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The Guardian Angel

The Guardian Angel

Carlo Bononi (1569-1632). Pinacoteca Nazionale. Ferrara. Ca. 1625-1630.

There are many instances in the Bible in which angels are mentioned. They then appear in the earliest texts as emanations of God, parts of God that appear on earth and act. The angels are God. In later texts the angels are more described as entities that are independent of God, entities that are sent on earth by God, do God’s will and represent God. The angels are then messengers of God, but spiritual creatures that seem to be able to act independently with free will. The Bible names two kinds of angels, called Seraphim and Cherubim. These are often depicted as red and blue angels. The belief in angels and guardian angels is common, but their existence remains unproven.

Guardian angels are spirits that protect a particular person in his or her spiritual life. The existence of guardian angels has not really been defined by Roman Catholicism, but belief in their existence is widespread. The belief in guardian angels is very close to the belief in a personal God, in a God that accompanies every person and that knows what he or she does at every moment, and that is therefore aware of every act of a person and can protect a person from spiritual deprivation. Belief in guardian angels as a personal agent of intercession with God is of course very attractive and a very consoling and powerful concept for lonely people. The guardian angel protects a person from temptation and evil and it is this idea that Carlo Bononi painted in the seventeenth century. The theme is relatively rare in religious painting.

Guardian angles are often associated with children or young people. Children are most in need of guidance, also of spiritual guidance, so that the task of the guardian angel is supposed to be to lead the children to the path of faith and of the right faith. There are various mentions of personal agents in the Bible too, the most obvious being the angel that leads Tobias on his journey in the Book of Tobit. The guardian angels would also lead the dead to heaven and it may also well be such an image that Carlo Bononi had in mind when he painted one of his masterpieces.

Little is known of the life and deeds of the Ferrarese painter Carlo Bononi, born in 1569 and who died around 1632. Ferrara was a town of Northern Italy, ruled from the middle of the fourteenth century until the end of the sixteenth century by members of the famous d’Este family. It had always been a buffer state between Venetian and Papal territories, but the Dukes of Ferrara had been able to guarantee their independence. The Duchy of Ferrara was incorporated in the Papal States after 1600 and lost much of its lustre afterwards, but for more than a century and a half the d’Este rulers governed reasonably well, exerted charitable rule, guarded, expanded and embellished their city. Ferrara’s court attracted artists during this period and painters as important as Andrea Mantegna, Garofalo, Dosso Dossi, Ercole de Roberti, Cosimo Tura and many others, among which in Bononi’s own years also Scarsellino and Guercino brought their art to Ferrara. These are all grand names, and more could be cited, so that from the Renaissance to the Baroque eras Ferrarese art was as interesting and resplendent as the art of Milan, Florence and Rome.

After 1600, Ferrara was deprived of much of its art works. Its sculptures and paintings were transferred to Rome by the cardinals that governed the city. The last Duke of Ferrara, Cesare d’Este, moved his modest court to Modena and ruled there over a much smaller territory than before. Pope Clement XVIII Aldobrandini sent his nephew, Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, to take possession of the Este treasures. The negotiations over the surrender of Ferrara were not held with Cesare d’Este but with Lucrezia d’Este, Duchess of Urbino. It was an error of Cesare to allow Lucrezia to speak for Ferrara, for Lucrezia’s lover, Count Ercole Contrari, had been assassinated on the order of Cesare’s father, Alfonso do Montecchio. Cesare may have forgotten that act, but not Lucrezia. Cesare d’Este was the son of another branch of the d’Este than Lucrezia. Alfonso d’Este, the previous Duke of Ferrara and brother of Lucrezia, had died without children. The passage of Ferrara from d’Este rule to the Papal States was signed in 1598 in what has been known to history as the Capitulation of Faenza B25 . The army of the Pope occupied the city in the beginning of 1599. The finest paintings of the d’Este court were transported to the Aldobrandini Villa at Frascati. The minor works were sent to Cesare, to Modena. Ferrara’s art was dispersed and never recovered its former splendour.

Carlo Bononi saw the beginning of this change, and he saw the transition from d’Este rule to Papal rule. When Guercino understood from where most commissions would come and moved to Rome, Bononi was the foremost painter of a city that was merely one of many provincial towns in a state that centred power and art in Rome.

Carlo Bononi’s ‘Guardian Angel’ was made on a commission of the Ferrarese noble Sigismondo Carpi to serve as an altarpiece for the church of Saint Andrew of Ferrara B25 . The picture may have been painted in 1620, when Bononi was just over fifty years of age and in a period when papal government must have been absorbed and well established.

The picture is of the Baroque style, but of the Classicist trend in that art. Classicism was all about order and clarity of representation, Baroque all about exuberance and emotions. There are few personages in Bononi’s picture, as was common in Classicism. We see an angel, a young man and a devil. The main figure is the guardian angel, which shows to the youth the glory of the angels in heaven. The youth kneels beneath the guardian angel. A devil grasps the shoulders of the youth to draw him away from bliss to hell, but Bononi shows the youth in such a solid poise that the viewer notes immediately that the devil will not so easily push the youth down. The devil therefore merely touches the youth and does not seem to exert much power.

Bononi painted the angel and the youth in poises that prove their feelings, but the artist did not bring the figures to very dramatic or tragic expression in gestures. The figures are painted in a quite static poise. The angel stands, looking at the youth, touching the youth’s front with his left hand, and he points with his right arm to the heavens. In those heavens we see a bright, golden light and the faces of many little angels. The guardian angel smiles reassuringly. Only his splendid wings could add drama to the scene, but Bononi did not paint them in exalting hues that contrast with the mood of the picture; he used the same hues almost as the in the rest of the picture. The youth is on his knees, looks in beatitude at the heaven, but otherwise shows no particular exuberant feeling. He holds his hands crossed over his chest in a gesture of protection. The youth is more turned into himself. The devil crouches behind the youth and grasps the man, but the youth seems oblivious of that touch. After all, the angel touches the youth also, so the devil’s grip has no power. Bononi painted the devil not as a terrible dragon or snake, but as an ordinary man. He painted the devil discreetly, only in part within the frame, and only two small goat’s horns on the devil’s head indicate evil. Bononi could hardly show a powerful, threatening devil in a painting that had to stand on an altar of a Ferrarese main church. So, it would be difficult to paint a devil more discreetly than he did in his ‘Guardian Angel’. We can hear the deans of the church pray to Bononi, ‘Do not scare our people away’.

The body of the guardian angel dominates the picture. One could imagine an artist of the Carracci family of nearby Bologna, or Guido Reni, to have shown an angel thus. These painters were the greatest masters of Classicist Northern-Italian seventeenth century art. Carlo Bononi was a great master of painting too, however, as testifies the marvellously sculptured nude body of the angel and – to no lesser extent – of the youth. The structure of Bononi’s picture is also simple, as demanded by Classicist art.

Bononi used the pyramid as the main structure of his scene. The top of the pyramid is the angel’s head. The two sides of the pyramid go down to the two lower corners of the frame. In that opened triangle, Carlo Bononi painted the knelt youth in light colours, on the right. To the left, Bononi merely painted a mass of very dark colours. The structure in colours thus supports the movement of the angel, for the outstretched arm of the guardian angel is situated along the right diagonal. This was the second main element of structure in the painting. Along this right diagonal Bononi not only placed the gleaming body of the angel, but also the body of the youth. The heavenly light shines from above over the angel’s chest, along his splendid and nude body, onto the youth and continues then to the lower right corner. If Bononi had placed another figure to the left of the frame, or any other feature of prominence, and painted this in light hues, then that figure or element would have distracted the viewer from the main scene and broken the effect of the wonderful bodies. The structure of the ‘Guardian Angel’ is thus a proof of the skills in composition by lines and colouring of Carlo Bononi. The diagonals of Baroque always brought movement and elevation in a picture, whereas a pyramid structure guaranteed stability and rest. Bononi combined the two diligently, in the most simple way, providing a powerful image to the viewer combined with spiritual elevation (along the right diagonal), and an imposing view for the altarpiece.

The painting would have stood high on a massive altar of the church of Saint Andrew. It would inspire feelings of humility in any church-goer, since the viewer would recognise himself or even herself in the beautiful youth at the feet of the angel. The youth is almost naked, deprived of any possessions, merely a representation of the soul. The youth sits low, in a very humble position, with his eyes directed to the heavens. Such was also the fate of Ferrara after its capitulation to foreign rule. The people of Ferrara could use some support from the heavens since they had lost support of their banished Duke. Bononi thus reserved a lesson in humility for the pious people of Ferrara, who also must have made the link between the picture and the fate of their city.

Bononi supported the movement of the angel inconspicuously by a few details. A thin, long, high bush stands just to the left of the angel and bows in the air, yielding to a wind that comes from the right. It bends in the same direction as the angel’s outstretched right arm. A little further, to the left side of the frame, a tree trunk bends also to the left, again in the same direction, parallel to the right diagonal, and upwards, to the left. Such visual elements support the main view of the picture.

Bononi placed the landscape of trees and of a farmhouse low, so that the angel looks all the more imposing, larger than the world. The angel seems to ascend from earth. The guardian angel rises up, so that Bononi emphasised also much the purely vertical direction, the direction to the sky, to heaven. Bononi would not have been a great master had he not deviated a little from the too obvious slanting lines. So he made the angel bend a little to the right. The angel is therefore more in a vertical poise. He had to do that of course, for otherwise his structure would not have been stable for too slanting, and it would have seemed as if angel would plunge down to the left. The inclination of the angel’s body to the right provides balance in the picture and it is a welcome diversion from the all too powerful right diagonal. There can be no fine artist without delicate intelligence. Such touches prove Carlo Bononi to have been a grand master of painting.

The Ferrarese artist showed that also in the colours he used for his painting. Bononi applied a fine harmony of hues and of tone, for he painted in nice, very subdued brown and orange hues overall. He brought the nude bodies of the angel and of the youth in bright golden light, in hues and tones which are again in fine harmony with the background colours. If he had done that for the entire painting, the work would have been boring. So he painted a patch of contrasting light pink almost in the middle of the frame, in the cloak of the angle. That allowed him to demonstrate his skills at chiaroscuro and at sculpting body volumes through cloth, but also to separate the bright parts of the bodies of the angel and of the youth. The pink area helps to bring balance in the painting, in the structure, and nice variety in the colours. Note a master at work!

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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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