Friday, 28 September 2012

The Madonna del Parto

I promised on twitter earlier this week that my blog tonight would not be about politics. And it's not. Really.

But it would be right if I started with a bit of context.

This will be a big weekend for "the women". Tomorrow sees the Labour Party Women's Conference which now attaches itself to the main event in a sort of "paralympic" relationship, albeit in reverse. And then on Sunday, in Stirling, we will see the launch of "Women for Indy".

When I was much younger, thanks principally to a book, "Beyond the fragments" by Sheila Rowbotham and others, it was very much flavour of the age that women's politics and traditional left politics could learn much from each other. The sisters could bring their experience of collective, non hierarchical  decision making to the table while the left (i.e. the men) could teach lessons as to the importance of organisation. All such trends have a long term significance and there is now doubt that the Stella Creasys, Rachel Reeves and the like are long term beneficiaries of these ideas, albeit developed while they personally were still at school. The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.

But, in the end, it was the politics of organisation that won out over the politics of co-operation. Our own "Women's Conference" will, I suspect,  be no more "off-message" than the main event, although perhaps more engaged with candidate selection processes. Equally, Sunday's event is unlikely to be more than the usual "seen the light" type occasion that categorises current Nationalist politics, although at least not featuring Dougie McLean singing Caledonia; that being left to.............a woman.

Maybe if people really wanted to see what lessons of the women's movement might bring to Scottish politics they should be looking at neither of these events and instead at what happened in Portobello a week past tonight. But that is another story.

Anyway, on to my main topic, The Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca..

This is one of my most favourite paintings.

It is located in Monterchi, a very small village between Arezzo and San Sepolcro. Wikipedia describes it as the town's "most famous cultural attraction" but in reality it is the town's only attraction of any sort. When I first saw it it, the painting was still located in a rather decrepit Church but it has since been moved to a more antiseptic, if less perilous, environment in a converted primary school. And, in the process, it has attracted an entrance fee. But it is, in my experience, the only entrance fee which is waived in favour of one particular category; pregnant women. For that, for those of you not possessed of sufficient Italian, is the subject of the painting. The Madonna del Parto means the pregnant Madonna.

Now, if you think about it, this should be a common subject. What is known, even apocryphally, about the life of Our Lady? That she was born to Saint Anne (more than a few paintings); the beneficiary of an immaculate conception (many more); that she became the mother of God (even more still); that she received the body of Jesus at the foot of the Cross (yet more); and that she was eventually assumed up to Heaven (post Reformation, in virtually every Church in the peninsula). But that's about it. So you would have thought the panoply of Renaissance artists would have been looking for some variations on that theme. And none surely more obvious than what transpired between the immaculate conception and the point where she is resting the Christ child on her knee.

Yet, while not a unique example, Piero's painting is but one of a very few. And easily the most famous. And, within a few years of its composition, it had disappeared as a subject altogether.

Why? Well the answer is in Piero's picture itself. In Catholic doctrine, Mary was not only impregnated while remaining a virgin, she also, thereafter, in the face actually of significant biblical counter-authority, remained a perpetual virgin. Just as their was no grunting and groaning in the conception of the Christ child, equally there was no grunting and groaning in his delivery, or indeed at any point in between. And that's where Piero, doctrinally, goes wrong.

Now, this is early Renaissance Art. Fifty years before Rafael; a hundred before Caravaggio. So, technically, there is room for improvement but, nonetheless, this Madonna is a real woman. No innocent maid but someone bearing fully the trials of their "condition". A sore back; a tentative but not obviously affectionate hand resting on the belly; a facial expression that suggests that she just wishes  it was all over. If the technique of the age allowed its depiction. you would no doubt see her swollen ankles.

So this kind of depiction of a real woman. in the real later stages of pregnancy simply did not fit with the Church's belief in the semi-divine status of Mary and that's before you even start on the more general difficulty of coping with sexuality in general and women's sexuality in particular.

But is it sacrilegious?  Not at all. The key to that is the angels with the curtains. Now, if you look this up in the academic literature you are given big licks about whether all of this is allusion to the renewal of the Ark of the Covenant. Fair enough, what do I know? I do know that Piero liked painting drapery, indeed tents. And that we've all seen, in this age as surely than in the 1450s, that curtains part at the opening of an "event".

So what are the angels doing except performing such an opening? The drama is yet to come. But what a drama! And the woman on the stage? Every woman and any woman. Not "Stella Maris", as she became by miraculous mistranscription, but stilla maris (a drop in the ocean) as she was described originally by St Jerome. And the child? Any maybe it is sacrilegious after all.

Real women were as problematical to the Renaissance Church as they are too often to the demands of politics today. And, if that was true of so many of the early female Christian martyrs, so much more so was it true of the mother of God.

So pregnant Madonnas disappeared. And women's equality in politics became simply the chance to play the men's game on the men's rules. Never mind, there's nothing like a good Pieta.


You'll be expecting a restaurant recommendation. Locanda Il Castello di Sorci on the road to Anghiari. Set menu. Antipasto di prosciutto; two pasta  dishes; griglia mista; contorni di stagione; vino rosso. Buon Prezzo. That's all.

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