Tuesday, March 7, 2017



Red coral is often painted into Renaissance paintings. We have examined the coral necklace in
Ghirlandaio's portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi of 1488 in another blog entry, where the coral hangs like a string of rosary beads behind the head of the deceased woman as a symbol of her religious purity and the beauty of her soul.

We have also discussed the apotropaic function of the coral here. It hangs as a barrier to protect her
in the after-life. This young woman had died in childbirth in 1488. The portrait was painted by Ghirlandaio as a memorial to her virtue and as a vessel for sending her off into the unknown of death. She is accompanied by a Book of Hours (a prayer book), her finest clothes and jewellery, and a Latin inscription that says that no painting can depict the beauty of her inner life. All of the objects in her painting might be read as attributes of her personality, an extension of her within the picture plane. The coral necklace could certainly be read as another symbol of her wealthy life, a rich piece of jewellery, like her brooches. But it is painted in not hanging on her neck, but hanging above her Book of Hours, as another way, together with prayer, of warding off evil for her after death. It is a religious protective amulet.
        Why should we assume the coral is there to ward off evil? Italians believe, even today, that coral
has the capacity to protect young children, and people in general, from the dangers of the evil eye, the
"malocchio." Gifts of coral jewellery, sometimes in the shape of a horn, are given to newborns as a form of shield.
The Italian tradition of giving coral pendants to protect from evil continues even today in 2017. Coral horns, bracelets, necklaces are all part of the artistic jewellery still sold today on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

        While coral reefs in the Mediterranean Sea were abundant in the 1400-1500's, they have now been fished almost to extinction there in the shallow waters. According to Professor Sandy Tudhope, the Head of School of Geosciences at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, conservationists are trying to save the Mediterranean coral beds that have been overfished.  Professor Tudhope works on coral in the Indian Ocean and has found the coral animals there are bleaching, turning white, because of the warming temperatures of the oceans. He gives lectures about the dangers of coral extinction on the planet from the rise in sea temperature. He has explained that the coral he works on is different from the red coral in the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea coral is a type that has "fused-spicule skeletons." Instead of bleaching when it dies, these "fused-spicule" skeletons retain pigments even after being fished out of the sea. Which explains why the coral jewellery sold on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy, is so bright red, and why the coral specimens that are painted into the Renaissance paintings are so bright red.
            One of the best examples of red coral in the Quattrocento (1400's) is found in a painting by Mantegna called the Madonna of the Victory, Madonna della Vittoria, a painting of 1496, originally in Mantua but now in the Louvre in Paris.

The coral here is hanging above the head of the Madonna in an altarpiece painted for a duke of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga.
Francesco kneels in the painting to the lower left of the Madonna and prays to her in thanks for having given him a victory against the French in 1495.
This battle, known as the Battle of Fornovo, after the town where the battle took place in Northern Italy, was considered a water battle because the French tried to cross the Taro River there.
It was such a major battle that it warranted being included in the Vatican Gallery of Maps in the frescoes there painted in 1580 by Ignazio Danti.

Military historians now view this battle as a draw rather than a victory for Francesco because, although the Italians captured more prisoners, they also lost more men than the French. For Duke Francesco, however, the battle ended the conflict with the French and forced them out of the peninsula and back up into France. So his commissioning of the altarpiece is understandable.  He is grateful to the Madonna that he survived the battle and grateful that the French, under Charles VIII, have left to return home.
            In the painting he kneels before her and looks up at her in the niche. Behind him from left to right stand four warrior saints, MICHAEL, ANDREW, LONGINUS, and GEORGE.
Michael has a sword, Andrew a cross, Longinus a red spear, and George a broken lance. To the right below the Madonna kneels Mary's cousin, St. Elizabeth, and her son, John the Baptist, who holds a banner that reads: Ecce angus dei qui tollis peccata mundi (Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.) John points up to Christ as that lamb.
The round medal below the Madonna's feet reads: REGINA CELI LAET ALLELUIA (Queen of Heaven Rejoice Alleluia.) And below that is a fictive bas-relief of Adam eating the apple given him by Eve.
The original sin of Adam and Eve is set directly below the body of Christ and the coral which hangs
above the throne of Mary.
The connection between Old Testament story and Jesus of the New Testament is lined up here literally. The original sin which forces Adam and Eve out of Eden is redeemed by the death of Christ
as an adult. Christ is essentially the protection against evil for Francesco, for all the saints gathered in this sacred conversation, and for the 15th-century, or modern, viewers of the altarpiece. The coral hangs above as a reminder of the blood of his sacrifice; the coral's branches look like blood spilling out into separate pools, and the coral is the same color as blood.
The coral also stands as a symbol of water, highlighting the location of the battle victory. But the old superstition about coral warding off evil persists even in this pious religious work. Mantegna makes a perforated apse chapel behind the coral through which we see the sky, one of the artist's pictorial inventions that gives the illusion that the architecture has windows covered with fruit and foliage with birds perching on the sills.

By painting the foliage and birds the artist reinvents the architectural structure of the fictive apse in the altarpiece. His windows open to the sky turn the stone man-made structure back into a structure built by nature.
           The coral that hangs here is a fused-spicule skeleton type coral, according to Professor Tudhope, and it retains its red coloring even out of the sea. The coral piece is left intact to show its original shape and texture as a sea animal. To either side of the central piece of coral are strings of coral beads that decorate the apse like sides of a coral triangle and lead the viewer's eye straight up to the large foreshortened shell from which emerges the mass of red coral.
Even though the battle being commemorated took place in the River Taro and not the sea, the coral still represents the water and the fact that the battle was not just land-based. The apotropaic importance of the coral seems at odds with the importance of Jesus' sacrifice, but mythology is blended with Christian belief to reinforce the power of the Madonna's child to fend off evil and protect the believer. The spiky coral looks like a thorn bush of natural defense. That it resembles
the twisting of the serpent around the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden scene below it
is appropriate. Francesco has warded off the French evil eye with the help of the Madonna and her
son's sacrifice in the form of petrified blood, a vestige of battle wear in a most graphic form.

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