“Virgin and Child with Sts Jerome and St Louis of Toulouse” (“Madonna of the Orange Tree”) 1496- 98, Cima da Conegliano, Accademia, Venice. When I saw this painting recently on a visit to Venice, I was struck by the similarities between it and Filippino Lippi’s “The Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic”, (c. 1485) which I had just written on in the current edition of “The Dominicans”. In both, the Virgin and Child are flanked by Jerome and a saint dear to the patrons. This painting was made for the Church of Santa Chiara on Murano, which belonged to a community of observant Franciscan nuns. In this painting St Dominic’s place is taken St Louis of Toulouse (1274 -97). St Louis was an aristocratic “boy” Bishop who took vows as a Franciscan shortly after becoming a Bishop. He died of a fever at the age of 23 having exhausted himself in the service of the poor. You can see the Franciscan habit beneath his cope. If you look at this painting online you appreciate just how beautiful it is. As in Lippi’s picture St Joseph can be seen in the background. He is standing beneath a tree while the donkey grazes nearby, As in Lipp’s work this is a rest on the flight into Egypt. In both St Jerome is bare chested and holds the stone with which he was said to have done penance in the wilderness of Judea. However he is there to remind the viewer that the Word made flesh is also to be found in the scriptures. Both paintings make reference to specific locations. In the work by Lippi, there is a Florentine dispensary which is associated with St Dominic. In Cima’s painting the town is probably Conegliano where Cima was born and where he died after his years in Venice. On the path leading up to the town two figures in oriental dress are walking away and are included to represent the non-Christian world, who have not yet acknowledged Christ. In which case, the rock on which the Virgin sits must be the rock of faith upon which the Church is founded. Both paintings have birds and animals in the background and recognisable species of plants in the foreground. Each has its particular symbolism. The pair of partridges symbolise those who come to faith in Christ. The partridge was said to hatch the eggs of other birds, but once hatched, the young chicks would leave them, being able to recognise their true parents. The watching white hare symbolises vigilance and contemplative solitude. The deer on the path is an allusion to the Psalm 42. The Aquilega at St Louis’ feet on the far right is a symbol of Mary and of her purity. Of course the most striking plant is the orange tree behind the Virgin. Although not an apple tree, it may allude to the fall of Adam and Eve and Mary as the new Eve. The colour is picked up in her clothing. Despite the amount of detail, there is harmony here and beauty, and yet what is most striking about Cima’s work is the silence. The viewer into the silent contemplation of the saints. it is not just the contemplation of the beauty of Creation but of the Word made flesh who has dwelt among us.
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