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Adoration by the Virgin

Mary and her Child; Adoration in the Forest

Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-1469). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie - Berlin. Around 1459.

The ‘Adoration in the Forest’ is a truly beautiful picture. It shows nice, warm colours, no harsh tones. The background remains unobtrusive. One forgets easily to look what is behind, so that the view remains to the mother and child. The scene is idyllic: a sweet family setting. Everything is delicate and pure. There are not many figures, so the picture remains intimate. Colour areas are round and soft. The figures are caught in natural poises, full of loveliness. God the Father looks benevolently and compassionately from above. Universal harmony, beauty, peacefulness are in this painting. You could print this picture on Christmas Cards and sell it endlessly. Yet, the Adoration is not a simple bucolic picture: it is a complex painting, with profound meaning.

The scene is round as a tondo: the figures form a circle in their natural movements. The Lady Mary, in a magnificent blue hue catches the eye first. This blue contrasts completely. It seems a little too obvious: it makes Mary stand out of the picture and it is a bit too ample so that the symmetry of the figures is broken. But Mary has all the right to catch our eye; her adoration after all is the primary subject of the painting.

The veil of the Madonna is transparent. Filippo Lippi exercised all his art to make us feel the frailness, vulnerability and exquisiteness of the young lady. Her hands are delicately held together in prayer and show the orange sleeves in the same subdued tones as the robe. She is seen knelt down and reverent. The old monk is only shown in part, his only functions seems to be to form the link between God the Father and the shepherd boy. His cloak is red, but bears the same sweet hue as Mary’s robe. Finally, our eye view goes on to the child, indeed in the last place. He rests in soft grass, white flowers of innocence and purity around Him.

Blue pigment was obtained from lapis lazuli or azurite, both quite expensive. It was sparingly used in the fifteenth century. Here it is lavishly applied, diluted pastel-like to marvellous colour, and that magnificent blue really makes the picture. Gold is used for the aura, and gold lines go down from the pigeon. Gold can be found also in the stars around God the Father, in the auras of God the Father and of the Child. This also was expensive. The use of these ingredients seems only normal for such a holy subject, but still: Filippo Lippi had to have rich sponsors for this painting. The most wealthy Medicis of Florence ordered the painting, for their own house chapel D1 .

The monk is supposed to be Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the founder of the Abbey of Clairvaux in the Citeaux order D1 . Bernard wrote against the self-indulgence of knowledge (he argued and won against Abélard in this respect), and he preached full abandonment to the higher love of God. Bernard wrote around 1120 four ‘Homilies in Praise of the Virgin Mother’ and commented the message of the Annunciation. Bernard recognised in Mary all the virtues he sought in monastic life: humility, obedience, silence, withdrawal, intimate prayer, and the personal union with God in love. His presence in this picture is logical since he was one of the earliest defenders of the theory of the virginity of Mary. He emphasises the mysticism of the scene. So does the environment: the dark forest, the loneliness, and the isolation from the world. Bernard also brings the harmony of the father figure in a family to the painting. God the Father cannot bring that harmony; he is too formidable. But the goodly figure of Bernard is well suited to bring that element.

The shepherd boy is John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. The boy John holds a ribbon on which can be read ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’, Behold the Godly Lamb. John is the only figure looking at us; he conveys the message to the viewer. The water that he is always associated with, needed to baptise, runs in a nearby brooklet.

The pigeon represents the Holy Spirit so that the picture is also a representation of the Holy Trinity of Catholic faith: Father, Spirit and Son. God the Father rules the Universe: the strings of stars emanate from Him.

There is an axe under John the Baptist and next to the Child Jesus. This refers to a line in the Gospel of Luke: ’The axe is already put at the roots of the tree. The tree that bears no good fruits will be hewn and thrown in the fire’. The saying fits nicely with the forest scene, a cut tree and cut wood is on the right of the picture in symmetry with the message. There is a straight line between the axe, the Child Jesus and the cut tree. This Child will destroy the bad fruit, cut down the rotten trunks.

Although the general impression of the scene is round, there is a triangle in the structure of the painting. God the Father is at the top of the triangle, the base line is the Child Jesus and the line between the axe on the left and the cut wood on the right. Both the movement of the body of Mary and the direction of her head point to God the Father. The staff of John the Baptist also points to God the Father. The base of the triangle is horizontal to form a solid base that adds to the restfulness of the picture, yet enough slightly oblique to not be obvious and too straightforward. The Holy Trinity is formed in a direct vertical line from God the Father to the Child, accentuated by the rays traced from the Holy Spirit to the Child.

All the figures are shown in natural attitudes; they are caught in movement. God the Father opens his arms, but somewhat obliquely, thus not in a static position, and he looks down. The boy John seems to be stepping down and also holding his gown together so that he not stumbles. John looks somewhat puzzled at us, as if astonished to find a viewer. He has a broad, round face. This is a characteristic of Filippo Lippi’s paintings: you find these broad faces of youths, both boys and girls, in all his paintings.

The naturalness, fluidity of motion, is what Lippi brought new to paintings. Of course there is a whole evolution in this respect from before Lippi and we can follow how the austere poses of figures of Giotto and Duccio in the fourteenth century begin to change through Simone Martini and Gentile da Fabriano. But none before Lippi dared to present these Holy Saints in such a normal, natural way. The same can be said of the environment. With Duccio, Cimabue and even still later on in Masaccio, Domenico Veneziano, Andrea del Castagno – who were his contemporaries - the figures are set in closed, restricted environments that always give the impression of chapels, very often emphasised by the forms of the frames. Most often in these early paintings there is no background at all, just a single colour area. Paolo Uccello who lived in Filippo Lippi’s times, also set his battle and hunting scenes in complete surroundings such as forests, but he too stayed bound to very strict rules (Uccello was obsessed by the laws of perspective) and stiff figures. And although again, Gentile da Fabriano, then Lorenzo Monaco and Domenico Veneziano started to bring in trees and flowers in the background, one of the first painters to seem to break loose from traditional rules and one of the first to set his paintings in natural surroundings, is Filippo Lippi. Lippi’s pupil, the flamboyant Sandro Botticelli, would continue this.

We often forget the chain of master-pupil relations in Renaissance paintings, but many masters were inter-linked. Filippo Lippi was a young Carmelite monk in Santa Maria del Carmine and saw Masaccio paint frescoes there. He was himself the master of Botticelli. Filippino Lippi, the son of Filippo Lippi, was brought up by Sandro Botticelli after Filippo Lippi died. Filippino was then about twelve years old. Filippino Lippi remembered the images of his father. He made for instance pictures of the ‘Apparition of the Virgin to Saint Bernard’, now in the Badia Church of Florence, thus recalling the prominent place of Bernard de Clairvaux in his father’s scenes.

Painters had to learn from other painters: how to mix oil and pigments, which pigments gave which colours, the first rudimentaries of applying colours harmoniously, the art of perspectives. Thus chains of master-pupil developed in Italy. Lorenzo Monaco taught Fra Angelico. Gentile da Fabriano was master to Jacopo Bellini, who taught his two sons Giovanni Bellini, and Gentile Bellini, and also Vittore Carpaccio. Nicolosia Bellini, sister to Giovanni and Gentile, was married to Andrea Mantegna. Andrea Mantegna’s adoptive father and master was Francesco Squarcione, who also taught Giorgio Schiavone. Giovanni Bellini taught Giorgione. Both Tiziano Vecellio and Sebastiano del Piombo worked under Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione. Gentile da Fabriano was also the master of Domenico Veneziano who taught Piero della Francesca. Piero della Francesca in his turn taught Luca Signorelli and Pietro Perugino. Perugino also worked in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. Pietro Perugino taught Raphael Sanzio. Leonardo da Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi were taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio and Antonio del Pollaiuolo frequented the workshop of Alessio Baldovinetto. Michelangelo’s teacher was Domenico Ghirlandaio, who was pupil to the same Alessio Baldovinetto. Giorgio Vasari worked a while in the bottega of Michelangelo. Piero del Pollaiuolo was brother to Antonio Pollaiuolo and pupil of Andrea Castagno. Castagno was a friend of Domenico Veneziano. Piero di Cosimo worked with Cosimo Rosselli and so obtained his name. Piero di Cosimo taught Andrea del Sarto. Jacopo Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino were taught by this Andrea del Sarto. Jacopo Pontormo was teacher and practically father to Agnolo Bronzino. And so on, and so on. The connections between all these Florentine, Venetian, Parma and Padua painters were very, very strong. Thus, tradition was continued and renewed, constantly added upon.

Filippo Lippi lived from around 1406 to 1459. He was an orphan; his mother had died not long after his birth and his father died when he was two years old. He lived a time with his aunt but she found it difficult to bring him up and sent him at eight to the Carmelite monks of Florence. So Filippo saw the fresh works of art of Masolino and Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel of the Carmine. But he was not destined to remain a monk, contrary to Fra Angelico. He did not want to live a life of chastity. At the age of seventeen he threw off his friar’s habit. Filippo was praised for his paintings and he received enough commissions to be able to live and to live well. He had an adventurous life. Giorgio Vasari recalls in his ‘Lives of the Artists’ written around 1550, that once when Filippo was in a boat off Ancona he was seized by a Moorish galley and taken to Barbary in captivity. Luckily he made a portrait of the head of this slave master and was freed from the chains. Filippo Lippi worked then in Naples, and in Florence again. He enjoyed the friendship and protection of Cosimo de Medici. Vasari told that “Fra Filippo was so lustful that he would give anything to enjoy a woman he wanted if he thought he could have his way; and if he couldn’t buy what he wanted, then he would cool his passion by painting her portrait and reasoning with himself. His lust was so violent that when it took hold of him he could never concentrate on his work. When he worked in Cosimo de Medici’s house, Cosimo had him locked in so that he wouldn’t wander away and waste time” G46 .

In Prato, near Florence, Lippi worked with Fra Diamante in the Carmelite convent. He caught sight of a beautiful nun and fell in love with her. Filippo was so desperately in love with this Lucrecia Buti, that he eloped with her. Luckily, the monks were understanding at first. Then they were less. It helped that Filippo already had found a strong supporter and Maecenas in Cosimo de Medici, the most powerful merchant of Florence. Cosimo de Medici intervened for Filippo Lippi with the Pope. The Pope Eugene wanted to relieve Filippo and his Lucrecia from their religious vows so that they could marry. But Vasari wrote that Filippo Lippi refused, even though he had a son by Lucrecia. As Vasari mentioned, Lippi wanted to stay free for his desires and his art.

Lucrecia Buti stood model for the ‘Adoration in the Forest’. She was the Virgin Mary. Her son Filippino who was born in 1457, when Filippo Lippi was around fifty years old, probably also was the model for the child Jesus D1 .

Lucrecia Buti stood model for other Maria paintings. A very similar painting, also an ‘Adoration in the Forest’, was made in 1463. This painting is now in the Uffizi Museum in Florence. In that painting we find similarly a Madonna in blue and kneeling before a baby in the grass, the John the Baptist wearing the Agnus Dei ribbon is also there, but stands to the right, whereas Saint Bernard has moved to the lower right. This picture is of somewhat lower pictorial quality than the one in the Berlin museum.

In what times did Filippo Lippi lived and worked? In the middle of the fifteenth century, Florence was Cosimo de Medici’s. Cosimo lived from 1389 to 1464, and succeeded to his father Giovanni at the head of the bankers and merchants family in 1429. The Medicis already had at that time a network of subsidiaries. Their banking house in Bruges for example was held by Giovanni Arnolfini who was painted together with his wife Giovanna Cenami in 1434 by Jan Van Eyck: the famous ‘Arnolfini Marriage’. (There is a complex story around that picture. It is no longer certain that Arnolfini was married, nor are art historians still certain who was the lady in this picture.) Cosimo wanted supremacy of Florence for the Medicis. This shocked many aristocrats and he was imprisoned in 1433, but he saved his life by bribing judges. He was banned from the town but returned triumphantly the next year. He was ruthless then: almost a hundred aristocrat families had to leave Florence and were banned in their turn that same year 1434. Cosimo de Medici was only the first among the Signoria of Florence, but he would create a generation of Florentine rulers that would last until 1737. The Medici would give two queens to France (Maria and Catherine) and three Medicis would become Pope (Leo X, Clement VII and Pius IV).

Cosimo guaranteed peace in the Florence of Filippo Lippi: he made a pact with the Sforza family of Milan, with Francesco Sforza. This Sforza made a pact with Francesco Foscari; the Doge of Venice and this triangle league of Venice-Milan-Florence was so strong that no other Italian city-states armies seriously dared attack it. The French king, who always threatened the north of Italy, was still bound in the Hundred-Year War against England. For instance: Joan of Arc was burnt in the marketplace of Rouen in 1431, when Filippo Lippi was 25 years old. So, Florence itself lived in peace and arts thrived with the wealth. Cosimo was a merchant and banker. Merchants can make lots of money by wars, but they generally prefer peace, security and free travel to trade. Of course the peace eventually came to and end: Francesco Foscari of Venice was Doge only until 1457, Cosimo de Medici died in 1464 and Francesco Sforza of Milan in 1466. The end of the Hundred-Year war between France and England came around 1450 so that gradually France turned its attention to Italy. All that meant the end of a precarious peace. Let this view not be too idyllic. Francesco Sforza was one of the worst dictators of Italy and also the Medici were usurpers of power, more than servants of the state.

Yet, during Filippo Lippi’s painter’s lifetime, Cosimo de Medici secured peace between 1434 and 1466.

Cosimo de Medici also cared for the helpless: he had Brunelleschi build from 1419 on the Hospital of the Innocents. From 1445, this hospital was to care for foundlings that could be left anonymously in a special place of the column hall in front of the building. Along that column gallery, in the façade, were masoned the white and blue majolica’s of Luca della Robbia presenting foundlings in swaddling clothes. Filippo Lippi, who was an orphan, must have appreciated.

Painters that worked a little earlier than Filippo Lippi in magnificent Florence were Masaccio (1401-1428) and Masolino (1383-1447). Simone Martini (1284-1344) and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (both around 1280 to 1348) continued the tradition of Siena. Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427) worked in Florence in 1425-1426, Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425) was born in Siena but also worked in Florence. The tradition and style of Siena was powerful, also in Florence. Filippo Lippi has inherited the softness of the Siennese painters and combined it with the rational mind of Florence.

The contemporaries of Filippo Lippi were Piero della Francesca (1420-1492) who travelled a lot, worked in Ferrara from around 1446 and later in Arezzo. Contemporaries also were Lorenzo di Pietro (1410-1480) and Stefano di Giovanni called Sassetta (1400-1450) who worked in Siena. In Florence worked at that time Andrea del Castagno (1421-1457), Alessio Baldovinetto (1425-1499), Fra Angelico (1400-1455), Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), and Domenico Veneziano (1400-1461).

Filippo Lippi painted the ‘Adoration of the Forrest’ for the small altar of Cosimo de Medici’s private chapel in the Medici Palace of Florence. The altarpiece was surrounded by frescoes that covered the walls of the room. Benozzo Gozzoli painted these frescoes in the same year as Lippi’s panel. The scenes on the walls show an ‘Adoration of the Magi’, recalling the Pope’s Council of Florence of 1439 and its splendid processions of the East-Roman Emperor and the Italian grandees of the times. Benozzo Gozzoli also painted part of the frescoes in the Campo Santo, the Holy Graveyard of Pisa. Gozzoli and Lippi thus both worked for ‘Adoration’ paintings in the Medici Palace.

The Italian Renaissance started in pictorial art with the painting in 1427 by Masaccio of the Holy Trinity fresco on a wall of the church of Santa Maria Novella. The Renaissance was a very fertile period for art. Filippo di Ser Brunelleschi (1377-1446) built the cupola of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore during 1418-1436, so Filippo Lippi must have fully witnessed the works. Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) made the famous doors of the Baptisterium of Florence from 1425 to 1452; Filippo Lippi must have seen their inauguration. The most famous sculptor Donato di Betto Bardi called Donatello lived from 1386 to 1466. He worked between 1418 and 1425 on statues for the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore and the campanile of Giotto. Lippi must have seen them installed. Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) was the theoretician of Renaissance architecture. He lived in Florence from 1434 to 1436. He built the façade of Santa Maria Novella in Florence from 1456 on, so that Filippo Lippi also saw this master at work.

When one reads these names and their accomplishments, one can only wonder at the magnificence of these artists, all true geniuses with formidable skills in their professions. These men undeniably and forcefully shaped European civilisation. They were mostly born in the cities where they worked, this was particularly true for Florence, but they travelled among the Tuscan cities and knew each other.

Among them, as one of the greatest, was Filippo Lippi. More than any other of that time, he opened up Tuscan art to sweetness of representation and to realism of nature. From him on, there were no real rules anymore in ways of representing people in nature. Of course, it would still take many hundreds of years until this ended in the total liberty of what we now call modern art, pop art or abstract art. Painters like Giotto had made the first definite but still hesitant steps. Filippo Lippi took the first major step.

This place in painting he shares with nobody of his time. There was only one other artist that could contend with his place and that was the sculptor Donatello. Donatello went even further than Filippo Lippi. But sculptors are by definition more free than painters are. Painters are prisoners of the frame, and of the flat surface. Sculptors can work in the unbounded three-dimensional space. Lippi made two-dimensional presentations as free as they can be. His paintings are resplendent, free in form, harmonious, and rich, the expression of people who believed for the first time in history that man really ruled the world and could accomplish anything he set his mind to. Filippo Lippi’s paintings radiate sweet confidence in the divine providence and in the benevolence of Mary, Christ and the Saints.

Cosimo de Medici protected Filippo Lippi during his lifetime. The subsequent Medici rulers honoured him. Lorenzo Il Magnifico appealed in the late fifteenth century to the citizens of Spoleto to return Lippi’s body for the cathedral of Florence. But the Spoletans answered that they did not have the monuments of too many famous people in their own city. They desired to keep the body of the genius painter and Lorenzo de Medici had to satisfy himself by erecting a cenotaph to the memory of Filippo Lippi. G47

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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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