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  • Neil Chappell

Dirty-footed, yes, but surprised by peace

A notably controversial picture by Caravaggio does not figure in the exhibition that has been pulling in the crowds at the National Gallery in London. The Madonna of Loreto, painted at a time when in England Shakespeare was at the height of his powers, shows a man and a woman, identified as pilgrims by the staffs they hold, kneeling awkwardly in front of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus - not a new-born babe but a toddler, quite heavy to hold. A beautiful but ordinary woman, no queen enthroned in heaven, Mary seems to be standing on a doorstep, next to a wall where the crumbled rendering exposes the bricks beneath. But what caused a row in 1606, when it was finished, were the pilgrim's dirty feet. Caravaggio's enemy Giovanni Baglione (the Salieri to his Mozart) singled them out, along with the woman's grimy bonnet, as offences against religious art.

What is going on in the picture? Both the sacred Mother and Child and the kneeling pilgrims have been called naturalistic in the way that they are painted, yet the incident recorded is not at all natural, but supernatural. These pilgrims had plainly journeyed to Loreto to see the holy house that was reputed to be the very one in which the Virgin Mary once lived at Nazareth (a house transported from there miraculously, the story went). Evidently the humble pilgrims are seeing more than the sculpted image that was kept there: either in their minds' eye, or as an apparition, they see the object of their devotion, Mother and Child, as flesh and blood. And that is what the artist shows us.

As often with saints in art, Mary is depicted barefooted (as is the Child, naturally enough). In heaven, going barefoot is no trouble. On earth, as the pilgrim shows, it means muddiness, cuts and calluses. To us in the modern world it seems quite right, though it didn't to Baglione, for a painter to include the mud. Today too, when contemplating Christmas each year, newspapers feel obliged to mention the hardships and sufferings going on in the world. These are always available. This year they cannot be overlooked. In the very region of the globe where the first Christmas dawned, a terrible war has left uncountable mothers and children homeless, hungry, chill and footsore. The surprising thing is that the idea of Christmas is so cheerful, considering the homeless family in a stable, considering the massacre of children by the wicked tyrant Herod, considering that the sweet child born that day would in the prime of life be put to a desolate death. Yet he is called the Prince of Peace - not a supercharged peace-broker, but a man embodying peace, and confident that his being brought low did not mean the end for peace, but a new beginning. If he is to be believed, that's something to cheer anyone.

How then can peace come? Slowly, that much is clear. Rorate caeli, says the Advent verse: "Drop down ye heavens from above and let the clouds rain down the just one." In a line from In the Bleak Midwinter, Christina Rossetti, by daring repetition, expressed perfectly that gradualness: "Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow." She pointed up too the paradox of the ruler of heaven making himself a vulnerable child: "Enough for him, whom Cherubim / Worship night and day:/ A breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay."

We may feel anguish that there seems nothing we can do to stop horrors like the murderous war in Syria, any more than Mary could stop the murderous schemes of Herod. She had to flee with her Son. For he is on the side of the innocent victims; he has been there himself. That is why the dirty-footed and the grimy-bonneted pilgrims kneel before him, and the language of their bodies tells us that they find peace.

(This article originally appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday 24th December 2022 - all copyright belongs to them. The Caravaggio image is in the Public Domain.)

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