Friday, December 28, 2012

Pagans, Paduans, Soviets & "The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice"

"The Abduction of Persephone," Roman sarcophagus, 1st Century: Museo Correr
As we approach the year's end I hope I'll be forgiven for returning to a post I originally intended to put up at the beginning of November, shortly after my 31 October post on "The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice" (

The painting I referred to in the title of that post was done by the obscure Antonio da Negroponte in the middle of the 15th Century and hangs in the shadows near a side door of the church of San Francesco della Vigna in Castello.

It's the only known painting by Antonio da Negroponte, but as a loyal reader of this blog, Sasha, very helpfully shows, it's not the only known painting of what is called the Paduan school. He provides a number of other striking examples of this same theme as painted by others (such as Carlo Crivelli) associated with this school here:

Images of fruitfulness (and literal fruit) appear in virtually all of the examples Sasha presents, but none in such abundance as in Antonio da Negroponte's. The fecundity of da Negroponte's painting is one of the things I like most about it: that orchard in the background, the flowers all around, the wreath of fruit arching over Mary's throne. It's the most bountiful setting for the Virgin and Child enthroned of any I can recall seeing in Venice.

I think it was this abundance that inspired my wife Jen to remark in passing that there was something a little pagan about the work, and that the hovering presence of The Big Guy and the Holy Spirit added later and by other hands to the original work by Antonio da Negroponte was an attempt to bring this particular Mary back to her proper place within Catholic doctrine. To keep her from tilting a bit too much toward Demeter, the Greek goddess of (among other things) the harvest, whose presence one senses beneath the cult of Mary in Sicily, for example. 

Perhaps because I like thinking about Antonio da Negroponte's painting in these terms--and because what we find in art is often what we're looking for--it's probably no surprise that a couple of days later I came upon a similar depiction of fruitfulness in the Museo Correr (pictured at top). The fruit in this case, spilling from a two horns o' plenty, festoon the side of a 1st-century Roman sarcophagus. And depicted above the fruit is the abduction of Demeter's daughter, Persephone, by the god of the underworld, Hades.

This abduction of her beloved daughter sent Demeter into such a funk that the crops over which she had control withered and died. Demeter would eventually get her daughter back, but only for part of the year. And those months of each year that Demeter's daughter was condemned to spend with the god of the underworld were the unfruitful seasons of the ancient Greek (then Roman) calendar, while her daughter's return from the underworld coincided with spring.

In other words, like the story of Mary and her son, the story of Demeter and her daughter is one of death and the promise of rebirth--of a heavenly sort, in the former case, of a cyclical natural order in the latter.

Which made me think of another work in the church of San Francesco della Vigna, and another work I posted a photo of in early November. Not the Antonio da Negroponte altar piece, but the Sagredo family chapel, which, as you can see in the detail at right, is adorned with monochromatic wreaths of plaster fruit, much like the grapes, apples or pears that appear in marble upon the Roman sarcophagus. But in the Sagredo family Chapel, which is also, after all, the family mausoleum, the wreaths also contain pomegranates, bursting open in their ripeness to show the seeds eaten by Perspehone; each one of which (six in all) would doom her to another month spent each year in the underworld.

So there you have how The Most Beautiful Painting in Venice is linked forever in my mind with both Paduans and pagans--as well as how the Sagredo family chapel is linked to a Roman sarcophagus in the Correr.

But where, you may ask, do the Soviets come in? The answer to that takes us back to the always informative Sasha, who noted in a comment when I first posted the above photo of the Sagredo family chapel (6 November) that:
Such pieces were an inspiration for the masters of Stalin's Barocco - in the years of scarcity they molded plaster very skillfully into cornucopie overflowing with fruit, a lot of public spaces of the period were - and some still are - decorated with the images of excess.

Totalitarian art is supposed to be more restrained and heroic, mounds of Earth's bounty gave the Stalin's Barocco a feel of a more epicurean Utopia.
 Alas, Stalin's Baroque ultimately had more to do with doom than with bounty.


  1. Since Madonna has become one of the principal figures in the religious art her image is adjusted in many forms. There are Brown Madonna of Mexico and Madonna of the Andes whose skirt forms the image of the Holy Mountain enabling new Christian converts pray to the mother of Christ and their aboriginal deity at the same time – to name just a couple examples.

    And there was always an ambiguity about who and what is praised during the prayer to her. The focal point of controversy was Madonna’s beauty. Ideally it should reflect the supreme harmony of Heaven but beauty is also used to tempt. How to distinguish between these? Kenneth Clark in his “Civilization” said that reading medieval romances one wonders very often whether a knight addresses The Holy Virgin or a lady that arouses him in a different plane.

    Festa delle Marie was abolished in Venice in 1379 – these 12 poor girls chosen because of their beauty to be “a Mary” were the winners of what was in fact a beauty pageant, not unlike the present day events of such kind where sponsors want to move well beyond the confines of pure admiration. 12 poor beauties were provided 12 dowries to enable them to marry but obviously the funds came with the strings attached, and the religious feast soon acquired a very unholy connotations.

    The public was more fascinated with the carnal beauty of the girls than with what it was supposed to symbolize. To purify this enterprise the city officials decided to replace (during the processions) the contest’s winners with wooden figurines but the crowds were so dissed by the switch that vegetables and such were thrown at the statues.

    To end this ugly display of preference for the things of flesh above the sublime the festa was banned.

    Antonio da Negroponte’s Madonna sits in what seems to be a Closed Garden (the medieval symbol of chastity) but she is so beautiful and young, the fruit is so abundant and ripe that The Father (with the dove, The Holy Spirit) looking from the hole in the sky seems to be a bit disapproving of what he sees below.

    1. Sasha, I love your account of the history of Festa delle Marie. As Thomas Mann's poor von Aschenbach would also learn while here in Venice, sometimes (as you say) it's impossible to figure out--or be honest with yourself about--exactly what urges Beauty is inspiring within you.

      And is the fruit of any orchard ever more desirable than that which is enclosed behind a fence?