All art in civilization expresses the religious belief of societies—from the Egyptian statues to the Greek temples. The collapse of Rome and Byzantium paved the way for the rise of the Holy Roman Empire and the resurrection of Italy as the artistic powerhouse of western society, spearheaded by Medici patronage and the flourishing Italian economy. The visual arts finally began to accumulate prestige for the artist with the ascendancy of perspective, anatomy, and classical interest. The High Renaissance served as a trailblazer for pyramidal grouping, gesticulations, tranquil balance, chiaroscuro and facial psychology.
Alessandro Allori is a religious Florentine painter whose work is featured at an exhibit of 45 paintings and tapestries on loan from Florence’s Uffizi Gallery at the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale at Nova Southeastern University. The Italian Uffizi Museum itself is a famed and ancient art museum erected by Cosimo de’Medici in 1560. The artworks at Fort Lauderdale’s “Offering of the Angels” exhibition are categorized into three dim rooms. The first room features the Garden of Eden; the second introduces the miracles of Christ. And the third room holds images of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Tapestries, illuminated manuscripts, and paintings all lead towards the very last painting in the exhibit: Alessandro Allori’s “The Grieving Madonna with Symbols of Christ’s Passion” (1581).
The inherent consciousness in the Madonna’s face at a first glance comes across as gentle. On deeper thought, it could even be called compassionate as she stares at relics from her son’s Crucifixion: three nails used to nail him to the cross, the Holy Grail, and a Crown of Thorns looped around the jeweled goblet’s base. She clutches the Veil of Veronica—an acheiropoeita that once wiped the sweat from Jesus’s brow—which is wrapping around a crucifix.
Orphaned in sixteenth-century Florence, Alessandro Allori was raised by mannerist genius Agnolo di Cosimo, better known as Bronzino—Cosimo d’Medici’s court painter. Scholars often note the enamel smoothness of Bronzino’s depictions of flesh, best exemplified in his “Cupid, Folly, and Time,” (c.1546). However, he could also be very subtle, as in his “Portrait of a Young Man,” which revealed calculated nonchalance yet a void of personality. Indeed, Bronzino’s tendency to restrain color surfaces in this portrait—a trait that Alessandro Allori gravitated towards while painting “The Grieving Madonna with Symbols of Christ’s Passion.”
Alessandro Allori almost aims to give a statuesque quality to his characters, perhaps influenced by Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco of the Sistine Chapel. The depicted Madonna’s detached indifference is customary of pre-Baroque Mannerism. Her face is neither twisted in grief nor venomous in fury, but rather as gentle as a seraph. Her flawless marble skull is bent forward slightly with little hint of humanizing emotion. The oil paint almost drips shadow off the canvas, yet her brows and a streak of shadow are the only hints of darkness on her otherwise pallid body.
Billowing around her are the voluminous garments that smack of the drama High Renaissance is known for. Her dark drapery fades into the undefined darkness of the background, consequentially highlighting her hands and face piercingly. Drawing attention to her pallid hands and the Veil of Veronica, her dark sleeves have been lightened at significance of heightened detail. This is the very last painting in the exhibit, placed next to the exit by a relatively brilliant threshold of light, and this placement seems to underscore its solemnity and importance. It is as if the exhibit wishes to stress the message in this painting above all else—if only one meaning is taken from the “Offering of the Angels,” let it be this: forgiveness.
Indeed, her thin lips and Mannerist slender hands do little in terms of convincing realism. However, “The Grieving Madonna with Symbols of Christ’s Passion” symbolizes more of an idea than a person. No earthly, regular woman could endure the grief of watching her son tormented, flagellated, and executed with not so much a bloodshot eye. Yet she rests in quiet, contemplative prayer over her child’s torture devices. Crowned in cloth, not a halo, she breathes in quiet beauty, as if in sacra conversazione with the Passion’s items. The three nails used to pound Christ’s hands and feet into the cross rest within a goblet of wine. This wine, of course, is darkly paralleled to Jesus’s blood. The chalice itself has been meticulously rendered with patterns from floral Merovingian antiquity, bedazzled with jewels and fashioned from gold—a highly romanticized cup for a carpenter’s son. And at this moment, her youth becomes noticeable. Pioneered by Michelangelo’s Pieta seventy years prior, the Madonna’s beauty, contemplation and youth became trademark for the Renaissance’s Virgin.
Now, the rough texture of her cloak seems strikingly coarse compared to the silken Veil of Veronica. Immediately, the relic’s brightness seized the audience’s glance—now, it brings attention to the face, down through the sleeves towards the hands, dripping back into the shroud. Shadow takes the eye to the inscription on the table: “Nonvisipensa quanto sangre costa,” which translates roughly to, “They do not know how much blood it cost,” in her sorrow as she stares at the chalice filled with blood. Only then does the crown of thorns wreathing the goblet call attention to the Holy Grail, which glimmers lustrously and notably departed from whatever light source illuminates the Madonna. The grisly image of the three nails floating in blood haunts the painting even as they point back towards the Virgin Mary’s smooth face.
The nails themselves are curiously crooked, as though they were pried off the mutilated body of Christ. Similarly, the three bent nails symbolizes the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. These nails seem to transform the wine into blood—which is the basis of the Catholic Eucharist, as per its removal in later Protestantism sects. This synthetic, gilded chalice holding something so prosaic as blood not only serves as a metaphor for the Eucharistic clergy to reiterate the purity of Catholicism, but also as the actual body of Christ, orbited by the black crown of thorns. As this grim crown circles like barbed wire, the deathly shadow of the goblet is seen to have been cast over the table beneath the heartbroken Mary. The somber darkness of the balanced painting causes viewers to sink into the sorrow of the relatively serene Madonna.
Curiously at the end of the “Offering of the Angels” showing in Fort Lauderdale, “The Grieving Madonna with Symbols of Christ’s Passion” summarizes themes found throughout the Uffizi Gallery: victimization, sorrow, forgiveness and Catholicism. Blood and relics haunt the painting’s almost disturbing tranquility with reminders of the Crucifixion. However, Alessandro Allori does not allow a moment to stress the supremacy of Catholicism to pass. Within the dark room of the gallery, his painting serves as a summary to the overarching themes omnipresent throughout the Uffizi.
Max Gleber is a senior at Pine Crest School in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. In the fall of 2012, he will attend Northwestern University where he plans to study at the Medill School of Journalism. His passions include art history, piano performance and pediatric genetics.