A Tale of Two Catherines
There is nothing essentially miraculous about a painting of a woman with a baby sitting on her lap. But elements of scenery and dress, along with a painting’s title, can do a great deal to establish that the artist is attempting to describe something outside the everyday. For example, the first painting in the Louvre book’s Italian school section is of a woman with a child in her lap, Cimabue’s Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels, the painting I wrote about in my third post. The early centuries of the Italian section are full of paintings with names very much like the one given to Cimabue’s work. The name is used so often that we may lose sight of the fact that we are being invited to look at something miraculous: in Cimabue’s work, and in many others, the woman is mother but also Virgin. Moreover, the Child in facial expression and general physical demeanor is a blend of human infant and mature man. Finally, we often see the baby and mother in the heavens, that is, in the time beyond the baby’s years on earth; why, then, is he depicted as an infant, rather than as an adult male, the way he appears in paintings of Christ rising from the dead or ascending into heaven or enthroned in heaven?
I do not raise these questions as a prelude to questioning Christian teachings but rather to consider some of the ingenious ways that painters present those teachings. Cimabue surrounds the Virgin and Child with angels; the formally arranged angels suggest heavenly choirs. The scene is in the present for the audience, that is, a glimpse of unchanging eternity, but in some ways it gives the future for the Virgin and Child, since the Child has yet to live his earthly life. Another artist, Pietro Lorenzetti, surrounds Virgin and Child with the worshipping Magi; it is a painting of the past, an historical event; and yet also a painting from the present, since it echoes the birthday celebration of the Child at Christmas. There are also many paintings in which the Virgin and Child are surrounded by a cast of characters that do not belong by any chronological measure either together with the Virgin and Child or with one another. Perhaps it is meant to be a visual image of the ideal of meditation, which would remove barriers of time and place to show true union with the beloved object of devotion. But the artist may also be striving to capture the mystery of Christian time: Christ past, present, and future. Observe how often largely realistic depictions of Mary and Jesus include small objects, such as fruits or flowers or animals, that commentators interpret as symbols of Christ’s future suffering.
One of the most striking variations on this important theme of early Italian art appears in one of the first paintings in the Louvre book, Correggio’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine in Front of St. Sebastian (ca. 1526), and several times after, including in the latest painting I spent time with, Alessandro Turchi’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine (ca. 1600). In both these paintings, there is much realism in the depiction of the figures and the surroundings of the event, although in Correggio’s the presence of St. Sebastian, depicted in the dress and with the weapons of his martyrdom, evokes another type of Virgin and Child painting, the kind that gathers several saints around either a scene or a figure to be meditated on. Despite these realistic circumstances, the key action being presented is distinctly unrealistic: a male baby, sitting in the lap of one woman, places a ring on the hand of another adult woman, in an action familiar from the marriage ceremony. The names of the paintings establish what might otherwise seem unbelievable: the child is preparing to marry a woman old enough to be his mother? Even if we allow for arranged marriages, especially for royal children, here the child is not portrayed as a passive but rather an active participant.
The Louvre book is sometimes disappointingly silent on the paintings; only 400 of the more than 3,000 are accompanied by a commentary. But the theme of the mystical marriage of St. Catherine is discussed in at least two commentaries, one on Fra Bartolomeo’s The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena (1511) and the other on Titian’s The Virgin and Child with St. Catherine and a Shepherd also Known as the Madonna of the Rabbit (ca. 1525). The mystical marriage theme is mentioned in the Titian commentary as a way of emphasizing that the painting is unusual in that it does not link St. Catherine to the theme of the mystical marriage. Fra Bartolomeo’s is notable for the much less realistic treatment of the setting of the marriage and because St. Catherine is referred to as “of Siena”, whereas in other painting titles, including both Correggio’s and Turchi’s, the name given is only St. Catherine. The Fra Bartolomeo commentary points out that both Catherine of Siena (a 14th-century mystic and theologian) and Catherine of Alexandria (a fourth-century author and martyr) are said to have experienced the special union with Christ that is referred to as mystical marriage.
I have included a reproduction of only one of the paintings I have referred to here, Fra Bartolomeo’s Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine of Siena; the others may be viewed online on the Louvre website, although locating the Titian Madonna of the Rabbit there is frustrating. More on that in a future post.