It’s been almost six months since my last post. During this long interruption, I’ve managed from time to time to continue the project the blog grew out of, which was to look every day at a painting, or the paintings of one artist, reproduced in The Louvre: All the Paintings, a 2012 collection that contains the 3,022 paintings on display in the museum at the time of publication. I’ve missed a lot of days, but I’ve managed to finish the 677 paintings in the Italian section and to begin the section on the Northern Schools (Dutch and Flemish, German, British and Other Northern Schools). I have been gathering material for one more blog post based on the works of Italian painter Canaletto, but I’ve decided not to wait any longer for that post to come together and, instead, to return to the blog with a comment on something humble and also wonderful from the Dutch and Flemish School, an apple in a baby’s hand, which appears in Virgin and Child Holding an Apple (1489), by an Unknown Painter from the Southern Netherlands (15th century).
The subject of the Virgin and Child appears often in the Louvre book, particularly in the opening pages of the Italian section and now in the Dutch and Flemish section; the index lists almost 100 works whose title begins “Virgin and Child.” Of the first 21 paintings in the Dutch and Flemish section, four show Mary holding the Child Jesus. Here’s something I wrote about another Virgin and Child more than a year ago, in the sixth blog entry: “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…. 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.” The title Virgin and Child Holding an Apple calls particular attention to the fruit in the Child’s hand, but I feel now, despite the apple’s undeniable connection to Christ’s future suffering, that I should not have suggested that such objects only were meant to convey this one message.
The apple the Child holds here can certainly be thought of as connected to Christ’s future suffering, in that it is a link to another pair of figures central to Christian tradition, also male and female, who share an apple, although in the other pairing I’m referring to it is the female who holds the apple, and a male figure who considers it, and, of course, Adam and Eve are husband and wife rather than mother and child. In depictions of Adam and Eve’s sin, the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is usually depicted as an apple. George Ferguson, in Signs and Symbols in Christian Art, explains this tradition as stemming from a feature of the Latin language, in which the words for apple and evil are the same, that is, “malum”.
Ferguson goes on to note that in the Christ Child’s hand the apple, while referring to the sin, essentially has become a promise of salvation. In Virgin and Child Holding an Apple, the child’s posture and expression are formal and conscious beyond its years, and the mother’s eyes are lowered deferentially, both signs of the great deed the Child will accomplish, and yet the painting combines this theme with the wonder of a peaceful, domestic intimacy. There is no dread or sign of mourning here.
Images of the Virgin and Child often share a page in the Louvre book with images taken from other moments of their togetherness, some, like the Nativity or the Gifts of the Magi, full of celebration and others, like the Crucifixion and the Deposition, full of sorrow. It is worth noting how often all these paintings of events from the story of Christ make reference to more than one episode in the story. For example, Virgin and Child Holding an Apple refers through the apple to the suffering of Christ; the Deposition, with Mary cradling the body of Christ, recalls the scene of the infant in his mother’s arms, and so on. But I see something more operating in this tradition. I have come across a number of references in the Louvre book and on the Louvre website to painting as a two-dimensional medium struggling to achieve representations that equal those of sculpture, a three-dimensional medium. I have referred to this idea before, especially in blog posts 20 and 23. In Virgin and Child Holding an Apple, we have something more, a painting struggling to image not only the three dimensions of length, width and breadth, but also a fourth dimension, time.
Moreover, Virgin and Child Holding an Apple spans time in other ways than those I’ve already mentioned. All the ways in which such a painting unites events from Christ’s life on earth are also often linked to the viewer’s time as well, in which Christ is restored to heaven after the Resurrection and enthroned in the lap of the Virgin. Some artists, for example, Michelangelo in his Last Judgment, portray Mother Mary seated beside her adult Son enthroned in heaven, but others portray them as mother and child together, the child seated in the lap of his mother, enthroned there. This is the image that appears in the Italian section’s very first painting, Virgin and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Six Angels (circa 1280) by Cimabue (active 1271-1320), which I wrote about in blog post 3. It appears as well in the very first Northern School painting, Chancellor Rolin in Prayer in front of the Virgin also known as The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin (ca. 1434), by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441). The significance of meeting Christ in the viewer’s time is emphasized by placing the donor in the painting.
Linking the Christ Child with Christ’s future suffering might have been meant to stir sympathy and regret in the viewer at the thought of the suffering to come. But a link between the Child and the Risen Christ says something more: it equates salvation with the reunion of God and humanity accomplished from the earliest joining of Christ’s human and divine natures. Other events in this reunion—the Annunciation, the birth of Christ in the lowly Bethlehem stable—are frequently memorialized, but neither of these events is surrounded by the multiplicity of associations accomplished in paintings like Virgin and Child Holding an Apple. How remarkable that such a simple image as a baby resting in its mother’s arms could bear such a profound meaning of hope, that new life would be made the image of new life.