In art, the hackneyed phrase “size matters” is not relevant as some of the most beautiful works of art are quite small. In my first look at the Veronese exhibition at London’s National Gallery I focused on some of the artist’s monumental works which were on show. In today’s blog I want to look at some of the smaller paintings which were on display at the exhibition.
The first painting I want to feature is Veronese’s oil on canvas work entitled Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness which he completed around 1585 and is on loan to the exhibition from a private collection in Genoa. The scene is a cave, bathed in moonlight, which is home to Mary Magdalene. Legend had it that after the death of Christ, his resurrection and finally his ascension into heaven, she, along with her brothers Lazarus and Maximin, fled the Holy Land in a rudder-less boat and one without a sail and landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue near the city of Arles. From there she went to Marseille before living for thirty years in a cave in the Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume Mountains. According to legend, during her self-imposed exile, she went on a strict period of fasting and that but for occasional visits by the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she might have died. The only food she received was the Holy Eucharist which was given to her by angels.
In the painting, we see Mary Magdalene leaning back against a shelf as she converses with the angel who has descended to offer her a modicum of comfort. Veronese has retained her youth and beauty despite what would have been her real age. She is depicted as being semi-naked although she attempts to cover up her nakedness with her hair and diaphanous clothing. Her legs are bare and her breast is exposed and this portrayal of her is probably meant to remind us of her previous immoral life. Look at the shelf behind her. On it we can just make out a number of items. There is an alabaster jar which is the traditional attribute of Mary Magdalene, reminding us of the jar of very expensive aromatic oil, pure nard, with which she anointed the feet of Christ. Also on the ledge there is a skull and an hour glass, both Vanitas symbols alluding to the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Propped up against the skull is a crucifix reminding us of the death of Christ which Mary Magdalene witnessed first-hand.
It is thought that the painting, which was purchased around 1736 by the Doria family, was enlarged during the eighteenth century so that it fitted snugly within decorated plasterwork of one of the rooms of their Strada Nuovo palace in Genoa.
My next featured work is one entitled The Finding of Moses which Veronese completed around 1580 and is part of the Prado collection in Madrid. This small cabinet-sized painting (57cms x 43cms) is another of his religious works and is based on the Old Testament story (Exodus 2:5-6):
“…Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children’…”
The painting depicts the moment when the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, and her ladies-in-waiting have plucked the basket, made of bulrushes and pitch, from the reeds on the edge of the Nile River. The basket was the one in which the baby, Moses had been placed by his Hebrew mother, Jochebed, in order to save him from the slaughter of all male Hebrew children ordered by the Egyptian Pharaoh.
Although this obviously a religious work it has secular connotations and this secularising of the work made it one of Veronese’s most popular subjects. He completed many versions of this depiction, some small like this one, others much larger. This painting has combined the pomp and ceremony often seen in secular works with a story from the bible. The Pharoah’s daughter and her royal attendants are lavishly dressed in sumptuous gowns. Bithiah, as the Pharoah’s daughter, is the most lavishly dressed in stunning orange and white damask gown. To her left is one of her attendants, dressed in blue, holding a blanket ready to wrap up the baby who is being cradled by another attendant who can be seen crouching down with Moses in her arms. The background at the left of painting depicts a river flowing through a large town and is crossed by a bridge. This could well be based on city of Verona, which has many bridges straddling the fast-flowing Adige River.
In the left foreground we see one of her black servants holding the basket which had once carried the baby down river. To the right of the painting Veronese has included a dwarf in the company of the women. Dwarves were often present at 16th century European courts and depicted in paintings of the time. It is thought that this version of the painting was commissioned by Marquis and Marchioness della Torre of Veneto. Its emergence in Spain dates to the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar of Madrid.
My third offering is a portrait which Veronese completed around 1560. It is entitled Portrait of a Lady, ‘La Bella Nani’ and this work is considered to be Veronese’s greatest stand-alone female portrait. Venetian portraiture of Venetian courtesans was very popular at this time with works by the Italian painter of the Venetian school, Palma Vechio, the Italian painter of the Venetian Renaissance, Paris Bordone and Titian. This portrait by Veronese was often likened to Titian’s 1536 work entitled La Bella. In both these paintings the female sitter exudes a sense of opulence by the sumptuous and expensive clothes they wear. Veronese’s woman is standing with her left hand spreading her gossamer veil whilst her right hand is at her breast. Her hair is set tightly, and bejewelled with pearls. She wears a velvet dress which is deep ultramarine in colour and has gold epaulets; The colour of the dress was originally blue although over time sunlight has caused the painting to darken and the beautiful ultramarine dress seems black with just a hint of blue woven in. Veronese’s clever and complex layer of glazes makes the expensive material of the dress shimmer in the light. Her make-up is perfect with rouge on her cheeks she wears an assortment of jewellery, including a large gold piece hanging at her waist. Her wrists are adorned with gold bracelets, on her fingers there are gold rings and around her neck we see a string of pearls. The combination of the jewellery and clothes transforms her into what we would now term a fashion idol. As was the case with Titian’s female, we do not know who the sitter for Veronese’s portrait was but it will almost certainly be a female member of the Venetian aristocracy.
Whereas Titian’s woman looks out at us in a somewhat provocative manner, the female in the Veronese’s portrait has a somewhat restrained look as she averts her eyes from the observer. There is a look of sadness in her expression as she stares into the distance. She seems lost in thought and somewhat troubled. She does not seem to be at ease and maybe was a reluctant model, who has had to acquiesce to her husband’s demand that she should have her portrait painted. Her status as a married woman is confirmed by the ring she wears on her left hand. She looks tired and there are lines around her eyes. There is a vulnerability about this woman which makes us question whether wealth has given her all that she desired.
This painting by Paolo Veronese hangs at the Louvre and is in the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa and one of Veronese’s monumental works, Wedding at Cana. The question as to whether she is a wife of an aristocrat is questioned by the curators of the Louvre who believe it could just be an idealised portrait of a woman by Veronese bringing together all the attributes that make for a beautiful woman. Their view is quite simple:
“…The figure is in fact a depiction of all the criteria of beauty sought after in Venice at the time: blond hair, a pearly complexion and radiance, as well as sweetness of character, reserve, or the quasi-shyness appropriate to any married woman…”
My final offerings are a pair of paintings by Veronese based on the dream of Saint Helena. One is housed at the National Gallery, London whist the other can be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, in Rome. The Dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery was completed around 1570 and the Vatican painting of the same name was thought to have been completed by the artist five or six years later. The story behind the depiction tells of the Flavia Julia Helena, the Empress mother of Constantine the Great, receiving a visitation from an angel in her dream. The angel tells Helena that she should leave home, travel to the Holy Land in search of the relic of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. She set off for Palestine in 326AD on a part spiritual part diplomatic visit on behalf of her son Constantine and, after a two year search, found the cross. Since then, the imagery of the saint has always been associated with the relics of the cross.
In Carlo Ridolphi’s seventeenth century book, La Maraviglie dell’Arte, he talks about a painting of Saint Helena in the house of the Contarini family of Padua. Of the painting, he states:
“… a scene of Saint Helena, who while sleeping dreams of a vision of the Cross held by two angels, that saintly queen nursing such a saintly thought in her mind, even though she was resting…”
We can see by looking at the two works, only the one which is housed in London’s National Gallery has a depiction of two angels and so this could well be the work which Ridolphi was talking about.
Veronese, with great skill, depicts the dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery painting by separating the work into two distinct areas. The foreground represents the “here and now” and in it we see Saint Helena, eyes closed, asleep on a window seat with her head supported by her right hand and her right elbow resting on the window sill. The view through the square window is the space which depicts the dream scene and in her dreams she sees two angels struggling to hold a very heavy and substantial wooden cross. It is a somewhat bare composition but the inclusion of Saint Helena lends an elegance to the depiction. The colours Veronese has used for Helena’s gown are fairly subdued, albeit the cool greens on one hand and the warm golds, rich pinks and oranges, on the other, harmonise perfectly. Look how Veronese has cleverly highlighted the garment with flecks and whirls of white and examine carefully the way he has skilfully depicted the folds of Helena’s gown.
In the Vatican’s Dream of Saint Helena we see Helena seated in a luxurious palace location. This work is completely different to the starkness and sparseness of the London version. In this painting the background consists of a decorated wall covering. To the left there is a fluted column and behind the chair is a bronze statue. Veronese’s depiction of her in this painting is one of an opulently dressed empress. She wears a glorious brocade dress with a red mantle. A jewelled crown sits atop her head. She is seated asleep in a chair, and once again, as in the London painting, her head is supported by her hand. In the right foreground we see the rear view of an angel who appears to be walking into the picture dragging along a large wooden cross. This is the vision Saint Helena is dreaming about and through Veronese’s two depictions we are privy to that dream.
In my next blog I am staying with Veronese and looking at a painting which was 42 ft (1280 cms) wide was far too large to be transported to London. It was a painting which combined a secular scene with a religious story and by so doing fell afoul of the Inquisition. His inquisitors were not amused!