Tunes for a Monday Morning

Art and magic

Madonna del Parto by Pierro della Francesca

One of my favorite paintings in the world is Piero della Francesca's "Madonna del Parto," so I smiled to read this in "Heaven on Earth," Peter Schjeldahl's review of the current Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York:

"One hot August, when I was twenty-three," he writes, "I traversed Tuscany on the back of a Vespa driven by a painter friend, George Schneeman. We had seen Piero’s magnum opus, the 'Legend of the True Cross' frescoes, in Arezzo, which I found bewildering, and were headed northeast, to the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, the site of his famous 'Resurrection of Christ' ('the best picture in the world,' according to Aldous Huxley), which I also failed to make much of. Then we stopped at a tiny cemetery chapel, in the hill town of Monterchi, to see Piero’s highly unusual 'Madonna del Parto.' An immensely pregnant but delicately elegant young Mary stands pensively in a bell-shaped tent, as two mirror-image angels sweep aside the flaps to reveal her. One angel wears green, the other purple. Here was the circumstantial drama of a ripeness with life in a place of death. George told me a sentimental, almost certainly untrue story that the work memorialized a secret mistress of Piero’s who had died in childbirth. This befitted the picture’s held-breath tenderness and its air of sharing a deeply felt, urgent mystery. In another age, the experience might have made me consider entering a monastery. Instead, I became an art critic."

Monterchi, Italy

A detail from Piero della Francesca's unfinished Nativity

A detail from Piero della Francesca's Legend of the True CrossSome years ago I made the same pilgrimage to Arrezo, Sansepolcro, and the Tuscan hilltown of Monterchi -- but unlike Schjeldahl, I was already under Piero's spell when I did so. Although what I really wanted was to see the Madonna del Parto freshly painted on the wall of the Chapel of Santa Maria di Momentana (which would have required travelling back in time to the 15th century), it was a deeply moving experience nonetheless to stand before the Lady at last, even in her rather sterile new home in the small Museo della Madonna. 

A print that I purchased that day in Monterchi hangs framed beside my drawing board still, where I draw and paint underneath the Lady's calm, enigmatic gaze. I am not Christian, so for me Piero's luminous figure represents the feminine and maternal mysteries, and the fecund spirit of creativity. This is not, of course, what the painter intended...but works of art, if they have any power, take on lives of their own once they leave our hands.

The Lady of the Studio

As Samuel R. Delany once wrote (in his ground-breaking novel Dahlgren):  "The artist has some internal experience that produces a poem, a painting, a piece of music. Spectators submit themselves to the work, which generates an inner experience for them. But historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's. That idea comes from an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic."

Indeed. But I do trust magic. Especially the magic of art.

The other lady of the studioArt above: The Madonna del Parto in Monterchi, a detail from the Legend of the True Cross fresco cycle in Arezzo, and a detail from the Piero's unfinished Nativity, which is now in the National Gallery in London. Photographs: Monterchi, The Lady of the Studio, and the other lady of the studio.


Ladies with Plates Or Madonna del Parto

It is hard for a Jew to rise to revelation
when three ladies wearing plates
signify the holy. Rather, I like the disdain
on Mary’s face, the casual display of the bump,
theatrical pull of curtains for the reveal,
and angels stiff as children in a panto
miming the moment of surprise.
Magic is manipulation, no one
knows this better than an artist
who uses his mistress for the Madonna,
locals for winged messengers,
and the slight of hand that is art.
That the picture becomes true
is the real test of faith, in art
if not in the word of God.

©2013 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Lovely post, lovely poem. And Tilly, the 'other Lady of the studio,' is adorable as always.

Great post, and now I must read Delany's "Dalgren", and high me to the Frick! I see, not 'disdain' precisely, though it might be there in the corners of those complacent lips, but concern, an inward gaze at the future--her own, and this child's...for, what can the child of a man's mistress expect from the world. Perhaps that's the disdain, implied by the sad slant of her eyes. No disdain or sadness in the face of that great girl dog though, she who looks toward the photographer with her trusting eyes, asking a canine question, and so willing for the answer!

"historically it's a very new, not to mention vulgar, idea that the spectator's experience should be identical to, or even have anything to do with, the artist's."

I grew up in schools which taught that there was only one "true" interpretation of a story (and therefore of all art). This was a time when the art was also divorced from the artist's life and we were told it had to stand on its own and no one cared what was going on in Pierro della Francesca's Italy (or Shakespeare's England) at the time. Now, it seems, the pendulum is at the other extreme in academia. The art is inextricably linked with the artist but one's personal experience is still irrelevant because there is still one "true" interpretation based on everything in the artist's life and times.

That's what teachers in institutions say. After all, they need to find some way to grade their students' papers.

That's not to say the academic approach is completely irrelevant. Some information *can* enhance one's appreciation. These days, I've learned to say what they want to hear when an assignment is due but I don't have to believe it. If Ms. Yolen sees "Madonna del Parto" as "Ladies with Plates" or I want to read "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as a field guide to Faerie, we can.

When I visit museums, I don't read anything about the artwork until after I spend a little time with it. Once I see the artist's name and dates, where it was created, and the museum's summary, it makes the artwork ... smaller, somehow. Later, I'll find out what the "true" interpretation should be. In those first moments, it's just me, the art, and the magic of possibilities.

Thank you for sharing your experience of your visit to the Lady. It was very moving to read... I went to several art schools and so I know about the limited interpretations imposed on art viewers. I felt most angered by how small our scope is with defining the meanings behind ancient pieces, the Woman of Willendorf and the like. I just feel like with some art pieces, we'll never truly understand the scope and power of them because we'll never quite be at that point in the evolution of our culture and consciousness... while our own personal experiences are wonderful, it seems so dishonorable to label a piece of art with one defined meaning and just get on with it.

I did have one art teacher who told us her experience with multiple interpretations of her paintings. She said at first, she didn't feel like it was true because she didn't intend it. But then she realized that the viewer completes the work. And that in this way, all interpretations are true. This is what stayed with me.

Many years ago I visited the Palace of the Legion Of Honor on a hill in San Francisco. I entered with the
idea of just looking and not learning any facts. What a maze of magic, tapestries, restless looking, like
Medieval TV, paintings of saints and the Madonna, angels, and then into a darkly lit room with many small paintings. I was drawn to one, a man's face, and I went there slowly, as if he had a message for me. I felt the warmth of a long ago person, guiding me to some sacred and secret place. I then did look at who this was and it was a self portrait of Rembrandt.

PS - I have gone there many times and always feel the pull of such magic and beauty.
The last time was the Cult of Beauty, with dazzling Pre-Renaissance paintings and the
kind of craft art wizards might want. I got a calendar and a poem out of it.

Wonderful, Jane. (And the "ladies with plates" made me laugh!)

"That the picture becomes true
is the real test of faith, in art
if not in the word of God."

So much said in so little words.

I feel oh-so-strongly the God-magic in art that takes shape and grows wings and flies away, even as it is yet being made.

A Meditation
on Piero della Francesca’s Madona del Parto

Piero knew something
of maternal mysteries:
enough to incarnate them
in historical women, whose
carbon dioxide mingles
with molecules outside
the window. Her gaze,
leveled and absent,
internalizes on veiled
flesh. Mystery is
a lady-in-waiting. Magic
and art share one syllable.
Even as, beneath
careful hands, the Picture grows
a will; now powerless
but proud, we taste the bread
of a God-made-matter, touch
the fecund spirit, solid
and specific, arcane
as any fairy tale.

© L.C. Ricardo 2013

Very rich and beautiful poem.

" we taste the bread
of a God-made-matter. . ."




This Jew, on the other hand,
Finds the "plates" magnificent.
Without them, the disdain
Would be merely mundane.

Wow, indeed. Beautiful poem, Christie.

This pagan finds
magic in it all:
in plates and pigment
and pantos and passion;
in a Lady ripe as fruit,
wise as angels,
steady as the land

Phyllis, thank you for reading!

Thank _you_ for the inspiration. c:

Oh, thank you! c:

And here unveiled beyond the frame
are three more ladies crowned in poem,
spinning words
(like plates
by any other name, it's all the same:
a sacred game)
speaking to what speaks to them.
Pigment fades and dogma jades,
fresco's torn;
but art's reborn.

They draw back curtains to reveal
the radiance, the ripened bump;
what's not been shown,
what grows within,
what's yet unknown.
Creating something of their own.

This vision too is at the heart
of ancient, moving, living art.

(For Jane Yolen, Ellen Kushner, and Terri Windling)

*happy sigh*

I thought I had answered this before, but it seems to have disappeared. Thanks enormously, Karen, for the poem and dedication. I think the last time a poem was dedicated to me was in the Eocene, the late 1950's, when my college boyfriend was a poet.


Thinking about art and meaning, I'm actually a bit bemused. I've not really come into contact with anyone who insisted art might have one meaning only. As I understand it and as seems fairly well accepted in my experience, limited though it is, there is a dialectic which happens between work and viewer - people bring their own experiences to any work of art and this will of course affect how they experience the work itself. And the same can apply to the written word too. Quite often when I read of people's experiences in American art schools, it does sound like a rather more rigid atmosphere than is usual in British schools, at least currently. So I wonder if there is something of a cultural divide? What do you think? I may be completely wrong of course!

I love the Madonna, by the way Terri, it is not one I was familiar with. A wonderful painting.

I'm not so sure whether this is a cross-cultural divide or a generational. My sister is a painter and teacher and she talks about this, about how in her generation she was taught to interpret works of art in very specific, academically approved ways - and she also talks about how fellow-art-students of her era would routinely put out long statements declaring how their work was meant to be interpreted - sometimes, she used to joke, spending more time on the statements than the art. But that for the students she teaches now, born into a more post-modern world, interpretations and the "gaze of the viewer" are more relative, more fluid. Which she thinks is a good thing overall, but can be taken to extremes where everything is so relative that it no longer has any meaning at all. I'm probably stating this badly because I'm a musician, not an artist, but I hope I'm portraying her thoughts accurately.

Wish you could see how big my smile is.

Ms. Chris, I do agree with your sister's interpretation. Art is specific in its un-specificity, if you know what I mean. But, as Chesterton says, "Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere." By committing paint to paper, one is necessarily excluding some interpretations while retaining the possibility for others. It's the same in literature.

gosh hasn't the world of art, cinema & literature been discussing pluralities of meanings & points of departure for at least a century if not more?

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