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Museum Visit II: The Inner Life of Madonna and Child

The depiction of Jesus in Christian painting is an the attempt to capture the absolute subjectivity of a divine figure in a world of finitude. This is the feature in Romantic art which allows an absolute subject of a depiction of Jesus, or countless other divine figures — to become embodied in the finitude of an anthropomorphic figure.1 It is a process of “turning the human form … into an expression of the Absolute” while withdrawing “the inner into itself”, the inner being “the spiritual consciousness of God in the individual”.2 The manner in which Romantic art embodies a divine subject in an externally contingent finite form, turns the subject into an expression of the Absolute ideal. As summarized by Hegel:

To attain its infinity the spirit must all the same lift itself out of purely formal and finite personality into the Absolute; i.e. the spiritual must bring itself into representation as the subject filled with what is purely substantial and, therein, as the willing and self-knowing subject.3

Painting allows Romantic art to register the expression of an Absolute subject and convey its infinite subjectivity embodied in a work of art. The way in which religious figures are depicted in Romantic art, is a process that has been constantly refined within the art itself. Hegel generalizes Romantic art as a style which worked out a way of expressing the soul and the inner life of a figure. With early icons, it is evident how the Absolute figure of a divine mother and child are being attempted to become embodied in a human figure, as observed in Berlinghiero Berlinghieri’s Madonna and child.

Madonna and child by Berlinghiero Berlinghieri, c. 1230
Madonna and child by Berlinghiero Berlinghieri, c. 1230

At this stage, the body expressions are not worked out to the extent that they are completely liberated from family obligations and political life,4 which in later Romantic works would become better concealed, while representations of absolute subjectivity becomes better elaborated. Although even in initial stages of Romantic art, the individual subject and its inner life, starts to acquire infinite worth; a feature that to some extents, draws a few resemblances to the successes of Classical art. Classical art’s success was in the ability to realize an ideal of a human figure in a statue, but it lacked entirely in the ability to depict an inner life of an absolute subject. The reconciliation of the inner life with its reality is also displayed in the Classical ideal as well, but is not worked out as a reality beyond a “spirit’s bodily organism”.5

Romantic art gains a higher ground due to painting; contrasting with Greek sculpture, which lacks the ability to convey a figure’s “light of the eye”6 — a feature that only painting can achieve since is capable of revealing a figure’s inner subjective spirit. The manner in which this inner subjectivity is conveyed by the use of gazes among subjects, is a feature that evolves chronologically in the history of Romantic art as such. As this feature of gazes evolves, so does the face expression — a development that can be observed in Duccio’s Madonna and Child, made 70 years after Berlinghieri’s Madonna and child.

*Madonna and Child* by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c.1300 Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna, c.1300

As Romantic art continues its detachment from heroic deeds, family obligations, and political life; it starts to depict other forms of activities as functions of the absolute subjectivity, such a breastfeeding. As observed in Virgin and Child by the Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine, the nursing Madonna is breastfeeding a figure Jesus which resembles an infant more than it did in previous examples of works. The working out of the ideal of a baby Jesus, from what was initially a figure of a man — is an example of a detachment from whatever superficial obligations of the subject are — into a subject whose absolute subjectivity is detached from its externality and whose inner life is realized as subject-matter.

The depiction of breastfeeding is a representation of divine or maternal love, which Hegel refers to as “the most beautiful subject to which Christian art in general, and especially painting in its religious sphere, has risen”.7 In Virgin and Child, the act of breastfeeding goes beyond the reality of the “spirit’s bodily organism”8, which allow it to become an ideal representation of love in its inner life. This love is not conveyed in a manner that instructs the biological obligations that the spectator must partake in, nor a representation of an absorption of a person in another limited person; but rather, an Idea of love in its universal and Absolute form.9 Divine and maternal love as subject-matter becomes successfully universalized in Romantic art, which brings the inner life of an absolute subjective to its ideal. The spectator’s gaze of an elaborated Romantic artwork, is no longer the most important end for the realization of an artwork’s spirit, instead, it becomes a mere mean for the realization of an artwork’s subject-matter for itself and in itself.10

*Virgin and Child* by Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine, c. 1490-95 Virgin and Child by Master of the Legend of Saint Catherine, c. 1490-95

  1. Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and T.M Knox. Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998. Print. p. 518 

  2. Hegel, p. 520 

  3. Hegel, p. 518 

  4. Hegel, p. 520 

  5. Hegel, p. 540-41 

  6. Hegel, p. 520 

  7. Hegel, p. 824 

  8. Hegel, p. 540-41 

  9. Hegel, p. 541 

  10. This last sentence may be somewhat speculative, but it appears that within Romantic artwork, the viewer (or the spectator) is no longer the final nor the end of a realized artwork. In Symbolic and Classical forms of art, a work can be fully realized once it becomes possessed by the viewer’s gaze. In Romantic art however, the viewer’s gaze is no longer a fundamental feature since the artwork is already worked out in its absolute form, and the addition of a viewer’s gaze is no longer necessary for the realization of a painting’s inner Absolute. 

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