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Sacra Conversazione

Sacra Conversazione

Palma Il Vecchio (1480-1528). The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, the Villahermosa Palace – Madrid. 1515-1520.

The ‘Sacra Conversazione’ pictures were devotional paintings in which either Jesus Christ or mostly the Virgin Mary are depicted with saints, seemingly in private conversation. This theme developed around 1500 and became very popular. Cardinals, bishops and abbots liked the idea to have pictures of saints of their churches in the close company of Jesus or Mary and to show their patron saints in the intimacy of the divine relations. Since saints were prayed to for intercession with God, it was more the habit to depict the saints with Mary as the highest and also most benevolent of the intermediates with God. And the paintings showed the saints talking of appeals to Mary’s son. The clergy could show the complicity between the saints and Mary. Most of these pictures remain rigid in the beginning for there still was an infinite difference in distinction between any saint and the Virgin, but gradually the relations and thus the scene gave way to a kinder contact.

Palma Vecchio made one of these intimate ‘Sacra Conversazione’ scenes that is a very free, elegant, sentimental, light and even sensual painting and a nice example though not very typical of the theme because almost a scene of classical antiquity.

Palma Vecchio was a Venetian artist. Together with Titian he was the leading master of the venetian High Renaissance as both painters started to work around 1500. They were born in almost the same years. Palma made religious scenes as well as scenes on classical themes, but his devotional pictures were handled in a way that seems to be derived from his worldly, classical views. In these last he could display a frivolous treatment of subjects that were but an excuse for scenes of playful nudes. Palma painted many lascivious nudes in his landscapes and his figures were mostly luxurious women of sensuous, generous forms that were often set in erotic poises. He painted in large colour areas and in beautifully bright contrasting hues, all style elements we can see also in his ‘Sacra Conversazione’. Palma Vecchio maybe mastered not the rich palette of shades of one colour of Titian, but he surpassed Titian in brightness of tones and hues. Moreover Palma Vecchio knew as no other how to use delicate shadows on figures so as to present the round volumes of his nudes.

A woman for Palma Vecchio was much a woman, generous and sensual. A man had Michelangelo’s sculptural presence. But Palma always remained more suave, very sentimental, kind and sweet in his pictures as compared to the force and tension of Titian. Palma has become known for his portraits of voluptuous courtesans with names such as ‘La Bella’ and ‘Violante’. Palma Vecchio died in 1528, whereas Titian could mature his work well until almost the end of the century. In Palma we have a representative of Venice’s art of leisure, of courtship and courteousness, of nice living and taking the pleasures of live that the wealth of Venice could offer to some.

Palma Vecchio’s ‘Sacra Conversazione’ shows Mary and Jesus in the middle of the painting. On the left are John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene has long blond hair, the famous Venetian blond, studded with pearls, and she holds a pot of balms with which she would anoint Jesus. Or with which she had anointed Jesus, because we have here a scene of a strange warp in time since Jesus is represented as a child whereas Mary Magdalene would or had known Jesus as an adult. Such considerations were of not much concern for Palma Vecchio. Mary Magdalene’s presence presages Jesus’s death and we will find other subtle symbols elsewhere in the painting. On the right is Saint Catherine, martyred on the spiked wheel she touches, and holding the palm of her martyrdom. In the right foreground kneels one of Palma Vecchio’s patrons and the donor of the picture, the Procurator of the Venetian republic Francesco Priuli P2 .

The composition of Palma’s painting is very harmonious in all aspects. The figures are positioned symmetrically to the vertical middle axis of the frame, and that axis seems to pass in the traditional way through Mary’s left eye. Priuli and John the Baptist kneel; Mary Magdalene and Saint Catherine are behind these two. On the left is a Roman column, on the right a tree rises from the landscape. But the column is solid and dark and thus plays a role in the composition, as we will explain somewhat further. The composition seems to be in a double pyramid with the Virgin’s face as top and then going down over John and Priuli, the other pyramid’s lines going over Catherine and the Magdalene. But the main composition of masses is held below the right diagonal (the diagonal going from the lower right to the top left corner), in the large triangle beneath this diagonal. The column forms the higher solid end of that triangle. The diagonal’s direction is supported by two other lines, by the lines of John’s staff and by Catherine’s long palm. Only Catherine comes out of the lower triangle, as well as the light tree of the landscape. But Catherine’s robe is green and she almost becomes therefore a part of the landscape that is painted above the diagonal, whereas the tree of the landscape there is so light as to be almost transparent.

The diagonal line powerfully leads to the Virgin Mary’s face and since all eyes are also directed there, Mary more than Jesus seems to be the centre of attention. This suits the content of the Sacra Conversazione since Mary and the saints are in conversation, even if the scene can also be regarded as being an adoration scene of the child Jesus. Thus two themes and scenes are mixed in Palma’s painting.

Palma Vecchio must have adored painting women. In this painting also, colours and thus attention and interest of the view are in the women. John the Baptist and Priuli are painted in dark tones, even if John is showing a naked back – but that back is not muscled and so smooth as not to incite much interest. These tones are no match for the rich hues Palma Vecchio brought in the dresses and even in the faces of Mary, the Magdalene and Catherine. These hues are very saturated, bright already and then even with only brightness added to the hues to indicate the shadows. The venetian artists were the great masters of colour of the High Renaissance and this splendour is exemplified in Palma Vecchio. There is much wealth in the colours, Palma was not afraid to use very clear hues, and the colours indicate in their various shades of brightness the thick texture of the clothes. Palma was a great master in the way he applied the shadows on the ample dresses to give the viewer an impression of the fullness of the women in this painting. That fullness is of course enhanced in the elegant, kind but broad faces of the ladies. These women are opulent, healthy, content, kind and mild. They seem at ease and nothing but Magdalene’s pot of balms – and that is only on the far left, well away from the child Jesus – reminds of the drama of the Passion. This Passion is consumed since a long time so that the whole painting is a visionary symbol.

Palma added more delicate symbols in his Sacra Conversazione. Beneath John the Baptist, in the lower left corner, is a lamb. John lived in the desert with sheep, but the lamb is a reference to the sacrifice of Jesus. We already mentioned the Magdalene’s pot of balms and Catherine’s wheel of martyrdom. Below the Virgin grows a cactus and she stands higher than the other figures. Behind Jesus, against the tree grows a laurel, indicating Jesus’s royal descent. We see the massive tree behind Mary and Jesus. That was often a style element used by painters to place the main characters against a vast and darker background so that their colours would shine more. Such a tree or a column was also used to underscore the importance of the main figures. Out of that tree grows a new sprig, just above Mary’s head, a symbol of new birth and life.

Palma Vecchio was not a proficient landscape painter, even though he liked forest scenes for his classical themes and he painted trees, bushes and foliage in a wonderful way. Like the Florentines however, human figures were more important for his pictures. The landscape in his Sacra Conversazione does create nice depth and the village on a hill forms a balance of shapes with the laden left part of the picture.

What strikes most in Palma’s painting is the overall sweet and charming liveliness of the figures. Palma Vecchio reached various effects of movement. Mary holds an arm upward in a slanting direction. There are two such slanting directions in the body of the child. John and Priuli kneel, and that is an occasion to show oblique positions. The Virgin Mary holds her head inclined while she looks carefully at her child and while she blesses Priuli in an instant action. So indeed the scene is an intimate linking of figures, all in motion of a private scene. Such effects are of course very far away from the rigid attitudes of the Throning Madonna’s or Maestà’s of the thirteenth and fourteenth century.

While we analysed and remarked so many nice elements of art in this Sacra Conversazione of Palma Vecchio, we cannot but grant this artist the qualification of being a great master and artist. Yes, Palma was sentimental and too bucolic sweet, and not so powerful in his scenes. But his presentation is an ode to the art of painting and the diligent combination of style elements in a harmoniously balanced way. The liveliness of the Sacra Conversazione is impressed on the viewer in a subtle and intelligent way and strong composition directs the lines, colours and forms. Palma Vecchio’s painting is readily accessible to all and very efficient in its objectives. We feel the secular handling of a religious subject, but that in a respectful way, in respect for the subject and for Palma’s own feeling of art.

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