Updated: May 7
When I studied art history in a program at the Petit Palais in Avignon, one of my classmates was an adorable lady of 94 years, Simone, who knew the religious iconography of Medieval and Renaissance painting better than most experts. It was her considered opinion that between Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, Angelico was by far the more spiritual in his painted imagery. Lippi was much too "earthy" in Simone's estimation. Okay, spoiler alert: the lovely Virgin Mary and the chubby, little, angelic infant in the painting above are most probably Lucrezia Buti, the nun with whom Lippi fell in love, and their son, Filippino (yes, you read that right). So in that sense, I am sure that Lippi was more earthy than Fra Angelico, a monk who supposedly cried whenever he painted a crucifixion. However, given the highs and lows of Fra Filippo's life and the fact that as an orphan he had been raised by the Carmelite Order, I think that Fra Filippo had a well-developed sense of the spiritual as it manifested on earth, and a critical look at this painting might just show that.
The painting is the Madonna in the Forest, sometimes called the Adoration in the Forest, done in 1460 as the altar piece in the Medici Chapel inside the Medici Palazzo in Florence. The room, which now has electric lights, was once lit only by candlelight. How fitting, as the mural paintings represent the three Magi making their way by starlight, carrying tremendous wealth, wearing exotic garments, transporting even more exotic animals, and trailing a huge following of courtiers, all to arrive at this nativity scene, set not in a stable, but in a darkened forest. The darkness of the forest fits in nicely with the murals, which are really just gigantic nocturnes, whose gold, silver, and colors only would show dimly in the candlelight. However, that darkness and the density of the trees in Lippi's forest create a mystery that can be given spiritual meaning as well.
Probably the first thing that catches the eye in Lippi's painting of the Madonna is her pale blue robe. The Virgin Mary was often painted wearing blue, but a deep blue, a more matronly shade of blue. Here the young Mary actually looks young and very delicate, dressed as she is in that celestial blue robe, the light color of which lifts her out from the darkness of the forest. The infant lies on a bed of flowers and grass as comfortably as he might in a manger or a bed, the fair color of his body making it stand out against the dark foliage. Moving up to the left of this scene, one sees John the Baptist, as a slightly older infant. He wears a light red robe over a rather hairy looking shirt, a harbinger of the life he will lead as a young religious radical in the wilderness. Above the Baptist is St. Bernard, yes Bernard de Clairvaux, who was known to champion the idea of the virgin birth. (Oddly he is here amidst a fabulous display of painted images, something that he railed against in his 12th century writings and debate with Abbot Suger, who proposed that people needed images to comprehend the messages of the Bible.) Finally on high is the image of God, the Father, looking down, as the dove which represents the Holy Spirit sends golden rays down to the Christ Child - the perfect trinity. Fra Angelico would have been so pleased.
Yet Lippi's figures almost float against the odd background of this forest, a forest that seems to fade into the dark without any decided vanishing point. The lack of defined one-point perspective and the light figures set mostly in front of this dark tangle of trees create a rather illusory effect, like perhaps a vision. Backgrounds in nativity scenes had often been done with just flat solid color, mostly gold or golden drapery. Gold was considered an appropriate background to symbolize the divine, other worldly space that these holy figures existed in. Fra Angelico's Madonna and Child from 1450-55 was exactly like that, as you can see below. However, compare that to the Lippi's Madonna and Child from just a bit later, which seems to have a window onto an earthly landscape. So we are brought face-to-face with these two different expressions of divine subjects. Angelico's is done in a rather abstracted form with a baby that seems more a symbolic representation than a real child. Lippi's is more down to earth, as in the Madonna in the Forest, where the child and Madonna are portraits.
Now, don't get me wrong. I love Fra Angelico's paintings for what they are, late Medieval, early Renaissance painting with a strong overlay of miniature painting. His use of rich materials and his adherence to a certain style of representing images in somewhat ethereal ways set him apart for many as a painter of the spiritual. Lippi on the other hand brings the story into the physical world, just as in the gospels, the spirit of the Christ was born into the body of a human, with all that it means to be human.
Beyond just that when we look at Lippi's life, what do we see? He was an orphan child raised by monks, who became a monk but was unsuited to the temperament of the order. He was a fabulous painter and very practical about his work. When Fra Angelico turned down the job of painting the interior of San Stefano in Prato because the walls were not perfectly suited for such paintings, Fra Filippo took the job. He painted the Life of John the Baptist and the Life of St. Stephen regardless of the less than perfect walls, and the paintings are still there. There he met Lucrezia, a nun only because it was a way to avoid the horrendous marriage planned for her. They fell in love and had two children, Filippino (who became a well-known artist) and a daughter, Alessandra. Shock and scandal, yes, but Filippo was a great artist and protected by Cosimo de Medici, so Filippo and Lucrezia were allowed to leave the order so they might marry. It is not sure they ever did, as Filippo was a lustful soul, though he always still signed his name as Frater Philippus. This might have been his way of indicating that he had the spirit, but the flesh was weak.
So here he is late in a life of unusual circumstances, and yes, quite an earthy fellow indeed. His life was not all golden light, a la Angelico, as it also held his lusts and passions. Yet when we look at the Madonna in the Forest and see such beauty floating in front of a dismal, deep, potentially frightening dark woods, we see the work of someone in the last part of a life that had led him at times deep into the dark woods. However, he also emerged and could paint that very beautiful human baby as the embodiment of a divine being. So perhaps Fra Filippo's life experience allowed him to look upon the life of Christ as the way an individual soul could return to God. I hope dear Simone, wherever she is, will understand my point that to know the light, one has to know the darkness, and Fra Filippo is a good example of that struggle.
So what do you think of Fra Filippo's painting? How does that dark forest affect you? Log in to tell us about it.
For more on the Procession on the Magi painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici Chap