Lippo di Dalmasio painted several images of the Virgin of Humility, so-called because she is shown sitting on the ground. Here she sits in a grassy meadow holding the Christ Child on her lap. Mother and child are absorbed in each other, and the infant Christ tugs at her veil as any baby might.
The tender scene of maternal love is raised beyond the purely earthly through the inclusion of the planets. The semi-circle of real gold leaf behind the figures represents the sun; Lippo has scored the soft metal to create its rays. The Virgin’s halo is circled with 12 stars and she has at her feet a silver crescent moon. The inclusion of stars and planets recalls the Woman of the Apocalypse, mentioned in the New Testament as, ‘clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of 12 stars’ (Revelation 12: 1).
Lippo di Dalmasio has placed his signature, Lippus Dalmasij pinxit (‘Lippo di Dalmasio painted this’), at the bottom edge of the picture among the plants and grasses of a lush meadow. Seated amid the clover, ferns and dandelions is the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child on her lap. Mother and son gaze into each other’s eyes and Christ, in a childlike gesture, tugs on the Virgin’s fine, white veil. Two groups of angels hover above watching over this tender scene of maternal love.
The figures are silhouetted against a golden disc representing the sun. It is made from gold leaf which the artist has scored with the point of a compass, creating fine lines for the sun’s rays. The gold stars surrounding the Virgin’s head and the detailed decoration of her robe, including the sunburst pattern at her shoulder, are also made of gold leaf; this was applied carefully over a sticky material called bole. These elements of the picture would have shone brightly in its original candle-lit church setting.
Scientific analysis has revealed that the Virgin’s cloak is painted with a pigment called azurite. When fresh, azurite is a bright blue and would have contrasted strongly against the golden sun. It is also prone to darkening over time and now appears almost black. At the Virgin’s feet there is a crescent moon. It was once luminous, as Lippo layered silver leaf over white paint to create a pale glow. The silver, however, has darkened over time.
Despite their dazzling effect, the inclusion of stars and planets is not purely decorative. These cosmic elements appear in many images of the Virgin in this period with the aim of drawing to mind the so-called Woman of the Apocalypse, who appears in the New Testament as 'clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet and upon her head a crown of twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). Lippo has followed a tradition in northern Italian painting by depicting the Virgin as the Woman of the Apocalypse, seated on the ground in a pose that has come to be known as the ‘Madonna of Humility’. The term refers to the Virgin’s lowly background as well as her acceptance of her role as the Mother of God.
This is the only Bolognese painting of the fourteenth century in the National Gallery; Bolognese painting of this period is rare in British collections. It is representative of Lippo’s work as he painted several images of the Madonna of Humility as the Woman of the Apocalypse, both in fresco and, as here, on canvas. The use of canvas rather than wood is unusual in this period, leading to some debate over the function of the image. Pictures were often painted on canvas to create banners, used in religious processions. Documents reveal however that Lippo painted two altarpieces on canvas for the church of San Petronio in Bologna, where he was living when he made this painting.
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