The Medieval Review 10.01.09

Williamson, Beth. Madonna of Humility: Development, Dissemination and Reception, c. 1340-1400. Bristol Studies in Medieval Cultures, Vol. 1. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2009. Pp. 195. $95.00 ISBN- 978-1843-83419-9. .

Reviewed by:

Gabriele Neher
University of Nottingham

In this substantial and meticulously researched study, Williamson engages with the iconographical type of the "Madonna of Humility," a composition of the Virgin and Child seated on the ground, that was popular in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and widely disseminated across Italy, Sicily, Majorca, France, Catalonia, Bohemia and the Low Countries. As suggested by the author, previous studies of the Madonna of Humility, following the lead of seminal work published by Millard Meiss in 1936 ("The Madonna of Humility," Art Bulletin 18 [1936], 435-64) have often focused on identifying the "ur-Image," or prototype of the variants of the image that developed in the fourteenth century, to the detriment of examining the developing variants of the image in their own right. Williamson argues that scholars have overlooked "conscious and specific decisions about inclusion, omission, alteration and adaptation on the part of patrons and artists" (1). Instead, the present study, with its emphasis on development, dissemination and reception of the type of the Madonna of Humility "avoids the paintings being locked into a tired and unproductive discussion about the influence of a lost, unknown painting, and instead allows them to be understood positively and directly, rather than as the reflection of something else" (1-2). Notions of cultural exchange in the Middle Ages, with all their complex interchange and adaptation of motifs establishes "deliberate conceptions or reinterpretations of an image in their own right, and they will become more culturally and historically meaningful" (6).

The study is structured around 8 chapters, arranged in three parts, and framed by a very helpful introduction and a brief conclusion. Part I, "Development," establishes a working definition of the image-type of the Madonna of Humility before focusing, in particular, on examples of the image in Avignon and tracing early appearances of the image. The first chapter, "The Madonna of Humility: Descriptions and Definitions," provides an introduction to the complex iconography of the "Madonna of Humility." In its simplest form, the image depicts a seated Virgin Mary on the ground, with the infant Christ in her Arms. Variants of the image show the Virgin nursing the Christ child, and there may be a start burst, or a moon, associating the Virgin with the Woman of the Apocalypse. She may be facing either left or right; the image is sometimes placed against a gold or a blue background, and the shape or size of the panel may vary; some images are on canvas, some on panel, some form part of an altarpiece, others are depicted in fresco. Four early examples of the image survive from the 1340s and 1350s (Bartolomeo da Camogli, 1346 [Palermo, Galleria Nazionale], Roberto d'Oderisio, c. 1345 [Naples, Museo Nazionel di Capodimonte], Simone Martini, c. 1341 [fresco. Avignon, Palais de Papes], Lippo Memmi [?], ca. 1345-50 [Berlin, Gemaeldegalerie]), with the earliest a fresco executed by Simone Martini for Cardinal Stefaneschi's funeral monument in Avignon. In fact, following Meiss' lead, scholars have assumed that the origin of the image type of the Madonna of Humility lies with Simone Martini, who not only executed the fresco for the Stefaneschi monument, but has also been suggested as the author of a lost prototype of the "Madonna of Humility" executed on panel. It has been thought that this "lost" prototype inspired the various examples mentioned above, each exhibiting a distinct and localised variant on the Simone Martini "prototype." Williamson, as already outlined in her introduction, is sceptical of the concentration on a sole "prototype" and suggests instead a genesis of the image type that argues for a key role for manuscript illumination in Metz as a source for the developing iconography of the "Madonna of Humility." Williamson emphasises the evolution of the composition from the figure of a woman seated on the ground, the Woman of the Apocalypse, to the figure of the nursing Virgin Mary seated on the ground and accompanied by apocalyptic references that distinguishes the mature iconography of the Madonna of Humility. She examines a group of manuscripts produced in and around Metz and persuasively traces such a development; the particular attraction of Williamson's hypothesis lies in the fact that a source for the Madonna of Humility motif in French manuscript illuminations does explain the early development of localised variants.

Chapter Three turns to a consideration of such Early Appearances of the Image in Naples and Palermo, turning to the examples of the already mentioned Madonna of Humility by Bartolomeo da Camogli, dated to 1346 (now Palermo, Galleria Nazionale) and Roberto d'Oderisio's version from c. 1345, originally in S. Domenico in Naples. The third image in this group was executed by an anonymous Neapolitan painter for S. Pietro a Majella. Williamson traces the dissemination of the image from Avignon to Naples and Sicily via the strong connections between the Neapolitan Anjou- frequent visitors at the Avignon court--that allowed for familiarity of Neapolitan patrons with the composition. In all instances though, the images were adapted to the devotional demands of their patrons, introducing the range of variants that distinguishes the iconography of the Madonna of Humility.

Subsequent chapters in Part II, "Dissemination" pursue the assimilation, appropriation, and adjustment of the image in a number of case studies, focusing on Bohemia and Siena and Florence. Chapter Four, on Bohemia is concerned with the particular devotion to the Madonna of Humility displayed by Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor Elect. Charles IV was widely travelled, highly cultured, cosmopolitan--and seems to have brought a particular predilection for Italianate art to the court at Prague. Charles actively enlisted relics, religious devotion and the use of sophisticated visuals in his promotion of his dynastic claims to the crown of Bohemia. The cult of the "Madonna of Humility," especially focusing on VyŇ°ehrad, was an important part of his ongoing efforts to foster Bohemian art and language (99), and part of this strategy was the development of an artistic style "mixing French and Italian art, and for the production of a variety of Italian art especially palatable to patrons with pre-existing penchant for French style" (99). In other words, the imagery of the Madonna of Humility matched Charles IV's personal devotions, adapted to his cultural and national context. Williamson uses the Bohemian dissemination of the cult of the Madonna of Humility, largely restricted to the 1360s and 1370s and closely associated with the immediate Court of Charles IV as a case study that draws attention to the "local interaction of, on the one hand, innovation and assimilation of outside sources and ideas with, on the other, established local tradition and identity" (111).

These ideas are developed further, in Chapter Five, Siena and Florence. Arguably, the evolution of the type of the Madonna of Humility, attributed to Simone Martini, and his close associate Lippo Memmi, places the image within the context of Tuscan, and especially Sienese devotional practices. Williamson here raises the question of the relation between the type of the Madonna Lactans, the Virgin Mother suckling the Christ Child, with the distinct yet cognate composition of the Madonna of Humility which may include a depiction of breast feeding. She argues that in these Sienese panels the emphasis is on the Virgin's humility and her role as prime intercessor, emphasised through the depiction of "maternal care, familial relationships and close identification between the viewer and the Virgin and Child' (123). In Florence, in another local adaptation of the motif, the apocalyptic elements of the Madonna of Humility came to be emphasised, and this lent itself to the promotion of the theme in altarpieces; Williamson is here careful in stressing that variants of the Madonna of Humility theme responded not only to local preferences, patrons' devotional concerns, but also to the form, size, function and medium of a particular interpretation.

These issues are examined in the final part of the book, Reception, again broken into three concise and closely interlinked chapters. The discussion opens with Chapter Six, Image and Ideal, which brings together some of the ideas Williamson first engaged with in her doctoral dissertation on The Virgin Lactans and the Madonna of Humility in Italy, Metz and Avignon in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Courtauld Institute, 1996). She examines assumptions with regards to breastfeeding and nursing, challenging the view that social and class prejudices led to an increased use of wet-nurses in fourteenth-century Italy. Instead, Williamson draws on a range of important Trecento sources, in particular Francesco da Barberino (1264-1348) and Paolo da Certaldo (after 1350) in order to support her argument that breastfeeding was seen as the preferable and best option, and that women--regardless of class--nursed their own children, but ceased to do so as soon as they became pregnant again. The quality of pregnant women's milk was considered to be inferior; so, Williamson suggests, far from looking at wet-nursing as an expression of a disdain of nursing, it should actually be considered as an expression of concern with regards to the health of the infant. She also suggests that nursing a child per se was NOT an expression of humility and that the Virgin Lactans and Madonna of Humility were two distinct image types, and conceived by contemporaries as distinct, if related.

Chapter Seven directly addresses the issue of Using the Madonna of Humility. The first uses of the motif, in the 1340s and 1350s in particular, belong within the context of funerary commemoration. Bartolomeo da Camogli's 1346 image was made for a flagellant confraternity, with the dissemination of the image resulting in a wider adaptation of the motif across a range of formats including domestic images and altarpieces. Williamson states that "the variety of formats in which the Madonna of Humility image is found in its early years indicates that however it was originally conceived it came to be regarded as suitable for a number of functions, and that it had a variety of associations and significations" (149).

An emphasis on the role of the Virgin as intercessor is common to all of these examples; acting as an intercessor emphasises the maternal aspects of the Virgin's relationship to God, and draws attention to this in her action of nursing the Christ Child. This was therefore a particularly popular variant of the image type, widely disseminated and often found on small panels, suitable for devotional and/or domestic use. Williamson has further identified panels from within the context of convents, sometimes in the use of diptychs (which were also popular in Northern Europe). She suggests a close link between "function related to devotion and a concern for intercession" (153) and argues that different functions relate to different variants of the image; for example, the strong Eucharistic connotations of the Virgin Lactans motif may have underpinned the prevalence of the nursing Madonna of Humility motif for altarpiece use.

In her final chapter, Responding to the Madonna of Humility Williamson turns directly to issues of the perception of the iconographical type of an image when faced with inscriptions. The composition became associated with humility as early as 1346: Bartolomeo da Camogli's Palermo panel bears the prominent inscription of N[OST]RA D[ON]NA DE HUMILITATE, whereas other early images often display no words at all. Again, the versatility and adaptability of this type should be emphasised. Ultimately, Williamson suggests that "the image now known as the Madonna of Humility might have become associated with the concept of the Virgin's humility [...] as a result of its connections with the original manuscript form, with the Annunciation. For [...] it was at the Annunciation that her 'salvation-bringing' humility became most apparent" (174).

She concludes her engaging study with a celebration of the richness and multiplicity of meanings inherent in the cultural, artistic and social construction of late medieval and Renaissance art: "images, and visuality, were absolutely central to medieval devotional practice, to the construction of identities (individual and corporate), and to the relations that were set up by individuals and groups between their identities and their devotional practices" (178).

Far from closing debates on the Madonna of Humility, Beth Williamson has opened up the reading of the image type in its devotional context in a stylish, beautifully written and thought-provoking study.