The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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APRIL 2023 Issue

On Gentile da Fabriano

Gentile de Fabriano, <em>Madonna and Child with Saints Lawrence and Julian</em>, ca. 1423-25.
Gentile de Fabriano, Madonna and Child with Saints Lawrence and Julian, ca. 1423-25.

Gentile da Fabriano’s gold-leaf and tempera on panel composition, Madonna and Child, with Saints Lawrence and Julian (ca. 1423–25), currently on view at the Frick Madison, is still housed in its original frame: an appropriately dramatic arrangement of spiraled columns flows into an ogival arch crowned with golden leaves. Beyond the leaves, the panel is half blue and half red, possibly suggesting a balance between godliness and sinfulness. It mimics the late-Gothic architecture of the time, though this piece was probably made for a wealthy family’s private chapel—a practice that likely earned them little favor from God, as Luke 18:25 states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Still, some believed that by building chapels they would be forgiven, like bankers who charged interest on loans despite the clear warning in Exodus 22:25 that profiting from moneylending is sinful. Others commissioned religious works for prestige or to literally place themselves among divine holiness by having great figures painted in their image, an ironic approach to the “proud look” that God detests per Proverbs 6:17.

The figures are positioned in front of red drapery. In the upper half of the painting, the Virgin Mother tenderly holds her distracted son whilst the two saints worship at their feet. Jesus plays with a small pigeon—a worthy sacrifice to the Lord according to Luke 2:24—that has been leashed with a piece of string: the bird seems to be making its way towards the edge of the panel, attempting its escape, but the young Messiah has its reins firmly pinched between his thumb and pointer finger.

Mary and Jesus both have yellow hair. Leviticus 13:30 is sometimes translated to suggest that blonde hair is a sign of uncleanliness and, more so, a symptom of leprosy. However, most recent translations remedy this adaptation to state that it is white hair that foretells a painful suffering and the need for a priest’s intervention. Regardless, like much of the world in the fifteenth century, Italian physicians based their understanding of medicine in the humoral medical theory, developed by Hippocrates and expanded upon by Galen; a theory that went unchallenged until the mid-1500s. One’s humoral makeup was also thought to determine their temperament. Though each person’s ideal humor composition was believed to be unique to them, blonde hair was indicative of the sanguine humor and temperament. Governed by blood, being sanguine meant not only good health, but an easygoing attitude and the best looks. It makes sense then that in devotional art the Mother and Son of God would not be portrayed with red hair, a sign of a quick temper, or brown hair, associated with frugality and depression. In the thirteenth century, Saint Bridget of Sweden wrote often about Mary’s hair in her hymns. In one documented vision, Bridget was visited by Mary and Saint John the Baptist. The latter informed her that Mary’s locks “signif[y] that she is the purest of virgins and absolutely perfect.” So, despite the potential Biblical warnings presented about light-colored hair, not to mention the unlikelihood of Mary inheriting such a trait, Italian clergymen promoted the association of pale hair and holiness. It is entirely possible that the biblical and historical details were subject to a very different translation, just as it’s possible that they were unimportant to the artists, patrons, and priests of the time. After all, the completion of the Book of Leviticus predates the birth of Hippocrates by over a thousand years, so perhaps it was thought best to honor the sacred pair by depicting them as they should have existed by the standards of the fifteenth century. Or, maybe, showing them as healthy, happy, and beautiful encouraged greater piety among those who looked upon the art—ensuring that devotional art fulfilled its purpose and inspired worship.

The mother and son both cast their eyes to the side, wear pleasant smiles, have dimpled chins, and their cheeks feature heavy blushes, suggesting a mutual innocence. This does sound befitting of the woman devoid of sin and her young son, but the extent to which the two mirror each other is seemingly unique to this work, even among Fabriano’s fellow Florentines. Fra Angelico’s Madonna and Child Enthroned and Twelve Angels (ca. 1420–30) presents viewers with a young but not childlike version of the Virgin Mother. Her eyeline is more direct, her cheekbones are higher and not as flushed; she is still painted to look soft, but her face is thin and long while Jesus’s is full and round. In infantilizing Mary, Fabriano makes her gaze less reliable: the doubling suggests that her eyes are fixed on Jesus just as his eyes are fixed on the bird he treats as a toy. It calls into question whether her look is one of maternal devotion, as we have come to expect of the Madonna and Child motif, or one of simple amusement.

Likely painted to resemble the patrons, the two saints’ faces are much less bright. The stylistic juxtaposition between the top and bottom halves of the composition is initially jarring. Mary and Jesus would best be described as delicate, while Julian and Lawrence are painted with nearly gaunt faces, angular jaws, furrowed brows, and straight lips. Though their grave expressions at first seem curious for two people in the presence of Christ, canonically they are appropriate considering the circumstances of each man’s life.

Saint Lawrence died a martyr for refusing to surrender the Church’s assets to the Roman government. As an archdeacon, Lawrence was trusted with the Church’s wealth; just before his execution, Pope Sixtus II advised him to give everything away to the poor. When the prefect demanded all the treasure, Lawrence stalled and began to collect the city’s most needy. He presented them to the prefect claiming that “the light of heaven is the true gold, which these poor objects enjoy.” For this, he was allegedly sentenced to death by fire. Preceding his death, he spent his time baptizing his fellow inmates while Roman leadership constructed a gridiron on which to perform his execution. In Madonna and Child, the gridiron peaks out from behind the saint—a reminder of his devotion.

Saint Julian the Hospitaller’s tale is tragic and, in many ways, comparable to that of Oedipus: believed by his father to have been cursed at birth and destined to sin, he was eventually sent away from the family home. At some point the Devil appeared to Julian and poisoned him with lies about his wife’s infidelity. Unbeknownst to him, Julian’s parents made a voyage to reconcile with their son and, upon arriving, took refuge in his bed. However, he confused his sleeping parents for an affirmation of the betrayal and took his cue from Leviticus 20:10, putting them to death. Upon fulfilling the prophecy, he realized his mistake and, with his faithful wife, atoned for his actions by housing those in need. Julian did not die a martyr, but Fabriano depicts him as one: a palm leaf—a traditional motif used to demonstrate and celebrate sacrifice—is presented opposite Lawrence’s gridiron.

More uniform than each figure’s physical attributes is the gold-leaf that is meticulously worked to form ornate halos around their heads. It also lines Mary’s robe, cloaks Lawrence, decorates Julian’s outfit, and comprises the fabrics adorning the infant Jesus. The golden details prove more sculptural than the rest of the work. Upon inspection it seems that tools were used to indent and scrape away at the material to create texture and fine patterns. However, the heavier application seen on Jesus and Saint Lawrence compromises their movement within the painting; the two appear stiff and much less natural than Mary and Julian because the gold-leaf restricts the flow of their garments and causes them to appear thicker. The Bible at times praises the use of gold; in Exodus 25:1–3 it is mentioned as another suitable gift for God. However, it was suggested that women shy away from styling themselves with it. Instead, according to Peter 3:3–5, a woman should, “let [her] adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit…for this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands.” This could explain Mary’s more modest garb, but not Saint Julian’s. It is then not unreasonable to theorize that the artist established a correlation between how embellished the clothing is and the wearer’s sacrifice; Fabriano’s way to distinguish those who died for their beliefs.

I can only imagine that Fabriano’s patrons proudly kneeled before this work, praying intently while stealing glances at their own faces. They might have envied their saintly counterparts for living in perpetuity among the most divine but wouldn’t sacrifice their own modern comforts to do the same. Candlelight danced across the panel and made the gold-leaf shimmer. It didn’t matter—and doesn’t matter—if this painting was fashioned for God or in the style of his teachings.


Jorja Rae Willis

Jorja Rae Willis is a writer and editor from the Bronx.


The Brooklyn Rail

APRIL 2023

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