“Just look at it!”: Madonna in White (1929)

Madonna in White is a strange,  fascinating painting.  It was first shown at the 28th Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh 1929, where it appeared with two other enigmatic works, The Second Night and Madonna in Orange, both now lost.

 A critic’s description of the latter work suggests that it was a companion piece to the present painting, “with deep tones of orange and of brown, its orange-yellow highlights on little round angel forms, its flashes of red in angel wings, its charm of design against a blue background.”  Another critic noted Schmitt’s remarkable color combinations in the two Madonnas, writing that “many of the complex figure groups glow with unearthly fire, as if reviewed through colored gelatin.”  

The artist’s underlying intention in these works, however,  was less about an exploration of design and color as it was an expression of what Schmitt called “mysticism,” “a vision of something more real, more subjective and objective than the natural senses have experienced.”

CSF12009

Madonna in White, 1929, oil on masonite, 48¼ x 40 in.

As with many of Carl Schmitt’s paintings, this work is at once fresh and familiar, routine and revelatory.  The image of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, as old as Christian art, is pictured here in truly modern guise, with bold colors and stylized figures.

Schmitt’s work is a marriage of modern training and deep familiarity with the masterpieces of his craft, particularly those rooted in Christian Europe.  His studies in Florence in his early twenties, where he saw first-hand the works of the great Italian masters, was a turning point in his life and left an indelible mark on his future work.  Although he sketched and studied these works like so many before him, he was not interested in copying their style as much as their content.  He was able to “abstract” the deep religious “substance” of these works, integrating it into his own style.

Duccio Maesta detail

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1318), Maestà, detail.
Painted 1308–1311. Tempera and gold on wood, full dimensions 84 in × 156 in. Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena

With Madonna in White, Schmitt takes up the traditional images of Christ and the Virgin Mary, incorporating time-honored iconography into his work in a fresh way.  The painting is a modern maestà, an iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child in her lap surrounded by angels and saints.  Derived from Byzantine tradition, it was taken up in the Middle Ages by such masters as Duccio and Giotto.

Giotto Ognissanti Madonna

Giotto di Bernadone (1266-1337), Madonna Enthroned (“Ognissanti Madonna”), c. 1310. Tempera on panel, 128 in × 80 in. Uffizi Gallery, Florence

Here, Schmitt transforms the old masters’ solemnity to playfulness, their royal court changed into a child’s wonderland. Where the tradition presented the Virgin and Child surrounded in timeless gold, Schmitt revels in deep purples and greens, colors very much of our own world.  The purity of the Mother and Child is transposed into the world of childlike innocence.  Schmitt’s friend, the critic and writer Padriac Colum, intuits this shift: “Austerity is not the mark of this religious painter; he gives us rapture most often, he gives us gaiety sometimes.  There is gaiety, there is playfulness even in the Madonna in White, in which a happy babe is held by a happy mother, and four sturdy children have the place of heraldic supports.”

It is tempting to see these “four sturdy children” as a portrait of the four cardinal virtues: the two “earthly” virtues of Temperance and Fortitude represented by the calm cherub and the brave knight at the Virgin’s feet, with carefree Prudence and “blind” Justice hovering above.  Each is furnished with a pillar, further suggesting their role as “pillars” of a good life.

CSF12009 - four cherubs together

Schmitt generally shied away from such direct allegory, lest the whole be lost.  The children attend upon the Mother, who in the Christian tradition is the “Seat of Wisdom”—the throne of her Son, Wisdom Himself.  Schmitt reminds us that wisdom is intimately related to our desire to become “little children” as Christ taught.  This “childlikeness,” far from being weakness or immaturity, incorporates what is noblest in human nature both in its ecstatic and down-to-earth qualities, that of the stolid man-at-arms and the mercurial dancer.

The Madonna avoids our gaze, as if to direct ours to the Child, who, upon closer examination, does not sit upon her lap but is held or rather hovers above her knees.  The Child, while haloed like his Mother, seems otherwise indistinguishable from his fellow children except in the glow that emanates from his small body, which light is in turn reflected by his Mother.  As in so many classic paintings, her face is pensive, as if in shadow, reflecting perhaps upon the destiny of the One held in her arms.

CSF12009 - detail of Madonna's face

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