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The Virgin of the Rosary

The Madonna of the Rosary

Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). Oratorio del Rosario – Palermo. 1624-1627.

The Antwerp painter Anthony van Dyck was in Sicily, in its capital Palermo, in the years 1624 and 1625. He was probably called there to paint the portrait of the Viceroy Emmanuele Filiberto of Savoy. Palermo was a thriving town, with a long history of links to Spain and Spanish possessions in the Mediterranean. Many Flemish painters such as Jan Brueghel the Younger, Willem Walsgart, Gaspard de Momper, Jan Basquens and Hieronymus Gerards or Gerardi worked there B10 . One of the most important pictures van Dyck made in Palermo was the ‘Madonna of the Rosary’. It was commissioned in 1625 by the Dominicans for the Oratorio del Rosario that stands beside the monastery of San Domenico in Palermo. The deed drawn up to order the painting stated that the Dominican saints Dominic, Vincent and Catherine of Siena had to figure on the picture together with the local saints Rosaria, Christina, Ninfa, Olivia and Agatha B10 . Van Dyck made three sketches of different designs out of which the clients could choose.

The rosary is a sequence of prayers consisting of the ‘Hail Mary’ and the ‘Our Father’. The words of Elisabeth in the Visitation scene as told by Luke were the basis of the ‘Hail Mary’. The prayer starts as ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. This is the most spoken little prayer of all. The ‘Our Father’ is the prayer as taught by Jesus himself and as recorded by Matthew. The sequence of prayers, ten ‘Hail Maries’ to one ‘Our Father’ is supported by a rosary, that is a string of beads that end in a small crucifix. Each small bead is for a ‘Hail Mary’, a larger bead or a bead in another colour is for an ‘Our Father’. One has to follow the beads in one’s hand and cite the prayers as one passes from one bead to the next. Every Catholic Christian has a rosary. Although its use diminishes, it still is the first item that accompanies a believer going to church or on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, Compostela or other. These prayers have been spoken by billions of devote humans over so many centuries. They are often recited in choir by thousands.

The painting of van Dyck is a very professional image, made to please his clients in the full counter-reformation and Baroque area. So, it is a picture full of sentiment and drama. There is much to see, much to admire by simple souls and the whole is a splendid image of movement and emotions. The Virgin is much more the active Sicilian matron than the elegant, humble young girl. She presents the rosary to Saint Dominic and tries with the other arm to hold a very energetic, nervous baby who struggles against her hold to play with the other angels. Jesus is not the modest, earnest baby gently sitting on the lap of his mother. He is an Italian child full of life and very interested in anything that moves close to him. Putti, small angels, well in flesh are flying all around, also presenting rosaries or flowers, the roses and lilies that are since always associated with Mary. One angel even holds a flower crown over Mary’s head. This view is set against a classic arch that is filled with the blue of the sky, the same colour as Mary’s cloak.

Beneath Mary, holding out his hand to receive the rosary, is Saint Dominic Guzman. Dominic founded around 1200 the Black Friars and he indeed wears in van Dyck’s picture a black cloak over his white shirt. Dominic founded communities in many countries and his tomb is in Bologna. The Dominicans were devoted to studying and teaching the New Testament as well as to preaching and praying. Saint Vincent Ferrer is shown somewhat lower and more in the dark than Dominic. Vincent was a Dominican too. He was born in Spain, but from English parents. He lived from 1350 to 1419 and was very much devoted to prayers and preaching. He had an important role in ending the Avignon schism in the times when there were two Popes, one in Avignon and one in Rome. Vincent holds a dish with roses, the emblem of the Virgin.

On the other side of Dominic, likewise clothed in the black and white of the Dominicans, stands Catherine of Siena. Catherine lived in the fourteenth century. She was a virgin devoted to prayer. She nursed and helped the sick. She also allegedly played a role in urging the two and three Popes to end the schism of Avignon. Catherine had prophetic visions, which she dictated in her letters and Dialogues. Her emblem is a lily, which is several times recurrent in the picture.

It is difficult to determine who are the other female saints Rosaria, Christina, Ninfa, Olivia and Agatha in the picture. Christina is more a legendary figure than a known and documented saint. She was from Bolsena in Tuscany. Christina supposedly was tortured in various ways and finally shot by arrows. So, Christina could be the lady on the left holding the arrow to her hearth. Agatha was a Sicilian saint, born in the third century in Catania. She also was tortured many times and she holds the martyr’s palm in her hand. She may also hold a small sprig on fire, because on one of her anniversaries Mount Etna erupted but the Catanians were saved from destruction after they had prayed to Agatha G41 . As the true Sicilian Saint she has a place of honour next to Catherine. The other female saints Olivia, Ninfa and Rosaria are much less well known. So van Dyck has only pictured them partly. Rosaria may be the lady in the middle devotedly looking at the Madonna. Her name promised a more prominent place than the two other ones, which are mostly hidden the one between Dominic and Vincent, the other between Christina and Agatha.

Van Dyck has added an anecdotal element in the picture that may have delighted some of the less refined Sicilians. A putto, but a child and not an angel, is looking at a skull on the ground near the lower end of the frame. The head, half enveloped in a cloth apparently still smells badly. So the child holds his nose and frantically points at the dish of Vincent’s roses that probably smell more nicely. This could be a strange allegory on the victory of the Virgin, designated by the roses, over death and putrefaction as indicated by the skull.

Van Dyck obviously took pleasure at making this vivid picture. He used bright colours and yet also darker tones to bring space in the picture. The lower part of the picture, where the saints stand, are in dark and white but a red patch and a blue patch answer the colours of Mary. Van Dyck has also shown his strength in anatomy in depicting the angels with their little wings and the nude child of the lower foreground. He added majesty by the putti angels, motherly care in the matronly Mary and was asked to bring a powerful assembly of saints together. Van Dyck was the ultimate professional. He was asked to paint an altarpiece and knew how to satisfy his clients with details that could please them, according to local taste. The ‘Madonna of the Rosary’ thus became a Baroque painting full of life and in lively colours that matched the Sicilian sun and the Sicilian character.

Taste had definitely changed between the Gothic fifteenth century and the Baroque seventeenth century in Brabant. A picture like van Dyck’s was far more designed to astound and to please than to express spirituality. The glory of God and the Virgin was shown by exuberance instead of by austere zeal. Yet, the religious feelings are still present; attention only shifted to more outward appearances of overt emotions than to the representation of the silent intense glow of inner spirituality of the Flemish Primitives.

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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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