|"The Abduction of Persephone," Roman sarcophagus, 1st Century: Museo Correr|
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.
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.Alas, Stalin's Baroque ultimately had more to do with doom than with bounty.
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.