MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘Madonna del Prato’ by Giovanni Bellini, National Gallery, London; 1505
‘Only she who raised Christ can raise a Christian’ – Venerable Fulton Sheen
Giovanni Bellini is one of the greatest, most influential Old Masters of Renaissanceart. He was born in Venice, Italy in 1430 into a family of successful painters – his father was Jacopo Bellini, his brother was Gentile Bellini and his brother-in-law was Andrea Mantegna.
Since the start of his career, Giovanni’s paintings were primarily based on religious subjects. He nurtured a
affinity for the compositions of the ‘Madonna and Child’, revolutionizing the image in the process. These devotional paintings were reproduced in innumerable variations by other great artists of the Renaissance including Raphael.
One such renowned masterpiece is the ‘Madonna del Prato’ or ‘Madonna of the Meadows’. Originally painted in 1505 using oil and egg tempera, in 1949 this painting was transferred to canvas, with damage in places. The painting is now on display in the National Gallery, London.
At first glance, we are captivated by the inexpressive yet serene image of the Blessed Mother. She is seated on the ground in a grassy meadow, her mantle merges with the earth. The iconography is reminiscent of the traditional Marian invocation, the Virgin of Humility. Cloaked in flowing blue and red, the Blessed Mother adores the sleeping Christ Child, her fingertips pressed together in prayer.
With regards to the composition, the Virgin fills a third of the frame while her drapery creates a substantially triangular shape. Notice that the oval shape made by her hands echoes the shape of her face while the angle by which she leans towards Christ corresponds with the angle by which Christ lies in her lap. These subtle connections in the composition enhance the unison in relation shared between the Mother and her Son Jesus.
As the Virgin of Humility, the Blessed Mother is seen surrounded by a medieval panorama. Behold the multiple horizons – in the foreground we see a line of fresh grass. This is followed by a band of pebbles, a tract of field, and finally the range of hills and the clouds. Notice the beautiful atmospheric perspective – the artist uses the color blue to link the hills in the background with the Virgin’s Mantle in the foreground. This infuses the scene with deep serenity and profound meaning.
Notice further that the landscape is full of every-day details that carry metaphorical and religious meanings. The background serves to enhance the comprehension of characters in the foreground.
The first aspect to consider is ‘quies’, Latin for ‘calmness’. Bellini uses light and shade to convey detail and depth as well as mood and meaning. As light gracefully mingles with the – blue, white, green, and brown – it creates a sense of ethereal beauty that heartens harmony. However, this is but a stillness before the storm.
Notice the streaming shapes of clouds. Their shadows indicate a change in the weather. It is a cold but sunny day. The oxen and the herders in the small-holding are either resting or pacing the land. The scanty poplars look too fragile to bloom. To the Virgin’s left appears a snake that menaces a crane which raises its wings in fright. This is perhaps a reference to the conflict between good and evil. Upon the barren branch of the tree is perched a watchful vulture, a foreboding symbol of death. A sad haze fills the air. All of nature awaits spring.
The melancholic music of the landscape evokes meditation. The posture of the little baby deep asleep foreshadows the dead body of Christ sprawled upon His Mother’s lap. It envisions the famous evening picture of lamentation – the Pietà.
The soul of the painting is not sorrow but the relationship the two figures share. The Virgin is confronted with the reality of her Son, a reality she does not fully understand. And yet the work does not display a distressed over-protective Mother rather a model disciple who tilts her head forward, joins her hands in prayer, and participates peacefully in God’s plan of Salvation. Mother Mary who raised Christ was also raised by Christ. Will she not raise us who seek her maternal care and intercession?
© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum