Decoding the Details is a four-part blog series investigating works in the Blanton’s permanent collection. Each post will focus on a single work of art and explore the importance of details that many might not notice at first glance. When we delve into an object’s unassuming elements or look beyond what is immediately apparent, we often discover something unexpected and come away with a greater connection to both the work and the world from which it came.
Sarah Celentano is the fall 2014 PR & Marketing intern at the Blanton. She is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Art & Art History and specializes in the art of the Middle Ages. In this inaugural post for her blog series, she takes a close look at Giovanni dal Ponte’s Madonna and Child with Angels, on view in the Blanton’s European art galleries.
Giovanni dal Ponte was a Florentine painter who worked primarily in the first third of the fifteenth century. A number of frescoes and altarpieces attributed to him survive. Although he worked in a time when his contemporaries were moving toward Renaissance painting techniques, dal Ponte maintains a medieval approach to his subject here. This does not mean that dal Ponte was ignorant of new developments in style; the shading around the Virgin’s and Child’s faces shows that he did attempt to create an illusion of three-dimensional space and therefore was very aware of the artistic movement of his own time. However, the gold leaf on the panel and the punchwork patterns in Christ’s and the Virgin’s halos show continued inspiration from earlier Byzantine works, and the floral motifs on the Virgin’s dress and the cloth of honor seem to float over these fabrics rather than conforming to their folds. This work suggests a greater interest in conveying the idea of power rather than naturalistic representation. This approach to images, one that is ultimately concerned with concepts rather than formal issues, is also apparent in the objects associated with Christ in dal Ponte’s painting.
We learn from the label for the Madonna and Child with Angels that the finch that the Christ Child holds and the coral necklace around his neck are symbols of his Passion—his suffering and eventual death on the cross. But why might a bird and a branch of coral symbolize these things? What is the connection?
The finch had been associated with Christ’s Passion since appearing in the Etymologiae (Etymologies), a collection of learning from all disciplines that was compiled Isidore of Seville (died 636 CE). According to Isidore, the goldfinch survived on a diet of thorns and thistles (Etymologiae Bk. XII). For this reason, the finch came to be associated with Christ’s Crown of Thorns, and therefore his Passion. Dal Ponte has depicted the finch in Christ’s hand with outstretched wings, almost as if the bird is replicating the way that Christ’s arms will eventually stretch out on the cross. The bird’s head also inclines towards its chest in a way that recalls images of the dead crucified Christ. According to later medieval legend, the red markings on the finch’s head derive from Christ’s blood, which splashed on the finch’s head as it pulled a thorn from the Crown of Thorns.
Interestingly, the finch may have another layer of meaning that relates even more specifically to dal Ponte’s particular time and place. Since the early medieval period, the finch was thought to have the gift of healing sight. It was said that a finch could cure a person’s disease just by looking at him or her. Since dal Ponte lived in a time still rocked by the Black Death, the bubonic plague that wiped out a third of the population of Europe by the 1350s, the altarpiece featuring this painting likely offered solace to those who saw it. Thus, the Christ Child presents us with a symbol not only of his eventual suffering and sacrifice, but also the healing power—presented here in both physical and spiritual terms—of that sacrifice.
The coral in Christ’s hand also speaks to both his death and his role as savior while referring to a widespread medieval tradition. Like the finch, coral was thought to have protective abilities. The ancient Romans believed that red coral grew from the blood of Medusa and could ward off harmful powers. The association of red coral with blood and protective abilities persisted into the Middle Ages, however instead of Medusa’s blood it was now associated with the blood of Christ and its saving powers. Coral necklaces were popular jewelry for children in the medieval period, and, in addition to their protective qualities, they were also valued and used as teething rings. Dal Ponte’s Christ Child therefore wears the symbol of his sacrifice and the protection it ensures, but also appears as a typical baby of the fifteenth century.
We also might ask why the angels have rainbow-colored wings. Their wings aren’t pure white, like what many of us think of when we imagine angel wings. Instead, they’re multicolored like peacock feathers. This is in fact what they are meant to be. Like the coral and finch, the peacock was another part of the natural world that held great symbolic meaning for medieval and Renaissance people. This bird was a symbol of eternal life, and people associated the “eyes” of its feathers with the all-seeing power of angels. For these reasons, medieval and Renaissance painters would often depict angels with peacock-feather wings.
When we focus on the seemingly minor details in this work, we come away with a fuller understanding of how powerfully dal Ponte addresses his fifteenth century audience. In understanding the significance of the various components in this painting and the uneasy time in which it was created, we discover layers of meaning that enhance our experience of the work.
Amulets.” The Grove Encyclopedia of Medieval Art and Architecture. Ed. Colum Hourihane. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
“Coral.” The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art. Ed. Gerald W.R. Ward. Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Gill, Meredith G. Angels and the Order of Heaven in Medieval and Renaissance Italy. Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.
Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae. Trans. W. M. Lindsay. Oxford University Press, 1911. Print.
Signs and Symbols: The Goldfinch. The Fitzwilliam Museum, n.d. Web. 17 November 2014.
Werness, Hope B. Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Print.