Every morning I sit on our terrace and just look at the plants and the bees and the butterflies that visit them. Save for the purrs of Volver, our cat, there is silence. The crisp air on my skin feels like a tender caress.
It is my terrace that gives me solace and helps me regroup those energies that have been scattered by the aggressiveness of the world outside. For me, my terrace is a sacred place. And, in this Age of Decadence, sacredness is a rarity.
Anna Jameson became interested in sacred art on her first trip to Italy. In 1842 she began writing Sacred and Legendary Art but, due to the extensive research and travel required, it took years to finish.
In c. 1845, Anna spent a winter in Rome and, in her lodgings at Piazza di Spagna, hosted many soirees where friends came and offered her new ideas to explore. It was here, in Rome, that she discovered religious art. Anna was Anglican. For her, as for most Protestants, Catholic iconography could be mystifying. All those paintings based on popular Catholic legends seemed like hero worshipping. The Reformation had rejected the tradition of Catholic art and, like the Taliban, had no problem in destroying it. But then came along Romanticism and with it an interest in medieval art inspiring people to learn more about the Catholic legends it was based upon. It was an Antique Mythology that was still, in the words of Anna, “vivid and vivifying”. These legends were “the intense expression of that inner life which revolted against the desolation and emptiness of the outward existence.”
After a long time in the dark ages when humanity was afflicted by “ignorance, idleness, wickedness, & misery” and when the powerful inflicted atrocities upon the weak forcing them to seek shelter from this outrage, “when the manners were harsh, the language gross; when all the softer social sentiments as pity, reverence, tenderness found no resting-place in the actual relations of life”, when all of this and more pushed man into “the dreary monotony of a stagnant existence”, finally, finally “arose a literature which reversed the outward order of things” and “refreshed the fevered and darkened spirit with the images of moral beauty and truth.” And it is of this legendary art that Anna writes about.
In Italy, the arts were generally pressed into the service of the Church. But, although the Church would have desired to impose its dogma more, she was “obliged to accept and mould to her own subjects the exotic elements she could not eradicate”. So a sort of compromise was made.
Anna’s Sacred and Legendary Art is divided into six sections: Introduction, Angels & Archangels, the Four Evangelists, the Twelve Apostles, the Doctors of the Church, and the Beatified Penitents.
In each section, among other things, Anna speaks of the different artists’ styles towards approaching the same subject matter and has no problems criticizing artists including the greats. For example, she criticized Michelangelo because, as with Greek mythology, he focused on the worship of beauty, immortality, and power—all of which were antithetical to the values of Christianity. In his “Last Judgement”, Michelangelo made the Apostles look like Titans holding a war council, she wrote.
Sacred and Legendary Art is almost 500 pages long as Anna had much to say in order to explain the legends art was based upon as well as describe those elements (such as emblems and attributes) needed to help a viewer identify the various people represented.
In the section on angels, says Anna “there is something so very attractive and poetical, as well as soothing to our helpless finite nature, in all the superstitions connected with the popular notion of Angels, that we cannot wonder at their prevalence in the early ages of the world.” Going from a plurality of gods to just one must have been a challenge for many believers. Angels helped as the monothetic God was so very far away but angels made him seem closer. But not all angels are good.
“After the period of the Captivity, the Jewish ideas concerning angels were considerably extended and modified by an admixture of the Chaldaic belief, and of the doctrines taught by Zoroaster…it is then that we first hear of the good and bad angels, and of a fallen angel or personation of evil, busy in working mischief on earth and counteracting good….”
Angels had three main functions. They are Messengers, Choristers, and Guardians. But they are also Bouncers as seen in the many paintings of angels escorting Adam and Even out of the Garden of Eden.
Apparently, in the New Testament angels appear more often than in the Old and appear more as a reality than as a vision (which brings to mind Julian Jayne’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind).
Anna makes reference to many artists and their renditions of angels. One of my favorite paintings is Cimabue’s “Santa Trinità Madonna and Child Enthroned”. Set against a gold leaf background, Mother and Child sit on a huge throne flanked by six angels. Anna describes the angels as being rather stern but that’s because, she continues, of Cimabue’s inability to express beauty. She much prefers the Cimabue angels in the Basilica of Assisi.
Anna begins the section on the evangelists by quoting Gregory of Nazianzus, theologian, archbishop, and ex-patron saint of Bosnia: “Matthew wrote for the Hebrews, Mark, for the Italians; Luke, for the Greeks; for all, the great herald John.”
I, personally, can testify that on many church facades in Italy, there are base-relief sculptures of the symbols representing the evangelists. Mark is symbolized by a winged man, Mark by a winged lion, Luke by a winged bull, and John by an eagle.
Writes Anna: “I have dwelt on these fanciful interpretations and disquisitions, because the symbols of the Evangelists meet us at every turn; in the mosiacs of the old Italian churches, in the decorative sculpture of our old cathedrals, in the Gothic stained glass, in the ancient pictures and miniatures, on the carved and chased covers of old books, everywhere, in short, where enters the idea of their divine mission—and where is it not?”
“The earliest representations of the Twelve Apostles appear to have been, like those of the four Evangelists, purely emblematical: they were figured as twelve sheep, with Christ in the midst, as the Good Shepherd, bearing a lamb in His arms; or, much more frequently, Christ is Himself the Lamb of God, raised on an eminence and crowned with a cruciform nimbus, and the apostles were ranged on each side as sheep.”
The most well-known representation of the Apostles together is that of the Last Supper. And for this reason, Anna dedicates ample space to it in her book.
The Doctors of the Church were the representatives of the Church Militant, that is, those on Earth who are in constant warfare against its enemies (such as the flesh and the devil) as opposed to the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Anna writes that “as teachers and pastors, as logicians and advocates, they wrote, argued, contended, suffered, and at length, after a long and fierce struggle against opposing doctrines, they fixed the articles of faith thereafter received in Christendom.” In other words, they were the ones who created the dictates for the others to follow. In Western Art, the Doctors of the Church are represented by the Latin Fathers: St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory.
St. Jerome is often represented as an emaciated old man, bald, bearded, and half naked with a lion next to him. As he’s known for his translation of the Bible, he’s generally seen holding a book and a pen. And as for the lion, legend has it that St. Jerome was sitting in the monastery at Bethlehem when a limping lion walked in. Whereas the other monks got up and ran away, Jerome went to the lion and treated him as a guest. The lion lifted his paw exposing a thorn stuck in it. Jerome extracted the thorn and the lion no longer limped. Animals, it would seem, have a capacity to express gratitude many humans don’t have. The lion was eternally grateful to Jerome and that’s why he is often portrayed in representations of the saint.
The best known Beatified Penitent is undoubtedly Mary Magdalene. She also is one of the figures whose identity has been most disputed. But there is no amount of theological dispute that can take away her fame. Religious tradition has her “sanctified in the imagination and in the faith of the people in her combined character of Sinner and of Saint, as the first-fruits of Christian penitence.”
Of all the many Mary Magdalene paintings Anna saw, Correggio’s “La Maddalena” was unsurpassed. The only problem with it, said Anna, was the woman’s virginal beauty comparable to a Psyche or a Seraph.
Mary Magdalene is shown with her breasts exposed lying on the ground reading a book. Nearby is her famous alabaster jar and a skull. The jar represents the ointment used in the Anointing of Jesus whereas the skull and the book are symbols of penitence and of the contemplative life.
Thich Nhat Hanh says “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” Tomorrow morning on my terrace I will look as if I am kissing the Earth with my eyes.
Related: Is this the skull of Mary Magdalene? + Diary Writing and other Spiritual Practices + Anna Jameson and Sacred and Legendary Art
Jameson, Anna. Sacred and Legendary Art. Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Cambridge.1895. Read on archive.org HERE.
Macpherson, Gerardine Bate. Memoirs of the life of Anna Jameson. Roberts Brothers. Boston. 1878. Read on archive.org HERE.