Monday, December 7, 2015

The Virgin Mary goes to War

Nowhere on Earth is there such veneration of the Virgin Mary than the Catholic Church. Countless miracles and amazing signs have been ascribed to her, including miracles in battle. The Spanish held Mary in deep reverence, crediting her with several miracles over their enemies and the enemies of all Christendom. From the earlier days of the Reconquista in the 1000s to the Polish-Soviet war in the 1900s, Mary has been the guiding light of the Christian soldier.
            It is no wonder then that Artists find inspiration in these Miracles and legends of the Blessed Virgin and create art that they believe best shows her influence over the course of battle. Some traits are very common, like the gold clouds that show her heavenliness and purity, the angles and cherubs that surround her, and how Mary is usually the source for light in the painting. Mary is most often pictured as a young woman, symbolizing her status as a virgin, but also dressed in fine garments that signify her as the Queen of heaven.
            This exhibit deals with the subject matter of the Virgin Mary and how artists have depicted her looking down on the battlefield. Each of these works displays Mary in a similar but slightly different way, ranging from her size in relation to the rest of the piece, her location, and her colors and brightness.

Titian, Assumption of the Virgin, 1516-1518, oil on panel, 690 cm x 360 cm, Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

This painting is a prime example of early renaissance depictions of the Virgin. Here she stands being taken into Heaven on a three tiered altarpiece. Notice the difference in backgrounds between the lower and upper portions as well as the tones used to differentiate the heavenly from the earthly. Most the figures seem to be gesturing upward, either to God or the Virgin. Mary is clearly the center of the work and its main focus, though God is still above her both psychically and theologically.

Paolo Veronese, Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, 1572, oil on canvas, 169 cm x 137 cm, Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

The battle of Lepanto was nothing less than a world changing event in history. The Christian fleet fought and defeated a larger Muslim Ottoman force, stopping their raids and conquest of the Mediterranean. The Virgin Mary is said to have interceded directly in the battle by Catholics, and they ascribe their victory to her. This painting capitalizes on this sentiment showing the Blessed Virgin among the saints and an allegory of Venice pleading for victory. The dark portions of the battle below are illuminated by Heaven’s light, mostly stemming from Mary herself. In fact, the battle below seems to draw the eyes upward as each beam of light and mast point towards the clouds above. While Mary is still the main focus of the piece, she is no longer centered as had been in earlier works.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, 1623-1624, oil on panel, 64.5 cm x 49.8 cm, alte pinakothek, Munich, Germany

A departure from Mary merely standing or bowing her head, Peter Paul Rubens Mary is actively fighting a great serpent. Mary is surrounded by a gold outline, even brighter than the heavenly clouds surrounding her, and in her hands the Christ child reaches upward. The dynamic nature of this piece is defined by the descent dark and multi-directional serpent and the rising of the bright and colorful Virgin. This painting returns to Mary as the center of the action, but does not let her be passive as other paintings have done. All of Mary can be seen, she is not obstructed by clouds or other figures, but fully in view and separate from others.

Francisco de Zurbarán, The Battle between Christians and Moors at El Sotillo, 1637-1639 AD, Oil on Canvas, Arched top, 131 7/8 x 75 1/4 in. (335 x 191.1 cm), 20.104

The centerpiece of the exhibit, this altar piece is a classic example of Mary providing Christian soldiers with a miracle. The story goes that during the Reconquista Spanish troops were saved from a Muslim ambush by divine light revealing their location. This miracle is illustrated by Zurbaran by having Mary be the source of light for the painting. Also notice the recurring theme of dark and dingy colors being used for the soldiers on the ground contrasted with Mary and heaven’s brightly colored garments. Compared to other art pieces, Zurbaran emphasizes Mary’s role as the queen of Heaven as seen by her crown as well as her direct role in illuminating the conflict below.

Lucas Valdes, La Virgen del Rosario protegiendo las naves españolas en la Batalla de Lepanto, 1715-1719, fresco, 525 cm x 275 cm, Church of San Luis of the French, Seville, Spain

A revisit to the battle of Lepanto, put from a slightly different perspective. Here Mary is once again put into the center of the painting, raised above the battle raging below. The edges of the paining have been darkened to show Heaven’s light, as well as darker colors the farther the object is from Mary. At first glance this appears very similar to other paintings of the battle of Lepanto, but there are some acute differences. Mary is certainly the object of attention, but the direction of many of her compatriots point downwards to the battle, dividing one’s attention between the two. Heaven, rather than appearing stationary, appears to reach outward and downward toward the viewer and the ships. 

Jerzy Kossak, Miracle on the Vistula, 1930, oil on canvas, 94 x 145 cm, Private.

A radical departure from the golden and motherly Mary of the past, this painting truly represents a miracle on the battlefield. Here we see Polish troops fight Russian Bolsheviks along the river Vistula. The troops appear to be in mid charge, as if the painter had captured a moment in time. In the background, Mary stands with a host of armed soldiers in Heaven, surrounded by what appears to be the break of dawn. Mary’s face is no clearly visible, and while she is a major part of the painting more attention seems to be given to the soldiers on the ground, such as the slag carrier. Though Mary is very important, she is dwarfed by the patriotic and jingoistic symbolism present in the painting.

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