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The Holy Family with Angels offering Butter and Honey

The Holy Family with Angels offering Butter and Honey

Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli called Il Morazzone (1573-1626). Galleria Sabauda. Turin. Ca. 1620-1625.

Il Morazzone was born Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli around 1571 to 1575 in a town called Moranzone near Milan. He received his painter’s name from the town where he was born. His father brought him to Rome in 1592, where he started to paint religious scenes in churches. By 1598 however, he had returned to Piedmont and Milan. He became one of the most prominent artists of Milan and the cities of the Alpine regions of Italy. He continued all his life to decorate churches with religious scenes. He was a quintessentially Baroque painter, with preferences for grand pictures painted in frescoes. Yet, he knew well to restrain the show of emotions and drama so that his paintings were very much acceptable to the clergy of Piedmont. Cardinal Federico Borromeo of Milan and the Duke of Savoy were his patrons. He was one of the two or three most famous artists of Milan in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. In 1626 he obtained a commission to paint vast frescoes in the cupola of the cathedral of Piacenza, but he died there, that same year, probably from an accident with the scaffolding. Il Morazzone’s work in the church was finished by Guercino. Morazzone was not the only great painter in Milan: Giovanni Battista Crespi called Il Cerano (1565-1632), Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625), Carlo Francesco Nuvolone (1609-1661), Antonio Maria Crespi Costaldi called Il Bustino (1590-1630), Giovan Mauro della Rovere called Il Fiammingho (1575-1640), Francesco Cairo (1607-1665) and several other masters found work in Milan’s Golden Age of art. This was the era of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, the uncrowned ruler of Milan, who led the city to rival Rome in his support of the fine arts.

The theme of ‘The Holy Family offering Butter and Honey’ is very rare in religious painting. It refers to the words of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: ‘The Lord will give you a sign in any case. It is this: the young woman is with child and will give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel. On curds and honey will he feed, until he knows how to refuse the bad and choose the good G39 .’ This message, Morazzone wrote on a ribbon held by angels: ‘En mel o prudens Emanuel ecce butirum.’ Morazzone wrote the theme of his paintings also thus on white ribbons in other works.

The painting shows the Virgin Mary and her husband Joseph with the Christ Child. Two angels offer a golden plate with butter and a silver plate with honey. The painting is severely damaged in the figure of Joseph, but Il Morazzone painted Joseph as an old man, much elder than Mary, as was the traditional knowledge from the apocryphal writings.

The structure of the painting also is very traditional, since the group of the holy Family is shown in the form of a pyramid centred on Mary and Jesus. Morazzone drew Mary’s head inclined to the right of the frame, to bring Mary’s face more in the middle of the picture. Then, from that tip of the pyramid, lines go to the lower corners of the frame. These lines are emphasized by the direction of Mary’s head and by the axis of the body of Jesus on the left side, and on the right side by the direction of the white clothes of the angels that offer butter and honey. Such a structure favours an impression of static, of lack of movement, of lack of vivacity, in any painting. Morazzone therefore broke and softened the structure by the flowing, curved twists in the body of Mary, Jesus and the angels. Mary gently bows and brings her face closer to the angels. She therefore curves her back. The boy Jesus grasps for the butter. He thereby also turns and curves his young body, in a more natural and more nervous movement that halts the strong structure. The angel kneels before Jesus, but the white clothes of the angel are draped in so many folds that no straight line is to be discerned her also, and the angel wearing the honey breaks the line of the right diagonal. Mary’s body lies along the left diagonal, but Mary’s face and eyes come out to the right of the intersection with the right diagonal. It has often been said that Baroque art rejected in its works strong structure, but Baroque painters like Il Morazzone always based their composition on strong structures, which they than deliberately de-emphasized to gibe the final view a more relaxed atmosphere of movement and graceful curves.

Il Morazzone applied fine, soft, but pronounced hues in his painting and his colours are well in harmony with the overall mood. Mary wears a robe, the colours of which are in nice harmony with the dark background. The red colour of her robe fits with the golden contours of Jesus. Morazzone brought the same golden colours in the veil of Mary. This veil is almost transparent, brings threads of gold on her robe and lowers the contrast of the colours of her robe with the hues of her face. Mary wears also a blue cloak, and that blue fits well with the golden hues on Jesus, with the colours of the honey, as well as with the brilliant white glow of light on the robes of the angel.

The light seems to shine from the upper left. It follows the right diagonal, strengthening the structure, and goes from the little angel in the upper left corner of the frame over Mary’s face to the head and arms of the angel that offers the butter. Then the light shines brightly on the angel’s robe. The background is dark, so that the red and blue colours of Mary and the silvery white and grey of the angel’s robes are not harsh yet stand out marvellously. The blue of Mary’s cloak is a very deep blue, with black areas, so that their sombre tones support better the white brilliance of the angel’s robe.

Il Morazzone painted then Joseph in colours that blend much with the background and that choice of colours was necessary to keep the pyramid structure prominent. Joseph does not belong to that structure; he remains an outside player, so he remains outside the central view. This also was a traditional way of regarding and depicting Joseph, since he was the husband of Mary but only of a humble role in the main drama of Jesus’ birth.

Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli is an artist who does not enjoy these days the fame of a Pieter Paul Rubens or a Caravaggio. He was certainly as much the intelligent painter. His use of structure and colour is perfect in a well thought-out design. Remark for instance the fine, detailed, flawless application of chiaroscuro on the robes of Mary and of the angels. In most of his works he was a painter worthy of admiration and for which it is always worth while to analyse the pictures in some more detail to find out just how much he studied his subject and his mode of representation, how he used the style elements of the art of painting to obtain fine effects on the viewer.

Il Morazzone guides the view of the spectator from the baby Jesus to the face of Mary and from there one follows the gaze of Mary to the lower right, to the very subject of the picture, the butter and honey. Here is a wonderful play of light and dark in the various shades of white, yellow, silver, grey and bluish tones of the robes of the angel. The viewer’s eyes linger on the broad folds of the angel’s clothes. When the viewer looks back at the butter then, he or she will follow the eyes of the angel back to Jesus. One understands then why such brilliance was necessary in that lower part. Angel, Jesus and Mary are locked now onto one another by their eyes, forcing the viewer into that closed form, almost a circle, of which the butter and honey, the theme of the picture, are also part.

Morazzone could have cut the part of the frame above the head of Joseph, but then the diagonals of the picture would have had to be used in another way for the structure and Morazzone’s whole design would have to be changed from what it is now. So, the painter had an open space left above the body of Mary. Morazzone had experienced such issues of design before and a common solution was to draw little angles holding a ribbon there. So these little angels were probably not added later, but they form an integral part of Morazzone’s composition.

On the white ribbon, Morazzone mentioned the words of the Prophet Isaiah, thereby making it clear for the next generations what his picture was about. He was not a common artisan in the art of painting, but a very fine and sophisticated artist, worthy of more than common admiration.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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