Bellini’s Madonna of Humility, c. 1505 (London, National Gallery) [written March-April 2010] Robert Baldwin Associate Professor of Art History Connecticut College New London, CT 06320 email@example.com www.socialhistoryofart.com Written March and April, 2010 Introduction On the one hand, we can see Bellini’s Madonna of Humility as the culmination of a late medieval artistic and devotional tradition stressing the humanity of Christ and of his human mother by placing them directly on the lowly earth. On the other hand, Bellini’s painting appeared at a unique moment when a deepening Renaissance humanism made it possible to elaborate new landscape imagery for the Madonna far beyond the tufts of flowering grass seen in earlier images of the Madonna of Humility or the enclosed gardens popular in Early Renaissance art. This Renaissance humanism also allowed Bellini to extend the humanizing of the infant Christ with new themes of pastoral rest, innocence and spiritual perfection. At a time when Venice was struggling to retain control over its extensive territories on the Italian mainland, Bellini’s Madonna of Humility also contributed to a larger Venetian pastoral imagery encompassing portraiture, political allegory, mythology, Christian subjects, and “pure” landscape itself. In its Christian dimension, the new Venetian pastoral sanctified and mystified Venetian imperial values by presenting terrafirma conquest as a timeless peace, innocence, prosperity and godliness. In that respect, Bellini’s Madonna of Humility has strong parallels to Giorgione’s Tempesta which also used loving mothers and fertile landscapes to allegorize Venetian peace and prosperity. Mary’s Relative Unimportance in the Bible and in Early Christianity The novelty of the late medieval Madonna of Humility is impossible to grasp without a brief survey of the Madonna and Child itself. (A more comprehensive discussion can be found in my essay, “Changes in Late Medieval Christianity”.) Although Christ’s humanity and virgin birth were key doctrines in Christianity from the beginning, little attention was given to Christ’s mother and almost none to his childhood for the first four hundred years of Christianity. Given the vast literature, art, and music dedicated later to the cult of Mary, it is surprising to discover her relative absence in the Bible. Two of the three Gospels started with the adult Christ and all but John omitted her from Christ’s adulthood including the Passion. 1 She was largely absent from Mark and appeared only briefly as a virgin mother at the start of Matthew. Luke allowed her a few verses with the Magnificat and described in passing how she pondered quietly when her young son confounded the Jewish doctors. Of his 1,151 verses, Luke gave only 45 to Mary and dropped her entirely from the narrative after Christ’s boyhood. The Absurdity of a Child God Until 500 CE, Mary was all but absent from Christian art. So was the infant Christ. After Christianity became a Roman imperial religion, the infant Christ was rescued from the squalor of his birth by the imperial theme of the Adoration of the Magi which transformed an unknown and impoverished baby into the King of Kings commanding rulers from distant lands already ruled by the Romans. Given the early Christian focus on Christ’s power and universal dominion rather than his lowly humanity, early Christian writers and artists all but ignored the parallel adoration of the lowly shepherds, a subject which waited until the fourteenth-century to achieve any real prominence. Following the example set by Scripture, Early Christian art skipped from the virgin birth and the magi to Christ’s adulthood when his divinity and power were far more evident. To be sure, fourth and fifth-century writers such as Ephraim, Jerome, and Augustine discussed the theology of Christ’s birth at length and cleverly allegorized many features of his humanity such as the Word which could not yet speak, the creator of the universe lying in a filthy shed, the food of all salvation reduced to suckling, the father of his own mother, and so on. Yet patristic writing ignored the mundane story of Christ’s infancy and boyhood, his crying, illnesses, nursing and spitting up, his toilet training infantile babbling and garbled attempts at speech, his falls, injuries, and faltering steps, his tantrums and disobedience, his learning to read and write, his interactions with parents, siblings, cousins, and friends, and so on. Despite the fundamental importance of Christ’s birth to Christian theology, the savior’s ordinary human life from infancy to early adulthood was incompatible with the early Christian focus on Christ’s power and majesty. As such, the story of Christ’s childhood disappeared into thin air for the first twelve hundred years of Christianity. It was only in the late Middle Ages that preachers and devotional writers began imagining the early life of Christ and inventing miracles for the young god. Needless to say, no one took an interest in the sleeping Christ even though the young Christ presumably spent most of his time sleeping like other babies. Sleep was the least promising of all ordinary activities and the most antithetical to the idea of Christ the Savior. Until the Early Renaissance (1400-1500), not even the infant God could appear sleeping on the job. The Cult of Mary and the Image of the Madonna It took four hundred years before Mary emerged as an important focus of devotion and theology. And even then, her importance was largely confined to the Greek, Byzantine church and to Byzantine art until the 12th century. Although Christian theology praised Mary as the “Mother of God,” church art imaged her more as a queen arrayed in royal splendor and stiffly seated on a throne with the Christ Child held enthroned on her lap like a small ruler. Nowhere in medieval art before 1200 did she display maternal feeling nor did the Christ act like an infant. While the humanity of mother and son was certainly present in these images, it was translated into an official rhetoric of ecclesiastical majesty and power. The Madonna only began to smile after 1300 while the Christ Child did not start squirming until the Early Renaissance. In European art, the Madonna and Child became a truly popular theme only after 1400. And it was only in the late fifteenth century that the Christ child could appear sleeping. Interestingly, no fifteenth-century artist was more dedicated to the theme of the Madonna than Bellini. He produced eighty paintings ranging from large altarpieces to dozens of small panels for the home. Late Medieval Marian Piety and the Madonna of Humility With this history in mind, we can better understand the major shift in Western spirituality and religious art after 1300 with the new focus on the humanity of the Madonna and Child. Leading the way, Byzantine art introduced the Tender Madonna pressing her child against her face and the playful Christ child who twisted his upper body upside down and looked out impishly at the viewer. 2 Thirteenth-century Gothic artists brought Mary down off the tympanum of church facades to the central post of the portal where she welcomed church goers with a radiant smile and a downward gaze. (In the same years, Dante elaborately described the welcoming, transfiguring smile of Beatrice which encouraged the poet-pilgrim on his spiritual journey to a celestial Paradise featuring the enthroned Mary.) Despite these significant changes, the most radical humanizing of Mary and the Christ child was yet to come. Sometime around 1300, Italian Franciscan spirituality brought Mary down off her throne, placed her humbly on the earth, and made her suckle her own child, a lowly activity largely confined to those near the bottom of the social ladder. (With the exception of 17th-century Dutch society, aristocratic and burgher women did not nurse much until the late eighteenth century.) At a time when nursing was perceived as servile and lowly, many early images of the Madonna of Humility also showed Mary nursing the Christ Child. As early as the third quarter of the fourteenth century, some artists transformed the patch of earth under the humbly seated Mary into a garden to underscore her miraculous fertility, refinement, and chastity, and her status as a second Eve restoring Paradise. One example is Catarino’s Madonna of Humility (1362-86), now in Worchester. With the rise of the enclosed garden as a popular Marian theme in the Early Renaissance, fifteenth-century painters enriched the garden of the Madonna of Humility by adding more flowers and introducing fruit-laden trees. Examples include paintings by Gentile da Fabriano (1423, Getty), Zanobi Strozzi (1430s), Domenico di Bartolo (1433), Giovanni di Paolo (1442, Boston), Jacopo Bellini (1440); and Vivarini (1450-75, Metropolitan). Traditional Motifs in Bellini’s Madonna of Humility Bellini’s commitment to a new humanist pastoral imagery does not mean he ignored traditional Christian allegory. Thus he included in the left rear a white pelican killing a snake, a motif used to allegorize the defeat of Satan in Italian art at this time. 3 He also included five established motifs of Marian chastity, purity, and intercession. These include the well at the distant right near the standing herdswoman, the enclosed town in the distance, and its towers, church, and portal. The well also doubled as a familiar artistic metaphor for Christ, the fons vitae, or fountain of life. The visual presentation of the Christ Child on the lap of Mary also played on traditional ideas of Mary-Ecclesia presenting the Corpus Christi. Finally, Bellini took up the new theme of the sleeping Christ Child which was frequently used by Northern Italian artists between 1470 and 1520 as a harbinger of the Pieta and the sleep of death and the eventual awakening of the resurrection. Humanist Pastoral Culture in Bellini’s Madonna Humanist pastoral swept into Venetian culture first in secular and Christian poetry after 1470 and culminated in the pastoral poems of Sannazaro published in Venice between 1504 and 1526. By 1505, the widespread adoption of pastoral imagery led Italian writers and artists to seek new thematic venues where they could elaborate and extend pastoral culture and display their own artistic originality. The ever-widening pastoral culture encompassed nautical pastoral, sea festivals and triumphs, piscatorial pastoral (fishing), a wide variety of mythological subjects, mostly romantic, and secular pastoral allegories such as Giorgione’s Tempesta. It also included a broad spectrum of Christian subjects beginning with penitential saints praying in the wilderness where traditional medieval penitence could mask and legitimize new humanist values more compatible with villa culture and pastoral poetry. Here it was Bellini who pioneered what we might call the new “penitential pastoral” with highly original landscapes of St. Francis in Ecstasy (1470s) and St. Jerome in the Wilderness (c. 1505). The next Christian subject widely pastoralized in Venetian art between 1490 and 1515 was the Madonna and Child. Examples include works by Carpaccio, Cima da Conegliano, Previtali, Giorgione, and Titian. Bellini made important contributions to this imagery with a half-dozen examples, most notably with two late Madonnas (Milan, Detroit) where he developed extensive pastoral landscapes as a backdrop complete with shepherds resting on the round under trees. By 1510, Venetian artists created numerous pastoral interpretations of other Christian themes including the Flight into Egypt, the Rest on the Flight (transformed into a luncheon on the grass), the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Baptism of Christ. Here Bellini continued to make new contributions by developing the most thoroughly pastoral image of the Baptism of Christ in his late altarpiece in Vicenza. In roughly the same years, the influential pastoral poet, Sannazaro wrote a long pastoral poem on the Nativity which included an extensive section on a pastoral Baptism of Christ. 4 Later sixteenth century Venetian artists continued the expansion of pastoral painting by replacing penitence with leisure and beauty in scenes of St. Jerome in the Wilderness (Bordone) and by generating additional pastoral subjects such as the early agricultural history of Adam and Eve after the Fall (Veronese), the Assumption of the Virgin (Palma Vecchio) and a variety of Old Testament pastoral subjects such as Jacob and Rachel (Palma Vecchio). With the exception of Giorgione, no artist contributed more to the spread of pastoral imagery between 1500 and 1510 than Bellini. In numerous works including the Infant Bacchus, Orpheus Taming the Animals, Feast of the Gods, St. Jerome in the Wilderness, Baptism of Christ, Pieta, and Courtesan with a Mirror, Bellini developed an increasingly poetic ands loosely brushed pastoral landscape aesthetic rich with atmospheric light and saturated color. The strangest of these is the Death of St. Peter Martyr where the saint and a fellow monk are brutally stabbed to death in the most implausible of all locations, a serene pastoral landscape where peasants trim trees and sit peacefully on the grass tending to their sheep and cattle. Even if the pastoral imagery works as a humanist metaphor of peace and sacred order violated by the impious assassins, one is still left with strange combination of fête champêtre and bloody murder. Among Bellini’s many pastoral works, the Madonna of Humility stands out as a strikingly original achievement in humanist landscape. Since earlier fifteenth-century artists had already recast the Madonna of Humility as a landscape by placing her in an enclosed garden, it was a relatively simple matter for Bellini to rework the Madonna of Humility as a pastoral image. Here he was in perfect synch with a wider cultural change as Renaissance artists working across Europe between 1500 and 1510 abandoned the “late medieval” chastity and courtly refinement of the Early Renaissance enclosed garden for the wilder, more “natural,” open, and fertile landscape spaces of a new humanist pastoral. 5 Here it helps to remember how the new pastoral claimed to offer a wilder, “true” nature in contrast to the false artifice of well-arranged gardens. Indeed, the prologue to Sannazaro’s Arcadia (1504) begins with an elaborate contrast between pastoral and garden, wild and tamed birdsong, rustic pipes and courtly lutes, simple verse carved on tree trunks and polished and learned poetry in gilded books, and lastly, water from simple springs and marble fountains More often than not the tall and spreading trees brought forth by nature on the shaggy mountains are wont to bring greater pleasure to those who view them than are the cultivated trees pruned and thinned by cunning hands in ornamented gardens. 6 The Complexity of Pastoral Simplicity Like pastoral poetry which prized simplicity yet displayed subtlety and complexity, Bellini developed a highly original composition whose simplicity masked its thematic and aesthetic richness. The most original idea was to recast the Madonna of Humility as a pastoral since this late medieval subject already functioned in Italian art as a garden landscape. Both garden and pastoral could image Mary’s fertility but pastoral necessarily placed less emphasis on her chastity. Bellini played up Mary’s fertility by placing her in a prosperous agricultural landscape complete with cattle, sheep and a goat attended by two herders dressed symbolically in white to add quietly to the theme of purity. He also surrounded Mary with a striking patch of green grass and small flowers. 7 By placing greenery and flowers all around Mary, Bellini also preserved elements of the traditional garden while subordinating them to the new pastoral mode developed by contemporary Italian poets. Of these, none was more important than Sannazaro whose Arcadia was the most influential book of vernacular pastoral poems around 1500 and who followed this with a long Latin pastoral poem on the incarnation and nativity. In his De Partu Virginis (The Virgin Birth) written between 1500 and 1520 and published in Venice in 1526, Sannazaro described the miraculous flowering of the earth around the pregnant Mary. Wherever she steps the bountiful earth produces cinnamon there, and budding roses, and hyacinths no longer sad-crocus, narcissus, whatever the lovely spring breathes forth, whatever flowers nature disposes here and there among the grasses, commingling a variety of colors. Farther on, the running brooks stay their swift currents; the hollow vales rejoice, and the low-lying hills; the pines surrounding her bow down their heads, and clusters of fruit break forth in the palmy groves. All things rejoice: Eurus and Notus grow still, fierce Boreas is stilled, while only the Zephyrs hold their sway over the flowering countryside, and blandish heaven with their warming breezes, greeting her passage with what voice is granted them. ... thou whose womb in mantled by a blessed vine, that it may fill the earth with inexhaustible vintage. 8 The use of classical terminology for Christian subjects appears throughout Sannazaro’s poem and shows how fashionable classical imagery had become in humanist Christian culture by the early sixteenth century. More to the point at hand, it shows how pastoral simplicity went hand in hand with the latest humanist learning and with gratuitous mythological references, all paraded in the new classicizing Latin of Renaissance literature. Beyond developing a fertile landscape directly around Mary, Bellini also underscored Mary’s fertility by cradling the sleeping Christ directly between his mother’s thighs which open to present the fruit of her womb for the adoration of the Christian viewer. While Mary’s miraculous fertility was also important to earlier depictions of the Madonna in an enclosed garden, Bellini’s thematic and compositional innovations created a novel humanist image of Mary as a fertile earth mother. Tied more to sixteenth-century art and the explosion of mythological nudes and romances in Italian art, the “earth mother” was a secular theme Bellini himself explored with the sleeping nymph in his Feast of the Gods and his Woman with a Mirror which depicts a naked courtesan or Venus sitting on a bed before a large view of a pastoral landscape. Between 1508 and 1520, Giorgione and Titian developed Bellini’s Christian and pagan versions of the earth mother in numerous depictions of the pastoral Madonna of Humility (often nursing) and of mythological women reclining nude in fertile landscapes (Venus, nymphs, shepherdesses). To heighten Mary’s power without disturbing her humility, Bellini arranged Mary’s body to form a grand pyramid completely filling the picture plane. In this way, Bellini’s Mary quietly dominated the composition without doing anything to undermine her traditional humility, maternal devotion, tenderness, and “feminine” quietude. Her formal grandeur was enhanced by the low perspective which placed the viewer on the same level as the Christ Child and which allowed Mary to tower over the earth even as she lowered herself to the very ground. (The low perspective also heightened the viewer’s devotional proximity to the Christ Child and invited the same kind of adoration modeled by Mary.) By investing Mary with formal grandeur, Bellini was able to dispense with the incongruous but necessary celestial crown and sumptuous pillow included in many fifteenth-century depictions of the Madonna of Humility. Lacking such royal accoutrements, Bellini’s Madonna appeared with a more complete and consistent humility and simplicity, both qualities highly prized in the new Renaissance pastoral. Bellini was even able to dispense with her traditional halo by placing her head in the celestial sphere where white clouds were carefully arranged to form a natural substitute and where celestial white could echo the pure white of Mary’s headdress. (The replacement of halo with clouds reminds us of Bellini’s Ecstasy of Francis where he replaced the vision of a floating crucifix with supernatural rays of light with a brilliant sunlight streaming in from above.) Sleep as Pastoral Rest, Peace, and Innocence In a landscape stressing the “natural” humanity of Mary and the Christ Child, Bellini also used the new theme of Christ’s sleep to deepen his humanity by showing him more like a real infant. More importantly, the relocation of the sleeping Christ in a pastoral landscape with a sleeping or resting shepherd sitting on the ground (to Mary’s right) and sleeping cattle allowed Bellini to reinterpret sleep in pastoral terms where sleep had always played a central role. On the most literal level sleep, the countryside was universally extolled as a place of good, sound sleep, far from the noise and cares of the city. In Eclogue VII from his Arcadia, Sannazaro’s poet-shepherd sings, for I would seek out the glad and sunny hills, enjoying on the grasses a sweet sleep; for well I know that never man of earth happier than I am, ever saw the sun. 9 Sleep also allowed courtly elites to underscore the noble leisure at the center of pastoral culture which emerged from court culture and remained closely tied to aristocratic ideas of land ownership, on the one hand, and eternal leisure, on the other. On a deeper level, sleep was understood since classical times as a kind of food which allowed the human being to recharge physically and spiritually. As such, sleep was easily compared to the humanist idea of periodic retreats into nature which lay at the core of Renaissance villa and pastoral culture. As nourishment, rustic sleep allegorized the larger humanist theme of nature’s physical, moral, and spiritual rejuvenation. With its ties to cosmic cycles of day and night, work and rest, Renaissance pastoral and villa culture also used sleep to imbed the human being more fully into a larger nature. Here sleep imaged a utopian union with nature, especially when combined with classical nudity as in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus or the sleeping nymph in Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians. It is only when we remember the rich significance of sleep in Renaissance pastoral culture that we can appreciate the pastoral implications of Bellini’s sleeping Christ Child. Bellini knew this tradition because he included a sleeping nymph in his mythological landscape, Feast of the Gods, painted in the same period as the Madonna of Humility. Of course, sleep in Renaissance pastoral could also express other values which are not relevant for Bellini’s Madonna such as eternal aristocratic leisure in nature or female objectification and male fantasy. These values belong to the Feast of the Gods. Christian Incarnation and Humanist Pastoral Golden Age As noted above, Renaissance pastoral poets projected classical pastoral forms and poetic imagery into a growing spectrum of themes including numerous Christian narratives. Of these, the most important was the birth of Christ. In Sannazaro’s Virgin Birth, the leading pastoral poet of the day hailed Christ’s birth in ancient Roman poetic terms as the dawn of a new Golden Age of peace, prosperity, and godliness, with a supreme ruler, a Prince of Peace and King of Kings born to a virgin. Here Sannazaro lifted language directly from Virgil’s pastoral poem praising the birth of the Roman emperor Augustus and the dawn of a new Roman Golden Age. In Sannazaro’s poem, two shepherds arrive at the shed in Bethlehem and sing the following song. [The Song of Lycidas and Aegon] “It is for this; dear Child, that in his native grot our Tityrus rejected a rustic song for his polished reed, and sang woeds worthy of a Roman consul. Now is come the last age of the Cumaean prophecy; the Magnus Annus is reborn through its accomplished course, Clearly this is the Virgin, this is the reign of Saturn; this new birth has descended from heaven on high-a birth through which a golden race will arise throughout the entire world, and the vine will flourish in mid-harvest. Under his rule the traces that yet remain of our sinfulness, being done away, will free the earth from her abiding fear, and the forbidden entrance to great Olympus will lie open. The serpent too shall perish who in the beginning, imbued with monstrous poisons, deceived our wretched parents. Are you to take on the life of the gods? And are you to see gods and heroes mingled, and yourself be seen by them? And are you to rule by your Father’s virtues a world restored to peace? Behold the heavens, suffused with a joyous light, behold the fields and streams and the very grasses on the high hills-how all rejoice at the age that is to come. Of themselves the goats will bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the herds will have no fear of the powerful lions, and the lamb will go in safety among the dangerous swords and twice- dyed will preserve the redness that overspreads it. “Meanwhile these first gifts shall be yours, little Child, the ivy and ivy berries intermingled. Your cradle will abound with lovely flowers and the durable oaks will drip down honey-dew. Oaks will yield honey: all Earth will bear all things. And after maturing age has made you man, and now your deeds are known through all the world, then will be another Tiphys, and another Argo to carry the chosen heroes: other wars will be fought, and you will descend, a mighty Conqueror, upon the Stygian waves. Begin, dear Child, to acknowledge your mother with a smile, beloved Son of God, great scion of Heaven.”  While such songs the shepherds sing, the pathless woods are echoing far away and the shaggy mountains toss their words to the stars. The very cliffs through their thickets, the very groves resound-“A god, he is a god, Menalcas.” Here suddenly flights of angels are seen in the broad expanse of air, swift circlings and re-circlings and re-circles swift; and voices are heard far off, and a sound of chariot wheels. In truth, a jubilant army was flying through the cloudless sky, with weapons that intend no harm: troops in array were setting in motion a triple line of battle drawn up in threes, in semblance of war. Now might you see them piercing thrice the yielding clouds with their shields, thrice hurling their lances through the empty air, thrice shouting their leader’s name; then rallying their scattered standards and presenting a single front with their joyous phalanx and traversing again the aery fields in military order; and others far off marching at a steady pace through the clouds and along the broad highways, and linking their arms in a chain, waving their wings with a perpetual motion and bearing in their hands the symbols of our salvation-the thorns, the nails, the scourges made of rough twigs, and the spear that is to be fixed in his side, the cup flavored with gall, the cross erected and the cruel pillar. They went their way and soothed the air with their sweet singing. 10 Pastoral as Venetian Politics As with other Venetian pastoral images between 1470 and 1550 such as Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians and Giorgione’s Tempesta, we need to consider the political implications of Bellini’s Madonna of Humility. If the attentive mother nursing her child in Giorgione’s Tempesta could allegorize the peace and prosperity of mainland territories conquered and governed by Venice, it is not far fetched to see in Bellini’s Christian image another expression of the appealing Venetian imagery of fertile, peaceful, prosperous nature. As a small island, Venice had no agricultural lands. Over the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Venice conquered most of the mainland territories to the West, North and South of the city before briefly losing much of this land in the wars of the League of Cambrai (1508-10). Eager to curb Venetian territorial expansion, Pope Julius II formed a brief alliance with Germany, Spain, and France. After French and German armies stripped most mainland territories from Venice in 1509, the pope worried about French claims to most of Northern Italy and formed an alliance with Venice to drive the French out. The shifts in alliances continued in 1513 when Venice allied itself with France allied to fight growing German and papal power in Northern Italy. By 1516, Venice had regained most of mainland territories though war between the France, Germany, Venice and the Papacy continued until 1530. The various ups and downs of the Venetian terrafirma empire are less important for the understanding of pastoral in Venetian Renaissance art than the larger existence of that empire and its importance to the economy and political security of Venice. Given the new regional identity of Venice as a mainland empire, it is hard not to refer Venetian pastoral imagery directly or indirectly to the new political reality of Venice as a powerful empire in Northern Italy. By Christianizing this landscape imagery in his Madonna of Humility, Bellini was able to wrap Venetian empire in Marian humility, chastity, purity, and benevolence, on the one hand, and pastoral innocence, simplicity, peace and prosperity, on the other. Recent conquest was reconfigured as feminine love and nature’s eternal order. As with other Venetian examples of Christian pastoral painting, Bellini’s pastoral paintings flattered Venetian aristocrats (and rulers from other nearby city states) with images of courtly power as peaceful, reassuring, and eternal. 1 Mark 3: 31-35 brings her in for two verses but only to allow Christ to use her allegorize all of his followers as sisters, brothers, and mothers. 2 See catalogue on Byzantine art, Metropolitan Museum, c. 2006, (title needed) 3 Rudolph Wittkower, “Eagle and Serpent,” in idem, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1977, pp. 15-44, esp. pp. 39-40 (first published in Journal of the Warburg Institute, 1, 1938-39). The defeated serpent also appears in Roman imperial pastoral and reappears in Sannazaro’s pastoral poem on the nativity quoted below in the song of the two shepherds. 4 In Book III of Sannazaro’s The Virgin Birth, the Baptism of Christ is described in the pastoral mode used throughout that poem, complete with the classical theme of pastoral sleep alongside a cooling river. “ Then it came to pass that on his grassy couch in a wave-resounding cavern Jordan, the sea-blue king, the source of cooling waters, was revolving in his secret heart the things that were fated yet to come. With radiant visages were gathered about him an attendant troop, his daughters: ... their shoulders’ bare, the garments falling ungirdled from their naked breasts; ... All lovely in feature, all in white garments, all with their ankles bound in crimson sandals. Reclining against an overset urn in the midst of his cavern, he pours forth his waters. Adored with strange designs, the urn is a glittering thing, shining and transparent, being made of crystal and unclouded glass, a splendid ornament and a marvelous gift from the gods. Ere a wood was flourishing, with shadowy foliage and trees thick-set. All through it the stags and fugitive roes were seeking a midsummer coolness in the green shade. In the middle a river, its golden waters shining, was wandering through a meadow, and by its course diving the fertile fields. There a youth [John the Baptist], his body clad in tawny skins and standing on a jutting rock, was washing the king and lord of the gods [Christ] in the swirling waters in midstream. But on the green bank his chosen attendants await him, their garments tucked up decently; and with their hands reached out over the water they offer snow-white garments, heavenly linens. The Father himself from an unclouded heaven was sending far and wide his manifest signs, and dispatching to his Son through the empty air a swift dove, resplendent with radiance and a coruscating fire. Around him the astonished Nymphs are worshipping his divinity and the river is calling back to their source his fleeing waters. While Father Jordan, ignorant of the Fates, is examining such things on the grave urn, and marveling turns his eyes to exact details, he sees an unusual volume of water burst forth to flood his spacious dwelling, and his hollow cave filled full of waves, and the water taking on a strange savor. And while he hesitates and at the same time fears, as he raises from the waves his mossy head, and the horns on his bull-like countenance, he sees the riverbank everywhere flowering in strange fashion, and running through the dense forest the brilliant light that puzzled the shepherds; and he hears the joyful singing rising to the stars and the heavenly voices, and divinities on every side bearing witness to the advent of God. Straightway he joyfully raised both hands to heaven, with these words: “… How often you will see the nodding mountains rise in reverence before him . . . In strange wise their forests bow their tops. How often your custom will be to soothe him with your gentle murmurings as either he finds relief from summer’s heat on your cool and grassy bank or takes soft slumber to his breast. All hail deservedly to your banks, hail to all your waters! To you the divinities will make haste with the offered sacrifice; they will strip bare their sacred limbs and sing their harmonious songs when you will have the good fortune soon to receive in your holy water, divested of his garments, the Creator of things and Father of gods and men …: “Go now, make haste, my sea-blue followers; set out incense for burning on the pious altars; make ready the benches with green moss and hang up garlands on the crystal pillars. Blend together the purpling roses, blend hyacinth and lily and cover your king with a cloud of loveliness. “Then will the high hills lift to the sky the name of Jordan, famous everywhere: Jordan the mighty plains of ocean, Jordan the streams and forests will resound. ... The lovely Nereids will swim beside him, everywhere the waters will grow calm. Then frightened Neptune from his lowest depth will acknowledge his Master and laying his trident aside will hasten with Phorcus and Glaucus and that half-bestial crew, anxiously offering to kiss his sacred feet. See Sannazaro, The Virgin Birth, Book III, in Jacopo Sannazaro, The Major Latin Poems of Jacopo Sannazaro, trans. Ralph Nash, Wayne State University Press, 1994, pp. 5 This replacement of an outmoded garden of Marian chastity with a new pastoral imagery of fertility also appears everywhere in Northern art between 1495 and 1515 starting with Dürer and continuing with Baldung, Altdorfer, and others. At a time when erotic mythology also swept into Renaissance art, the garden of chastity was increasingly outmoded. 6 The larger text reads thus. PROLOGUE More often than not the tall and spreading trees brought forth by nature on the shaggy mountains are wont to bring greater pleasure to those who view them than are the cultivated trees pruned and thinned by cunning hands in ornamented gardens. And the birds of the woodland singing upon the green branches in the solitary forests give much more pleasure to him who hears them than do those birds that have been taught to speak from within their lovely and decorated cages in the crowded cities. For this reason it happens, as I judge, that woodland songs carved on the rugged barks of beeches no less delight the one who reads them than do learned verses written on the smooth pages of gilded books. And the wax-bound reeds of shepherds proffer amid the flower-laden valleys perhaps more pleasurable sound than do through proud chambers the polished and costly boxwood instruments of the musicians. And who has any doubt that a fountain that issues naturally from the living rock, surrounded by green growth, is more pleasing to the human mind than all the others made by art of whitest marble, resplendent with much gold? Certainly no one, to my thinking. Therefore relying on that, I shall among these deserted places recount to the listening trees, and to those few shepherds that will be there, the rude eclogues issued from a natural vein, setting them forth just as naked of ornament as I heard them sung by the shepherds of Arcady under the delightful shades, to the murmuring of crystal fountains. To whom not one time but a thousand the mountain Deities overcome by sweetness lent their listening ears, and the delicate Nymphs, forgetful of pursuing the wandering beasts, abandoned quiver and bow at the foot of the towering pines of Menaelus and of Lycaeus. Wherefore I, if it were permitted me, would think it more glorious to set my mouth to the lowly pipe of Corydon, given him long ago as a precious gift from Damoetas, than to the sounding flute of Pallas, with which the unhappily prideful Satyr provoked Apollo, to his own misfortune. For surely it is a better thing to till a small field well, than to let the large piece wretchedly grow wild through ill government. 7 A sudden blossoming of flowers and greenery around Mary is common in fifteenth-century Madonnas as seen in Fra Filippo Lippi’s Mystic Nativity for Cosimo de’ Medici’s palace and Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks. 8 See Sannazaro, The Virgin Birth, opening of Book II, op. cit., pp. 9 Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia and Piscatorial Eclogues, trans. Ralph Nash, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1966, p. 76. 10 See Sannazaro, The Virgin Birth, Book III, op. cit., pp. 57-58.
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