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This work by the Venetian painter Roberto Ferruzzi (1853–1934) dates from the late 19th century. It is contemporary with another famous work by the same artist (and probably repeats the face of the same model): the famous Madonnina (1). It is worth relating the story of it succinctly.
Roberto Ferruzzi noticed on the street a little girl from a poor family, Angelina Cian, who was carrying in her arms her little brother, still a baby, and taking care of him. Moved by this touching tableau depicting the ordinary life of the humble, he started to paint it. The artist was to that point self-taught and completely unknown.... And yet his canvas, when presented at the Biennial Exhibition in Venice in 1897, won first prize!
The Alinari brothers, famous photographers, bought the rights to reproduce it and made it a devotional image that went on to have incredible success: to this day it adorns most Italian homes, both in Europe and in America. Now everyone called it La Madonnina [The Little Madonna], and it became more famous even than the Madonnas by Raphael. The original work was purchased for a princely sum by the American ambassador John George Alexander Leishman, who sent it by boat to the United States. It never reached its destination and is considered to be definitively lost.
Commentators imply that at first, when the artist took Angelina Cian and her little brother as models, he had no religious intention to depict a “Madonna of the streets.” As far as we can tell from the reproductions made at that time, the very composition of the work and the treatment of the draperies clearly disprove that hypothesis. And the contemporary painting of a Little Girl at Prayer, which adorns the cover of this issue of Magnificat, bears eloquent witness to the artist’s deeper intentions.
Year of the death of Thérèse of Lisieux
As for us, let us meditate on the fact that this work was painted in the same year as the death of the Little Flower, Thérèse, Doctor of Spiritual Childhood. In this regard, allow me to confide in you. Being a member—no worse and no better than the others—of a generation that lost its faith in droves, I sometimes wonder why I am one of the exceptions who, by the grace of God, still remain faithful. And then, I remember that every night between the ages of eight and twelve, by the grace of God, I used to fall asleep with my hands folded over my heart, saying my prayers. And since then, spiritually speaking, it looks like I have not grown too old!
May the contemplation of this charming little girl at prayer inspire us to storm Heaven with prayers for all the children of the world whom nobody teaches to pray nowadays, for all the children of the world who never pray, for all the children of the world who at the moment when they fall asleep have never felt their heart burning with a subtle presence which for the rest of their life will be their reason for being.
For their sake, throughout this month of July, let us carry our rosary in our pocket each day, as little Bernadette used to do. And, when we recite one decade or another, we can modify the wording of our prayer slightly, to say:
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for all the children of the world who never pray,
now and at the hour of their death. Amen.
Little Girl Praying, Roberto Ferruzzi (1853–1934), Museum of Fine Arts, Sevastopol, Ukraine. © Arthotek / La Collection.
(1) La Madonnina, Roberto Ferruzi (1853-1934). Image DR.
El Greco: From Spiritual Struggle to Marian Surrender
Before art became such a widely prized commodity, artists relied on commissions for their livelihood, and therefore their subjects were as diverse in theme as the requests of the commissioners. Nonetheless, it is sometimes possible to pinpoint one particular theme that is played out repeatedly throughout an artist’s life. It is as if their art—their heart—had found in this particular subject a unique resonance, one that mysteriously attunes form and matter, style and substance, art and life. Such is the Presentation for Rembrandt and the Pietà for Michelangelo. Such is Mary Magdalene Penitent for Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco.
Of all the protagonists of the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is, besides Jesus, Mary, and the Baptist, the one who has most inspired artists throughout history—more than any of the apostles. Though little is known about her life, we find it stretched, as it were, between the darkest depths of sin (before she met Jesus, she was possessed by seven demons [cf. Lk 8:2]) and the heights of holiness (she finished her life, it is said, as a hermit in a grotto in southern France). In other words, she displays before us the whole spectrum of human experience, from the most intense trials to the purest expressions of love.
El Greco and Mary Magdalene have something in common: they do not stand still. The artist’s brushstrokes impart being, movement, and life to every least blade of grass, while the saint is always depicted in the Gospel as either impelled towards Jesus or running to and from the empty tomb. In this depiction of Mary Magdalene, the first of many, El Greco contemplates the saint in the very moment of conversion—the moment when the subtle balance (or rather, the raging battle) between light and darkness is finally tipped in favor of the former. More than a historical moment in the life of the saint, he paints the inner movement of her whole existence. As the rising sun slowly illumines the creation, a heavenly ray of light breaks through the clouds in her direction while the skull rolls off her hand, soon to fall out of the frame and smash on the rocks.
A river of light
Born in Crete, El Greco was first trained as an icon painter. Even as he later embraced the mystical realism of the Renaissance Italian painters Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese, he never betrayed his first love. His iconographic debut is particularly salient in its treatment of light, which irrupts vertically in a painting previously layered with earthly and fleshly pigments. This substantial light generously bathes the saint like baptismal water poured on her forehead, dripping down her body, cascading down the rock, and playing with delight within the folds of the saint’s garments. Wherever it lands on the painting, our gaze is carried back to heaven as if by a river of light flowing back to its source.
A second conversion
In her Book of All Saints, Adrienne von Speyr offers us a precious insight into the artist’s desire to make his art an instrument of his faith: El Greco “knows God’s ‘ever-greater’ character and the distance that lies between God and man, and he wants to illustrate what he knows, what he sees, what he believes. He would like every painting to be a hundred times better than it is in order that it might radiate God’s atmosphere and become a confession, which would not only attract, but would also broaden the image of the world, the way of seeing, and the faith of the person who contemplates the paintings.”
A question, however, may be raised. While it is true that the depiction of “the Penitent Magdalene” is ahistorical in that it does not refer to any one precise moment in her life, but rather symbolically captures the saint’s lasting state of contrition and hope-filled devotion, it is clearly set after the Ascension of the Lord. Besides, El Greco departed from tradition inasmuch as he showed the Magdalene not just in a “state of penitence” but at the moment of conversion. What, then, is the nature of this conversion, since it can be traced back to her first encounter with Jesus, when he delivered her from seven demons? That El Greco understood the need to depict a “second conversion” later in the saint’s life gives a clue to his own spiritual struggle, and the reason he always came back to Mary Magdalene as a kind of spiritual sister.
El Greco “is plagued by doubts,” continues Adrienne von Speyr, “because he sees what is unfinished in every painting and would like to start over. And yet from the very beginning he knows: it cannot succeed. No talent can find its ultimate expression in art alone, if it is a gift of faith.”
This depiction of the artist’s inner tension could just as well apply to Mary Magdalene. When she first met the risen One, he pushed her back, saying: Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father (Jn 20:17). Her love needed to be purified from the temptation to “hold on” to his physical, immediate presence. El Greco depicted the saint in the act of this ultimate conversion of her love, by which she freely and peacefully surrenders to the Father with an almost Marian faith. Distancing himself from the somewhat gloomy depictions of the saint’s austerity, El Greco paints a joyful mystery, an Annunciation. Far from voiding the material world, the saint’s surrender vests it with its ultimate meaning as the sacrament of the Father’s uncreated beauty.
Father Paul AnelA chaplain to artists in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Penitent Mary Magdalene (c. 1576–1580), El Greco (1541–1614), Museum of Montserrat, Spain. © Museo de Montserrat.