Illustrating a Narrative: My Analysis

Fra Filippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child and Alvise Vivarini’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints - Sacra Conversazione”, both portray scenes of the life of Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, enthroned. The paintings refer to Luke 1:27-35, “To a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” The presentation and narrative are somewhat similar, but are conveyed in different ways. Both paintings are rich in narrative, and perceived differently by each artist.

Fra Filippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child is a fresco painting, which portrays scenes from the life of Virgin Mary. In the foreground, Virgin Mary is holding baby Jesus in the foreground, on her lap. The painting shows the three main characteristics of Renaissance art: classical balance, harmony, and restraint. Through these characteristics, individualism, humanism, and secularism emerge as the most important values of the Renaissance era. Virgin and Child portrays classical balance through the symmetry of the piece. For example, six people stand to the right of Mary and Jesus, and exactly six people are situated to the left of the Mary and Child. Secondly, every face in the painting maintains a symmetrical balance. For instance, as the mother of God, Mary is extremely beautiful, flawless, absorbed, contemplative, and reflective. Lastly, the piece is set in “tondo” or circular form, which is the best example of a symmetric shape. Many artists of the Renaissance often placed saints in a circular form to reveal the importance of the figure.

The harmony of the piece is also evident. The familiar, domestic environment unifies each of the piece’s scenes. For example, to the left of the Mary and Jesus, Saint Anne has just given birth to Saint Mary. To the right of the Mary and Jesus, a pregnant woman is accompanied by a playful child, grabbing onto her robe, and on the stairs of the piece Saint Anne greets her husband Joachim. Lippi shows restraint on the walls in the background, which provides evidence of a typical house during that time period, along with spiritual presence. Lippi demonstrates personality and movement through the postures and facial expressions of his characters by incorporating interaction, which allows the viewer to interpret each scene carefully. Every person’s posture is relaxed and graceful.

The baby Jesus’ face seems sweet and lively, as he stares up at Mary, whereas his mother’s face contains sorrow. It has been said that her sorrow is an indication that foretells Jesus’ suffering. The artist emphasized Mary by placing her in the foreground, enlarged, overlapping the smaller scenes. By placing her in the foreground, it helps the viewer get an idea of who or what the painting is about, and slowly leads the eye to each scene. Even her clothing stands out from the rest of the figures portrayed. Mary is wearing a green robe with gold embellishments, along with a red dress. Both of the rich pigments work well together, forming a complimentary color scheme. The richness and quality of her clothing, as well as the embellished throne she’s sitting on, suggests that she was wealthy or of high stature.

Another piece of evidence is that artists in the 13th century often incorporated gold embellishments in the clothing of the most significant figures in the narrative. Filippo also included transparent haloes over Mary and Jesus’ head. On the right, appears to be servants, aiding St. Anne, judging by the bowl being carried on the servant’s head. The rich color and contour lines included in the clothing provide form and volume to the figures. Lippi was also successful in capturing the facial expressions and personalities of the figures. For example, Saint Anne’s expression after giving birth to the baby Mary. Saint Anne appears exhausted, but has delivered to the world the best mortal woman, the Virgin Mary.

Lippi also portrays the perfection of the bodies by producing a symmetric, gentle, and beautiful disposition. This painting appeals to the human eye because the saints have human-like characteristics. Fra Filippo was talented at capturing the richness and detail of human character in the story, combining opulence of scale with intimacy of feeling, unique in their time. The architecture in the painting displays Renaissance and Roman approach, judging by the Renaissance high ceilings, pointing towards the heavens, and the Roman arches located under the stairs. The social class and/or wealthy depiction of Renaissance society is shown through the pleated robes, and bonnets the women wear, the heavy drapes in the background, the designs on the floor, and the expensive pomegranate seeds Jesus holds. The daily life of the citizens presents itself in the graceful, playful attitude of the piece; no one appears stiff or solemn. Everyone is smiling, laughing, and stand in relaxed positions.

Alvise Vivarini’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints - Sacra Conversazione”, is a tempera painting on wood which portrays the Virgin Mary enthroned with baby Jesus. However, Baby Jesus is standing on her lap. The Virgin Mary and Jesus are placed in the center to create emphasis. Mary’s embellished robe and peach colored dress, also draw attention to her, and she is giving eye contact to the viewer. The decision to paint the Virgin Mary giving eye contact to the viewer, also draws attention to her and baby Jesus, because facial expressions of the figures help to establish an idea of their mood or thoughts. In this painting, Mary is presented with a slight smile, revealing a typical mother’s gentle touch and care. Her feet are also covered, to show that she shares the spirituality of God and reveals her purity. Mary pictured on a throne, in a silk embellished robe, in the center of the composition, illustrate importance and a sign of wealth. On her lap, baby Jesus is standing, in a classical contra-posto gesture, suggesting a sense of power and control.

There are also two groups of three saints standing on each side of her, which consist of: Louis of Toulouse, Anthony of Padua and Anne on the left and Joachim, Bernardino and Francesco Gioacchino on the right, face inwards towards the enthroned Virgin. Anthony of Padua is also holding the closed book of acquired wisdom and the stem of Jesse. The inclusion of the figures and repetition of the colors create symmetry and balance. Their gestures are enhanced by the delicate light, which comes from the top left-hand corner. The captured light and contour lines in the clothing, create three-dimensional figures, and reveal the bodily forms under the robes. The light source also contributes a dramatic effect to the painting.

The throne in the center of the composition is constructed of cylinders and parallelepipeds, the curtain in the background, falls heavily excluding from sight all natural elements apart from two small fragments of a cold, clouded sky. The dull color of the sky creates atmospheric perspective, distinguishing the foreground from the background. Cast shadows of the figures are formed on the floor, which establish a geometrical relationship between space and figures, while the clear line defines areas of pure enamel-like color. The amount of open space in the foreground, allows the eye to travel gradually throughout the painting, and appreciate the details in the clothing and throne, as well as develop an idea of the concept portrayed. The warm lighting also provides a romantic, delicate feeling. The lighting captured on the figures’ faces also enhances the features, and brings emphasis to their expressions.

After analyzing both of the paintings, it appears as though neither of the paintings included scenes of the angels talking to Mary. However, Alvise Vivarini’s “Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints - Sacra Conversazione” is more successful in conveying the sense of the narrative and emotions. The painting was somewhat easier to interpret than Lippi’s, because Lippi incorporated other scenes into the painting, such as Anne giving birth to Mary, which made it a bit confusing. The faces were also hard to make out in the background, and it was hard to determine whether or not Mary was seated on a throne. Lippi also doesn’t include a landscape, and there’s so much to concentrate on in the painting, that it makes it difficult to interpret the narrative; especially if you are unfamiliar with the story or important figures.

In Vivarini’s painting, he clearly depicts Mary seated in the center of the composition on a high throne, and makes it evident that Jesus is enthroned. He does this by painting baby Jesus is a classical pose, suggesting bravery and high stature. Mary also seems confident in the composition, as she is presenting a slight smile, and giving the viewer eye contact, drawing them further into the painting, enabling them to feel the same emotions. The clouds in the background of the painting, also remind me of the heavens or angels approaching her. Including the clouds on the exterior, gives a great sense of space and reveals part of another mysterious world. I also enjoy how some of the figures’ eyes are attached to Mary and Jesus, while others are staring at the floor, which creates a natural mood.