Saturday, December 30, 2000

Speculations on a Madonna
By B.N. Goswamy

WITH Christmas celebrations in the air at this time of the year, it is appropriate, perhaps, for one’s thoughts to turn towards the hallowed theme of Virgin and Child. I have been reading lately about an ongoing controversy that surrounds two of "the most mysterious of extant medieval paintings", each devoted to the same theme, each "elusive and subtle" in its own way. It might interest the reader to know something about them.

The two paintings, generally placed in the thirteenth century by scholars, and spoken of, differently, as ‘icons’ or ‘altarpieces’ (this is one of the points of controversy, for the terms point towards different functions), are in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and are widely referred to as the ‘Kahn’ and ‘Mellon’ Madonnas, after the names of the affluent families through whom they came to the Museum. Magnificent works, which must have received the devotion of generations of believers over centuries, both the paintings —done on wooden panels — show the Madonna seated, in all her majesty, on a throne with the Holy Child in her lap.


The haloed head is inclined slightly downwards as she gazes at the child in her lap; the look in the eyes is one of quiet compassion mingled with gravity; one hand steadies the child, who makes the familiar gesture of blessing with two fingers, while the other points, almost unobtrusively, towards him, the final redeemer; a rich, flowing outer garment is draped round the figure. There is something deeply moving about the sheer simplicity, the monumentality, of these images. In them, the spiritual and the material are delicately balanced. One can understand why these apparently Byzantine works, among "the most famous and memorable early paintings" of Christendom, elicit such interest among scholars. Also such controversy, since very little is known about their early history, and the two are known to have surfaced suddenly in the first half of the twentieth century, at Madrid in Spain.

The Mellon Madonna (c. 1260-85)Despite clear similarities between them, the two Madonnas differ in detail, and it is fascinating to see how scholars in the field go into them. For placing and dating them, every little thing is focussed upon: the colour of the robes, the angle at which the Madonna’s body turns, the elongation of the forms, the shape of the symbolic scroll held by the Child, the gesture of blessing, the patterning in the golden halo placed against the gold of the ground, and so on. The origin of the images has been argued vigorously, and views differ drastically: These were done by a Greek artist working in Constantinople around 1200, according to one scholar; another argues that they were done by Byzantine-trained South Italian painters in Sicily in the middle years of the thirteenth century; a third scholar attributes the two Madonnas to two different painters, the one responsible for the Kahn Madonna being possibly a Greek from Constantinople who worked for an Italian patron in Italy, and the other, to whom the Mellon Madonna can be attributed, being an Italian, indeed Tuscan, who had seen the Kahn Madonna, and modelled his own work upon it. To be sure, all these views are based on close reasoning, but this is the point where the general reader or viewer would be apt to stop. For it gets too complicated, too ‘refined’, in a manner of speaking, after this. The images tend to become blurred in the haze of controversy.

One detail in all this, however, interested me greatly: The throne on which the Madonna is seen seated. To this piece of celestial furniture a great deal of attention has gone in these arguments, and some of them touch upon the ‘eastern’ origins of the form of the throne seen in the ‘Mellon’ Madonna.

It is heavy, sculptural, round-backed, and palpably three-dimensional, enclosing the two figures in "an exclusive spatial zone", and thus different from many others that one sees in images of the Madonna and Child. The question raised is: Is there a meaning to this form? One scholar argues, cogently, that it was perhaps meant to be interpreted as the Throne of Solomon. The throne of that wisest among all kings happens to have been elaborately described in the Old Testament. "King Solomon", the book says, "also made a great throne of ivory, and overlaid it with the finest gold. It had six steps; and the top of the throne was round behind; and there were two hands (arms) on either side holding the seat; and two lions stood, one at each hand. And twelve little lions stood upon the six steps on the one side and on the other; there was no such work made in any other kingdom."

The suggestion raised is that to the standard Byzantine image of the Virgin, pointing to the child Jesus as the way to salvation, the painter has added, by bringing in the Throne of Solomon, the dimension of what in the Latin tradition is called Sedes

Sapientiae, the "Seat of Wisdom". This idea too is complex but, simply put, the Virgin, a figure embodying Majesty, is also to be understood as being both the Mother of God and the Seat of Jesus. "As a mother", like a theologian says, "she supports her son in her lap, yet as the Mother of God, she serves as a throne for the incarnation of Divine Wisdom".

This is truly absorbing. Intriguingly, however, in all this, one’s thoughts also go back to the word for a throne in our own tradition – simhasana, ‘lion-seat’, fit both for kings and deities — which one reads about from very early times, and sees again and again in our sculptures. Thinking of this, filaments of connections and influences, begin to float about in one’s mind once again….

Fame for purchase

Even though, like everyone else, I have been using the terms ‘Kahn’ and ‘Mellon’ Madonnas, I cannot help wincing each time I do this. To name ancient objects or series of art after persons whose only title to fame, at least in this context, is that they had the means, recently, to acquire them seems — at least to me — to be utterly inappropriate. If the celebrated Shah Tahmasp of Iran’s name was associated with the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama, there was some justice in the usage, for the work was originally done for the great Shah; but to call it the Houghton Shahnama now, because Mr. Houghton had come to acquire it, is in questionable taste, I think. But, unfortunately, the trend continues unabated. Consider, from our own land, titles of painting series, like the Modi Bhagavata, the Khajanchi Bhagavata, and the like!