desert”. To see well, that desert is a place fostering visions too. 33
  34. 34. 25 – Hans Memling, St. John the Evangelist on Patmos, detail ; Memlingmuseum, Sint-Janshospitaal, Bruges Meeting with such tacit problems, sacred iconography appears puzzled not less than critical reflection. Between the extremes of Memling and Giotto, some chose to associate with the hermit holy images more familiar than allegorical figures. For example, in a painting by the Italian Jacopo Vignali, the scheme is borrowed from the scenes of the Annunciation to Mary: John is faced by a revealing angel (Church of San Gaetano, Florence; 17th c.). Not few painters preferred the vision of a celestial Madonna with Child. In the cupola of the Church of St. John the Baptist frescoed by the Correggio at Parma, or in a Baroque work by the Spanish Diego Velázquez (National Gallery, London), rather that is the ecstatic one of Jesus in glory. Probably, this is closest to the Christian spirit of the Apocalypse, not yet exempt from a legacy of the Jewish or even pagan imageries. It may occur, the ways of religiosity and artistic imagination differ from those of official religions. Other artists liked better to skip visionary contents, concentrating on John’s image or on his surrounding landscape. Those are the cases of the Italian Cosmè Tura and of the 34
  35. 35. French Nicolas Poussin. Like that by Giotto, Tura’s John is a slumbering dreamer, lying down on the ground of a waste land. He fell asleep not while writing but while reading a book, still open in one of his hand. An eagle, the conventional symbol linked to John the Evangelist, is watching over him (St. John the Evangelist on Patmos: Museo Thyssen- Bornemisza, Madrid; ca. 1470). In Landscape with St. John on Patmos by Poussin (The Art Institute of Chicago; 1640), Greco-Roman ruins suggest the fall of pagan beliefs, going to be supplanted by the young faith, because of which John was banished. An obelisk is included too, as to mean that Egyptian heritage had been absorbed by classical civilization and this will be recovered by Christian modernity as well. In a new historical perspective, that all shall be filtered by human reason not less than by natural time or divine providence. The Apocalypse is a parable of end, written not long before the conclusion of ancient age, of course if we mind a historical dimension of time. At the mythic dawn of that world, not a seer but a sailor had been confined on the fabulous isle of Ogygia. During seven years, there he was kept by the love of the goddess Calypso to him. Nor could her promise of an immortality gift detain Ulysses any longer. If John of Patmos was a saint nostalgic of divinity, in one sense Odysseus may be considered a homesick hero, facing a want of humanity. We have to observe, the question is far more complex, since Christ’s figure represents joint humanity and divinity. In Greek, Calypso stands for “Concealer” and apocalypse means “revelation”. With an etymological play on words we might infer, the civilization began with a perception of divinity eclipsing humanity, whereas a progressive feeling of history was born with a godhead revealed as consubstantial with humanness. In some a way, it was a development and fulfilment of the sapiential precept “Know yourself”. 35
  36. 36. 26 – Cosmè Tura, St. John the Evangelist on Patmos; Thyssen- Bornemisza Museum, Madrid Copyright 2009 Articles by the same author on like topics, at the Websites below: Annunciate Annunciations Iconography Story 36
  37. 37. Modernity 27 – Arnold Böcklin, Odysseus und Kalypso: Kunstmuseum, Basel; 1883 37