Monday March 21, 2016

The Blessed Virgin of the Chair

Raphael's Madonna of the Chair (della sedia, segiolla) is a creation of his Roman period (1513-1514). Departing from the linear and sober Florentine style, the Madonna of the Chair is more sensuous in a motherly way, more intimate with an oriental flavor. We are looking at a tondo, a circular or oval image which intensifies the tenderness of the mother for her child. The bodies in the painting – which corresponds to the Eleousa type, Our Lady of Tenderness – emphasize the outlines of the tondo. Located in the Palazzo Pitti of Florence since the 18th century, this representation of a motherly idyll became famous and was copied many times, sometimes by well known artists like Ingres and Zoffany. Popular art followed suit, and so the Madonna of the Chair entered the Epinal repertoire of famous models. Reproduction frequently leads to re-interpretation. Critical voices have seen in the face of the infant on our print that of Napoleon Bonaparte, and in that of John the Baptist the youthful and wild countenance of Robespierre. In fact, the print makes explicit reference to Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom.

How can this be ascertained? How is it illustrated? There is the prayer accompanying the print. It invokes Our Lady as Seat of Wisdom, a very old and honorable name and tradition. Our Lady sitting, Our Lady enthroned, the famous Basilissa (empress) or Majestà, all of them are representations of mother and child. They are all in some way related to what we call Our Lady of Wisdom. The title originated in the 5th century. It has a scriptural foundation in Sirach 47:12-25 (attributed to Solomon). Whether Enthroned Madonna or Seat of Wisdom, the decisive feature of this painting is not Mary but Jesus Christ whom she holds on her knees or lap, mostly in a frontal position. Mary is the throne on which her Son is seated. Mary is not wisdom incarnate. She is the throne on which Wisdom, Jesus Christ, takes place. Mary holds the child so that it can be seen. She presents the child to the world. His destination is the world and our salvation. Mary's wisdom is to receive this child from God and to give it to the world.

This central image of wisdom is surrounded by other figures of wisdom. The ultimate expression of wisdom is pictured in Jesus Christ carrying the cross. Wisdom is indeed, first and foremost, the love of God for humanity. Right and left of Our Lady of the Chair we have St. Paul with book and sword, and one of the early virgin martyrs holding a palm, sign of martyrdom, and with a wreath of laurel on her head, the sign of victory. Paul's wisdom is that of the Word and of the book; martyrdom, in turn, is still another way to highlight the wisdom of love through self-giving. In the four corners of the frame surrounding the tondo, we discover a man's face and head. The head is topped with two little angels (putti). The emblem is used to highlight the unity and complementarity of justice and wisdom. It may have its origin in the famous judgement of Solomon about the two mothers and the one child. The whole print and its architectural structure is crowned by the three persons of the Holy Trinity. The Trinity is both origin and fulfillment of wisdom. It is creation of world and humanity, their destiny and finality in God, the loving God.

– Father Johann G. Roten, S.M., Director of Research and Special Projects

Visit the exhibit Epinal: Popular Art for Mind and Heart in the Marian Library Gallery to see 33 Images of Epinal, categorized into nine themes, from the Marian Library collection.

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