“Rest on the Flight into Egypt with Sts John the Baptist and St Lucy”, 1496 – 98, Cima da Conegliano, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. This artist is known for his altarpieces but at 53.9 cm X 71.6cm this painting must have been for an individual’s private contemplation. Viewed beside earlier works by Cima the lack of an architectural setting is notable. There is no arch, nor is there a canopy, with a length of fine fabric backing the Madonna and Child. These figures are set against a background of pure landscape. In the centre is the Holy Family. Mary is a beautiful young woman and Joseph is a much older man. She seems to be preoccupied, as if pondering things interiorly. He contemplates the child on her lap, who has one hand raised in blessing and the other reaching out to the angel. Here there is no man-made throne. It was Mantegna who first used natural rock as a throne and, clearly, Cima has borrowed his idea. The angels are also upon the slab of rock and are as wrapt with devotion as any shepherd or wise man might have been. They are flanked by St John the Baptist and St Lucy. The slab of rock slants downwards from right to left as if there was a movement from one martyr to the other. Unlike some of his altarpeices, there seems an internal logic to the choice of these two saints, above and beyond the patron’s wishes. St John the Baptist’s green garment emerges from the verdant landscape behind. The steep cliff, topped by vegetation, seems to be in harmony with the baptist’s curly head of hair. In the far distance, the landscape opens on water. The hill top fortress and the cloud above it are just perfectly positioned. On the right, St Lucy holds a lamp recalling her association with light and in particular divine light or wisdom. Behind her a meadow gives way to a wood and a town. In the clear air the distant mountains are visible and are as blue as the sky. The young oak tree forms a natural canopy, but ,with its two young branches, it also symbolises Christ born of the Virgin. The bare ground where the saints are positioned suggests and enclosure symbolising the mother’s virginity, but in its barrenness there may be a suggestion of the miraculous birth or even of creation ex nihilo. The saddled donkey grazing behind St Lucy on the meadow tells us that this is the Holy Family at rest on the flight into Egypt. This subject was a relatively new one at the time, but once recognised, the ministering angels make more narrative sense. To set the saints in a sacra conversazione against a pure landscape was also new. This landscape is reminiscent of the beautiful landscapes of the Veneto where Cima grew up. But here Cima unites both landscape and the foreground figures in a sublime harmony. It is as if the landscape were waiting for their arrival, and only with their arrival, does it reach its fulfilment. The criticism of Cima is that his works are all very similar. This writer does not quite agree. They are as variations on a theme, but the key might be to notice the subtle shifts from one work to the next. Reading this painting as a religious document, one may ponder what it has to say to us over 520 years on, about our relationship with the environment and with nature. Here is a world that is beautiful but can only find true harmony and its fulfilment in the advent of Christ. The viewer contemplates the first coming in the centre but the work taken as a whole (for those with eyes to see), shows forth the deeper beauty and fullness of his coming in glory. IN
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