MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘Madonna of Humility’ by Fra Angelico, National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona; 1433 – 1435
If the land that Jesus walked on is Holy, imagine the tomb that bore Him
The Madonna of Humility is a painting by the famous Fra Angelico. Born Guido di Pietro, the honorary epithet of ‘Fra Angelico’ or ‘the Angelic Brother’ was attributed to the painter after his death in 1455. His love for Christ led him to join the religious order of the Dominicans between 1418 and 1421.
Vasari, the great author of the ‘Lives of Artists’ (1550), describes Angelico as a ‘simple and most holy man who painted with facility and piety’. The art historian adds, ‘Fra Angelico never set his hand to a brush without first saying a prayer. He never painted a crucifix without tears streaming down his cheeks. He befriended the poor and now is befriended by Heaven’. Holding to Vasari’s words, in 1982, St. Pope John Paul II proclaimed the beatification of this ‘Blessed’ painter. He recognized him as the ‘Saint of all Artists’.
The beauty and essence of the painter’s life are reflected in today’s canvas. Titled ‘The Madonna of Humility’, the composition belongs to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. It is currently conserved on loan at the National Art Museum of Catalonia, Barcelona.
Unlike popular medieval representations, the Blessed Virgin is not seated on a majestic Gothic throne. Rather the Virgin of humility rests against a cushion directly placed on the ground. She is cloaked in blue (divinity), red (humanity), green (life), and gold (glory). Executed with meticulous foreshortening, her flowing drapery lends movement to the still image. A little star twinkles upon her right shoulder. Could it serve to remind us of the guiding star of Bethlehem? Further does it not hail Mary as our guiding star, who continues to lead us to her Son Jesus?
The Creator of the star nestles in the left arm of the Virgin. Fra Angelico, once again barring common depiction, presents Christ Child as a baby dressed in soft pink with a little blue girdle around His waist. His tiny curls seem to merge with the maiden’s golden tresses. As Baby Jesus gazes at His beautiful Mother, He takes His first step in faith. Notice the protective arm of the Gentle Mother around her Little Boy.
A choir of angels bears witness to this tender affection. In the background, three angels are seen holding up the cloth of honor made of gold and black embroidered brocade. Its cascading folds lend depth to the composition. In the foreground of the painting, two more celestial beings are seen seated by the Virgin’s feet. They simply and humbly make music to the Mystery of God made Flesh.
The canvas is captivated not only with the heavenly aura of divine music but also with the sweet smell of eternal blossoms. Notice that the Blessed Virgin holds a golden vessel in her right hand. The three mystical roses it contains are a sign of the suffering love of Christ and His Mother that merited our salvation. However, springing through the roses is the fragrant white lily.
As we gaze to our right we notice Baby Jesus resting His little arm on Mary’s shoulders. His right hand, he holds a white lily which He offers with much adoration to His dear mother. Notice that both the flowers are open, eloquently emphasizing the Virgin’s openness to God. Her openness was a marriage of grace and humility. Humility for Mary was not weakness rather a strong-willed determination to let God’s will be done in her life. Mary’s humility was ingrained in knowing that the Almighty wanted to do ‘great things’ in and through her. The greatness of Mary was that she constantly focused on the greatness of God. We experience her great humility through her song of praise:
My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour
For He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
Fr. Warner D'Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael's, Mahim, St Paul's, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.