The Elusive Nakedness of Beauty

On Fra Angelico’s Mary of Humility

/ by Joost de Jonge

“He doesn’t want to be inside,” explained Fra Giovanni to the father superior. “He’s never been inside. He says he’s afraid of being in an enclosed space, he can’t conceive of space if it’s not open, he doesn’t know what geometry is.” And he explained that only he, Fra Giovanni could see the creature, no one else.


Antonio Tabucchi, The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, archipelago books, p.9, 2013. (English Language translation Tim Parks)


In Amsterdam, downstairs at the Rijksmuseum, you can find one of the most beautiful Madonnas by Fra Angelico. You do indeed get the feeling, as Il Beato Angelico, by way of Antonio Tabucchi, states, that it is only he who can see the Madonna. Fortunately, by his unsurpassed talent, he was able to have us look with him, and get a glimpse of what he saw and experienced during visions of mystery. I, as a painter of colorful abstractions, always in search of different nuances of a single color, love it most for the otherworldly quality of the different shades of gold. Those are evoked by a variety of thin layers of oil paint applied on top of the gold leaf. As with so many images in Christian art, this image of Mary of Humility comes from an appropriation of pagan iconography. This image was derived from the Egyptian image of Isis and Horus, an appropriation that took place over a few centuries, during the earliest stages of Christianity, whilst many of the Roman emperors worshipped Isis. By Fra Angelico’s time, this appropriation had already been commonplace for many centuries. So through this image, we dive into the adoration of motherhood, celebrated through time, over the millennia.


Looking at the Madonna, we stumble upon an intimate moment between mother and child. But the official nature of the work forces us to read it as a proclamation of Christian faith. Looked upon from within this mindset, we see how Mary presents Christ to us without worry. She is proud to present him, her whole posture voices the spreading of the word of his arrival, the arrival of a true redeemer, as we must now see the child. In reverse, through the suggestion of three-dimensionality, we must read the shading of gold leaf as a realist emulation, as a vivid representation of how natural light enters the scene we witness. Not just as a shimmering of gold in different tones, without “real” illusionistic implications. I would nevertheless not ever want you to give up such a free and abstract reading of realist paintings.


The painter of this work, ll Beato Angelico (Blessed Angelic) Fra Angelico, was born Guido di Pietro, near Fiesole in the Tuscan area of Mugello, around 1395. He was a painter whom, according to Vasari, received training as an illuminator, and is thought to have been taught painting by Lorenzo Monaco. The Blessed Angelic One entered a Dominican convent in Fiesole in 1418, and became a friar using the name Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, in line with the custom of those in Holy Orders of taking on a new name. He became the master of red, gold and blue, of saints and martyrs of Madonnas set against endless skies.


On October 3, 1982, Pope John Paul II declared the official beatification of Blessed Fra Angelico, stating: Angelico was reported to say, “He who does Christ's work must stay with Christ always.” This credo earned him the moniker “Blessed Angelico,” for the perfect integrity of his life and the almost divine beauty of the images he painted, most of all those of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Two years later, John Paul II named him the patron of Catholic artists. So the centuries during which he was called the blessed, as a term of praise, proved prophetic, as he was officially beatified.


Guido stepped away from the naive style of his forebears and introduced weight into the depiction of the most holy of mothers. Though he gives the body a bit more tactile gravity than painters would have done a hundred years or less before him, he still shows the inner truth of the liturgy of his imagery through color.


The cloth of honor behind Mary is spread out in praise, and as an illustration of her worth. It is an articulate illustration of the majesty of the heavens. Here we stumble upon a connection with psalm 104, verse 2: “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment; who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain;” in which we come to understand that, though glorious and magnificent, the cloth/curtain could also function as a veil to the Lord’s true glory.


The notion of a veil in art has gained urgency recently through the exhibition “Hinter Dem Vorhang” at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, where examples of veils in art ranged from the most worldly of works to the holiest, classical and modern. I loved strolling through the rooms. You could find a painted veil by Gerhard Richter across from an interior by Guardi, with a most randomly placed curtain-like veil, painted with ease (sprezzatura) and just around the corner from that, “Maria mit dem schlafenden Christuskind” by Hans Holbein.


Returning to Mary of Humility, I sense the painting as a whole functions as a veil to the actual glory of God. The depicted scene gives us the connection to what is there which we can’t see, alluding to a timeless presence of the heavenly beyond our material vision, beyond intellectual scrutiny.


Psalm 19, verse 1: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.”


Within the context of Christian doctrine, we must ourselves be in a state of humility to accept the material state of our being, “La condition humaine,” and through our senses, receive the message of the immaterial. It is as if we are in the material world as a never-ending enigma of a grand hypostatic union.


We cannot but accept the gift of His love through his son, Jesus Christ, within the material world. It is within this material world that we find the Christian story. Here we find Mary and her immaculate conception, here we find Jesus, both human and God-like. It is within the radiance of Angelico’s painting that we find ourselves in the spell of the dual game of heavenly seduction and material existence; of the materiality of the picture and the ethereality of its visual presence. Here the overtone of a coloristic vision of the deity reveals motherhood to us as an all-pervasive condition of submission and creative possibility, at the same time.


Yet we cannot deny the quality of serene beauty that radiates from the painting. All seems balanced. All in this picture is harmonious. It is a material object in a material world, but seems to be endowed with a spiritual power, to continue the spirit of its maker and the vision of Christian emotion that he held up. In contrast to the usual violent gestures as a demonstration of emotion, which we so often find in Renaissance painting, although necessarily less poignant within the depiction of the Madonna and Child, this is a depiction void of any overtly expressive gesture. All such overtly physical expressiveness and evocation of emotion has been withheld. As Rosalind Mutter notes, Fra Angelico, in his San Marco Museum frescoes, does not illustrate every stage in the Passion as it is described in the Gospels, but he chooses certain emotions or states to depict. It is this same approach we find here, with the Mary of Humility, a harnessing of the revelation of emotion through the accent of his overall approach to the Gospels, as an artistic statement au contraire the literary, anecdotal. He conveys Mary as within our realm, a non-space localized within us, through our reading and experiencing of the image. Right through its countering of real space and real space perception, it gives us an idea of the otherworldly.


We experience Mary in between worlds, like the whole condition of duality she represents between the profane and the otherworldly. The blue, azure of her robe is connected with the night and the Milky Way as a goddess. This blue gives us a sense of her impenetrable holiness, a state of the endlessness of her divine being and origin. She is clothed with the sky. The cushion is slightly impressed with her weight. We feel she is a real person, but then again the colors and serenity of her posture seem to override any actual weight. There isn’t a sense of force; the bodily isn’t so much suppressed as fully transcended. Here there we see the true connection between the Child Jesus and Mary, as they gaze into each other’s eyes (standing apart from most of his Madonnas, here they do connect and Mary doesn’t gaze into the infinite). She doesn’t give him up to the world, at least not yet, and if she should do so, he is never lost to God. The child and mother remain intertwined, mutually-elevated symbols of God’s all mighty-ness, beyond the material, not suppressed by the material, but nevertheless present in a material world.


The stylized floral motif in the gold brocade cloth of honor suggests St. Mary's Thistle (Sylibum Marianum), where the white spots could conjure up the association with the spilled drops of milk. The legend says that, as the Virgin Mary was feeding baby Jesus, some of her milk dropped on the thistle near her feet, which produced the white “spilt-milk” effect, which has distinguished this herb ever since and, as a consequence, made it into such a revered herb. The leaf in the depicted symbol is rather sharply-edged. The white spots can very well be observed in the real flower, as well (the crown of St. Mary’s Thistle shows white spots in a pinkish-violet field, as also the mature black, shiny seeds have a white silky-haired crown) and thus provide a convincing inspiration for its abstraction here.


I also feel that the entire painting is a space apart from space. It could be considered a tribute to the womb of Mary, the womb of the Lord, the body as a temple of God. God as universal love becomes the womb of the living man and, in particular, of his soul. As such the spiritual houses the material and is the well from which life in every form springs. Gold as the light of mercy, comforts us in the earthly realm.


Julia Kristeva states (in “Motherhood According to Bellini”) that Christian theology defines maternity only as an impossible elsewhere, a sacred beyond, and a vessel of divinity. It is here through its inaccessibility that we find a spiritual tie with the virginal and an announcement of the complicated relation of Christian faith and the bodily. The body of Christ, the existence of Christ as a real man with desires. I tend to read most of the New Testament as a metaphor for the way in which we realize a Godlike consciousness within ourselves, an emblem of the journey of our own divination.


How gently does the Christ Child hold on to Mary, and how effortlessly does she support the ethereal weight of his body? He doesn’t seem to cast a shadow, though his body is modelled by it. Mary’s hand supporting Christ is evenly modelled in a darker tone than the one with which she holds the lily. This suggests a methodological approach, instead of an overtly realist one. You could almost follow his train of thought, “That side is the side in which it is darker, hence I’ll apply a darker tone.” But notice that no direct shadow is cast upon her arm by the leg of the child. Here you feel a bit disoriented, as this could suggest a frontal lighting of the subject. Or does it suggest divergent lights? The light comes in from the left and hits the gold, which darkens to the right. So it is a real space after all? Or was he mistaking, whilst painting in a real space (his studio) where the light came in from on the left, and he just liked the effect upon the golden surface? No, it is a suggestion of light within an unreal place (the suggested space of the depiction), a golden shimmer of other light upon the unworldly ethereal light which the cloth of honor radiates. Here we find Giovanni caught between two ages, the new scientific one of the Renaissance, and the preceding epoch of Christian faith, the Catholic Church, of superstition above evidence.


There is a small Madonna next to his in the Rijksmuseum, of around a century earlier, where you do not find this complication. The gold behind Mary is even in tone, and not shaded to suggest light coming in from anywhere, which strengthens its symbolic quality. Paradoxically, the shading, instead of strengthening the illusion of natural light, emphasizes the material quality of its support, the material quality of the depicted supposedly symbolic and immaterial cloth, of a heavenly afterworld, a depiction of a theological subject, which is dethroned, has its conceptual totality taken from itself through naturalistic suggestions of light. Here, the heavenly light is countered by the emulation of light, the suggestion of light crosses out the suggestion of heavenly light, it complicates its reading as a theological truth and confronts us with the material of its construction, with the materiality of its support and the conflicting interests that reign over the artist, in search of a form for the otherworldliness of his subject. The artist as servant of a theological message, as part of the artistic processes of his time, and shows him resisting those forces that drive the artists in the Renaissance towards realism, but nevertheless reveals to us the practice of his workshop: The use of optics and the mindset of linear perspective. Which are, of course, but one and the same. As linear perspective does not exist beyond the reality of the projection, though its laws can be put to use independently.


Making real what is not by igniting the tactile values of retinal impressions (paraphrasing Bernard Berenson). As such, the whole work, the whole undertaking, seems a contradictio in terminis. But here we find the realm of man, we are expected to aim for the impossible and, at the same time, subject to the inevitability of failure. As such, the whole of life becomes a metaphor for the relation of man to God, of his submissive position to the world into which he was born.


With all of this in mind, the space between their faces still seems endless. Yet they are so close together, but not through a measurable distance, but through the softness and connectedness of their intertwined gaze. It is a whole of interlocking movements, silent gestures expressing his knowledge of the importance of diagonals and pyramidal constructions for the composition. Fra Angelico is tempted to show us his knowledge of perspective through the decoration of the pillow that functions as a throne. This is most certainly not a naive painting, but the articulated expression of Christian belief of a devout painter, a Renaissance man, an artist in full control of his métier and of the expressive qualities of color and composition.


So I’ve been going back and forth on an idea. Moving in and out of the painting. I have tried to share what I experience, as an artist, when I look at the work. I have looked for meaning in the work of other writers, and yet the work and the experience of it have remained personal. I feel this is how great art becomes great art. It is so complete and confronts you with a subtle sense of perfection, which reminds you of your own completeness, and then the two merge within you. The work becomes an icon of wholeness within a fragmented world. Within an image of fragmented self, and it restores the completeness of being within one’s self.



Gerrit Joost de Jonge me fecit plevit anno 2017.

Joost de Jonge

is a Dutch artist who studied art history at the University of Utrecht and painting at the Facultat de Bellas artes de ST. Jordi in Barcelona. He graduated from the School of Arts Utrecht BFA in Painting With Honours (2002). His work is shown in many different countries at international and national art fairs and art galleries and is part of important corporate and private collections around the world. His work was shown at, amongst others, Arte Fiera Bologna, Artissima, Miart, Art London, Art San Diego etc. His most recent project: “Painted Poetry & Painterly Poetics : An Ekphrastic Notion” centres on the topic of ekphrasis to which some of the most important art historians and poets from Europe and the USA have contributed: