Happy Feast of Santa Lucia! I was surprised this morning by a parade of my nieces and nephews bringing saffron buns to our house, with our little niece Lucy dressed in white and crowned with red holly berries. They were engaging in age-old old European traditions, especially northern European, for the feast of Saint Lucy, the girl-martyr of the third century whose feast day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice, ushering in the light of Christmastime.
It was a scene that made me think immediately of one of my favorite artists, Marianne Stokes, who often painted girls and women engaging in their folk and religious customs. She loved the costumes and traditions of old Europe, like processions and pilgrimages.
Then, it dawned on me: what a perfect subject for an advent post—a painting!
I had already been struggling to think up a subject for a new post, as I haven’t been reading much lately. I had been feeling bad about it, but then I realized that this time of year is never a time for leisure reading for me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had some gifts that I was busy making in the spare moments that I could find leading up to Christmas. I am grateful that my mom and dad put up with that! I am sure that I kept my open projects very “open” all over the dining room table and shared office desk.
Fortunately, I have a work table in the basement now and thus my so-called horizontal surface disease (I cover every table or shelf surface within my reach) affects only myself down there. Advent stars to hang around the house have been the first priority, next will come some homemade gifts, mostly for Tom, who is the most grateful recipient of my artistic tinkerings. There will also be simple bows and arrows made for the boys, who recently watched Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and are now busy pretending to pull arrows out of imaginary quivers and fight Prince John.
Anyway, it’s only fitting that an art history major should write on art at least once in a while (if you want a literary reflection for Christmas, there’s always last year’s Christmas post on James Joyce’s the Dead).
Marianne Stokes is an artist that I have loved for years. I discovered her six Christmases ago, when I saw her Madonna and Child on the cover of a booklet.
To this day, I still think it is one of the most beautiful and sincere paintings of the subject that I have ever seen. Thanks to a wonderful monograph, Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Adrian and Marianne Stokes, written by their grand-niece Magdalen Evans, I have been able to learn a good deal about the artist and her husband.
Marianne Preindlsberger was born in 1855 in Graz, Austria. She was a gifted artist from her youth, winning awards that allowed her to study at the art academies in Austria and abroad in Munich and Paris. She came of age in an art world that was gradually opening to women, especially in Paris, where she could attend life-classes with nude models. She eventually met and married the English landscape painter Adrian Stokes. The two shared their Catholic faith, and in England were part of a Catholic revival and flowering of art and literature that coincided with the lifting of certain legal regulations that had banned Catholics from public office, etc.
Marianne and Adrian were unable to have children; still, together they had a life of great fruitfulness and beauty. They traveled throughout Europe, studying and painting the people and landscapes of the countryside. Marianne’s work shows great sympathy and tenderness for women and children and a deep piety that appreciated the spiritual dimension to every day life.
She is often associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for her choice of tempera as her main medium and her emulation of late medieval painting. She was never a formal part of that group, however, and many people do not realize that the return to tempera and the love of medieval themes was a much larger trend that extended beyond that cohort known as the “PRB.” (The Arts and Craft movement, for example, was very interested in medieval themes and methods). This coincided, as I already mentioned, with a re-opening of English society to Catholicism and even among Anglicans there was a renewed interest in older liturgical, musical, and artistic forms (research the Tractarians, led by John Henry Newman, if you are interested).
Now, with that background information in hand, let’s look more closely at this wonderful painting. During a tour of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Marianne painted at least a few studies of a young woman in the Hungarian town of Ragusa. It is this young woman and her baby whom she portrays as the Madonna and Child. The red robe and golden brocade were apparently the folk costume of her region, but how perfectly royal they look for the Theotokos, “the mother of God.” The rich red contrasts so beautifully with the hazy blue of the background.
The mother’s expression is both loving and a bit sad. The direct gaze, to me, is one of a woman to another woman. Her eyes are not downcast, embarassed, or shy as I think male artists often portray Mary. She confronts the viewer as a sympathetic person, one with whom she is at ease. She lifts the transparent veil from her baby with maternal pride and as a gesture of offering. The Christ child, swaddled in white fabric reminiscent of burial cloths, opens his hand to the viewer— a kind of wave and blessing, the vulnerable openness of the hand that would be pierced on the cross.
The decorative thorns also hint at his piercing, especially the crowning with thorns. The thorny stems bereft of flowers and the wild chervil plants that have dropped their blossoms remind us of winter barrenness and darkness, forth from which the singular rose will bloom. One of my favorite Christmas carols is brought to mind:
Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung. It came, a flower bright, amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.
Mary’s opening of the veil and the child’s palm are petal-like in their delicate unfolding. Mary is the tender, flowering stem seated among the barren stems. As lovely as the plants in the background are in their sparity and fine, curving lines, they are also foreboding as those thorns and weeds (wild chervil is considered a noxious weed) that threaten to choke the tender stem and her blossom out.
Some might be wondering what difference the choice of tempera paint makes here. Tempera (by which I mean egg tempera, not the kiddie stuff you buy in bottles today) was the predominant medium of painters before oil painting was developed in the early Renaissance. It is made by mixing ground pigments with egg yolk; the paint is applied in many thin coats to a board which has been covered in layers of gesso (a kind of primer paint mixed with chalk). Unlike oil paints, tempera dries very quickly and it does not achieve the same rich, opaque colors and color blending. Instead, it has an ethereal thinness. Here, it is used to beautiful effect to create that sense of translucency in the fabric, the halos, even the blue background.
Stokes was a member of the Society of Painters in Tempera, which had been founded by an artist named Christiana Jane Herringham. Herringham also translated into English the 15th-century treatise on painting by the Italian master Cennino Cennini. In Il libro dell’arte, “The Book of Art,” Cennini narrates the beginning of the arts with Adam and Eve and puts “science,” by which I take him to mean knowledge of the nature of things, foremost among them. Second to science is painting, which derives from knowing the nature of things but also requires the operation and skill of the hand and imagination. For, the painter must “discover unseen things concealed beneath the obscurity of natural objects, and to arrest them with the hand, presenting to the sight that which did not before appear to exist.” (I am quoting from Herringham’s translation which you can find here)
Marianne Stokes had this painterly eye, which could see in a local country girl and her baby the pathos of Mary and her divine child. This, it seems to me, is just an echo of the grand painterliness of Christmas itself, when the divine artist renders himself in the most humble obscurity. Our rituals, too, echo this painterly vision: how else do we connect saffron buns to third-century child martyrs and decorated firs to first-century Jerusalem?