Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE CORAL OF IT ALL! - PART II

THE CORAL OF IT ALL! - PART II

The last blog entry discussed the importance of Mediterranean red coral in the paintings of Ghirlandaio and Mantegna. The corals in both those works served as apotropaic objects in
religious contexts. In neither work, however, was the coral worn as an apotropaic amulet by
the people depicted in the work. In this blog we will provide a partial list (and the images from the list) of Jesus wearing a necklace of coral in paintings of the Madonna and Child from 1300-1500 in Italian painting.


Partial list of coral images in chronological order:

1332 –     Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Madonna and Child (Siena altarpiece), Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
1360 –     Allegretto Nuzi, Madonna and Child and Angels, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon
1410’s-    Giovanni dal Ponte, Madonna and Child and Saints, University of Texas at Austin Gallery
1426 –     Masaccio – Madonna and Child, Uffizi.
1459-60- Schiavone – Madonna and Child with Fruit, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Md.
1460-70- Piero della Francesca –Senigallia Madonna and Child, National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino
1472-74- Piero della Francesca - Brera Altarpiece, now in Milan, Brera Gallery
1500 -     Pordenone, Madonna Enthroned with Child,Springfield Art Museum, Springfield, MA.


MEDIEVAL EXAMPLES:
1332 - Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Altarpiece of St. Proculus, Madonna and Child, Uffizi Gallery,Florence:
The Christ child in the central panel of this triptych wears a necklace with coral amulet to protect him from evil; since the child is regarded as God, it seems odd that he should need protection, but the artist is conveying the human side of Christ's nature by showing him wearing what children in 14th-century Siena would have worn as infants. Given the hardness of coral, it is quite possible that these infant necklaces were used as teething rings to help children soothe teething pain as well.
         
1360 –     Allegretto Nuzi, Madonna and Child and Angels, Petit Palais Museum, Avignon
The child here wears a horn necklace of the type we showed at the beginning of the last blog entry.
The sweet tenderness exhibited between mother and child here parallels the protection given to the
child in the coral necklace. In antiquity coral was thought to be the hardened blood of Medusa who
died in the sea when Perseus killed her. Since Medusa was thought herself to turn to stone those who looked at her, her blood was then given the attribute of being able to fend off evil; in the transformation of myth into Christian belief, the blood of Christ takes on the same attribute. The association of coral with Christ is repeated in altarpieces of this sort until we forget to question why Christ needs the protection.

1410’s-    Giovanni dal Ponte, Madonna and Child and Saints, University of Texas at Austin Gallery

While Giovanni dal Ponte is painting in the 15th century, I have catalogued him with the other medieval painters because his style is still rooted in the 14th century. Here the child sits on his mother's lap and blesses the viewer directly while wearing a coral necklace and holding a goldfinch. The drinking of Christ's blood reenacted in every mass in the drinking of the wine is repeated visually in this altarpiece in the blood red of the coral that has the shape of blood dripping and in the red cap on the head of the goldfinch, a bird that was said to have received the red color when it removed a thorn from Christ's crown of thorns.

RENAISSANCE EXAMPLES:
1426 - Masaccio – Madonna and Child, Uffizi; small portable altarpiece belonging to a cardinal,
whose coat of arms is on the back of the panel.
Since the mother in this painting seems to be taking the child's temperature with serious intent, her two fingers block where the coral would normally be seen; the necklace is slung over to the shoulder of the child and the coral rests almost on the arm so the viewer can see it.


1459-60- Schiavone – Madonna and Child with Fruit, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, Md.
The child here bends over to hear the music played by the two child angels and they all look as if they
have played themselves to sleep. The cartellino below the pedestal identifies the artist as a pupil of
Squarcione.


1460-70- Piero della Francesca –Senigallia Madonna and Child, National Gallery of the Marches, Urbino                                    

Here the coral necklace is quite large in relation to the child; he looks out at the viewer and blesses him/her. One wonders if the viewer is then the sin from which the child needs protection.

1472-74- Piero della Francesca - Brera Altarpiece, now in Milan, Brera Gallery

We have discussed this painting in another blog entry. The child lies as if already sacrificed, eyes closed and body in a reclining position that resembles a Pieta with his mother. The coral is pulled by gravity down the body to remind us of his later death. The coral here is attached to another apotropaic object, perhaps a rabbit's foot on the same string of coral beads?
Duke Federico da Montefeltro's hands point to the child and the coral as he prays to the Madonna
for his own child and own dead wife, Battista. The painting originally hung in the church of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti near Urbino where the duke and his family are buried. The coral here 
is meant to protect Duke Federico's heir and only son, who is more vulnerable without his mother alive.
                
1500-Pordenone, Madonna Enthroned with Child,Springfield Art Museum, Springfield,MA 
The child here holds the coral as though conscious of the sacrifice he will have to make later in
his life. Both mother and child are solemn and look forward but beyond the viewer as if in deep thought about the future tragedy. The crown on the Madonna's head emphasizes her role as Queen of Heaven. But even as Queen she can only do so much to prevent the later Crucifixion of her son.

These, then, present several examples of coral worn by the Christ Child, but there are also examples of Madonna and Child paintings where no coral is worn by the child, so he doesn't seem to have always been painted like an Italian child of similar age.
 

Masolino and Masaccio, Uffizi                     Piero della Francesca, Madonna and Child with Four
Altarpiece, 1424                                            Angels, 1460-70,Clark Art Institute,Williamstown, MA

In these two Renaissance examples the child is naked and without protective necklace. Does the choice of apotropaic amulet, then, rest with the patron of the work? And does the coral reduce
or enhance the power of Christ's sacrifice in these altarpieces? While it does help to make the child
seem real, it also suggests that the child needs the force of mythological belief to promote his survival.

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