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Beverley Thiel Hood
and Meaning in the Madonna della Candeletta, c. 1490 C.E.
rose, a lily, a candle, a pear, the Madonna and the Christ Child … Northern
Renaissance painting, Italian Renaissance painting? A lavish piece of art or is
it that and something much more? Carlo Crivelli, early Renaissance painter,
created a sumptuous altarpiece for the Cathedral church of Camerino, Italy in
c.1490 C.E. with a central panel entitled Madonna della Candeletta. His
art has been described as decorative, deliberate, reflective and unique!
artist, whether from pre-history or the 21st century, works in a vacuum. The
artist is the sensitive child of the society producing him / her and reflects
the values, mores, political, economic and social climate in place during the
particular time frame in which the artist is born and works. This is the manner
in which the artistic mind is molded either being compliant with or reacting to
the culture. While many artists of the Renaissance were dominated by the
artistic giants in the art centers of Italy (Florence, Venice), some actually
moved through the major trends of these centers gathering influences and moving
beyond to something wholly unique. Such was the case for Carlo Crivelli, 15th
century Italian painter, and as such bears a closer look at the times which
born to a family of painters in Venice in northern Italy c.1430-35 C.E., became
an independent master by 1457, C.E. Evidence suggests that he resided not far
away in Padua (1457-59) and then in the Marches (central, eastern Italy) until
1472 C.E. Undeniably his formation however, must have come from his training in
the workshop of leading painter, Antonio Vivarini during the years 1476-1484 C.E.
in Murano just outside Venice.
Vivarini’s workshop Crivelli learned techniques such as balance, the limited
use of gold, the use of bright colors, contrasting light and shade, figural
renderings, and naturalistic plant motifs. Even Vivarini himself, showed changes
from the sumptuous International Gothic style to Renaissance thought using a
broad visual vocabulary which included “Renaissance architectural settings and
motifs, putti with swags, antique columns, eagles perched on swags and antique
lettering.”1 “This first formation…was to
remain the matrix of Crivelli’s art, though on it he was to impose the
powerful influence of the Squarcionesques (Paduan school), and to incorporate
with eclectic waywardness borrowings from Northern art.”2
Crivelli combined Andrea Montegna’s “point
of view:” the outlining, the contours of forms, sarcophagi fruit motifs and
Jan Van Eyck’s Netherlandish attention to detail, landscapes and realism in
textiles. Literally taking what he appreciated in the styles of others and
incorporating those characteristics into his own work, he forged a unique
perception of religious painting making him “the most eclectic of the great
Venetian 15th century artists.”3
1489 C.E. Crivelli was knighted by Andrea Matteo Acquaviva d’Aragona, Duke of
Atri (1458-1529), not as a military knight but as a knight of the golden spur
for his virtues as a painter, an honor very rarely conferred. In the 1470’s
Crivelli settled in Ascoli in the Marches, a small and square area of central
Italy bordered on the eastern coast by the Adriatic Sea. Politically, the region
was shaped by preceding centuries of Imperial government and the 15th
century seems to have witnessed a constant state of civil war in the communes
and lordships of the area. The Emperors and the Papacy battled for the
territory. Relevant to Crivelli was one family in the Marches who had dominated
and been lords of their city since the 13th century known as the
Varano of Camerino where Crivelli worked and where the altarpiece containing the
Madonna della Candeletta was commissioned. The population of
Camerino was about 8,000 and it had a reputation for being wealthy and populated
for a mountainous city. His work could well be afforded in this area.
the second half of the 15th century agriculture and industry were
revived in all the Marches and professions were made into guilds. Economically,
the three cities of Ascoli, Camerino and Ancona became federated due to the
manufacturing and sales of woolen goods and the industry of dying. Crivelli
would observe here the extreme contrast in dress among the nobility, knights and
merchants and the poor. With his keen eye for detail, his paintings are filled
with the dress of those around him.
the 15th Century was rife with the plague in the Marches and in
Florence as all natural disasters were seen as God’s wrathful punishment for
sin so with no medical cures the spiritual realm became the offering for
appeasement. The building of churches, along with paintings of the Virgin, was
commissioned in an attempt to either keep the plague away or as thanksgiving for
having been spared it. Thus the political, economic and religious mentalities in
this region were such that Carlo Crivelli’s art, especially of the Virgin and
Child sumptuously clothed, was appealing to those whose means enabled the
patronizing of it.
May 10, 1488 C.E. a gigantic altarpiece was commissioned for the Duomo of
Camerino (western Marches) and was completed before April 2, 1490 C.E. The piece was signed by
Crivelli with his title of knighthood which has been noted as ‘1489’ thus further confirming the dating of the painting. This commission was for the high altar in the cathedral as a polyptych was an extraordinary
undertaking with as many as fourteen panels not including the predella. (Many of the side panels and parts
of the predella are in various museums presently.)
lower central panel was The Madonna della Candeletta with a Crucifixion
panel above it, both of which were flanked by as many as twelve saints. The
difficulty here is that in 1725 C.E. the panels were removed as high altarpiece
to another part of the cathedral and additionally the altarpiece was partially
destroyed by a severe earthquake of 1799 C.E.
No description of it in its entirety remains. Scholarly investigation
attributes at least four panels to Carlo Crivelli, one of which is The
Madonna della Candeletta.
The panels of saints are said to have been done in part by his assistants. In piecing the panels back together
at least on paper, it is speculated that the whole altarpiece must have ascended some fifteen feet above the
main altar and was a width of about eight feet. There was precedent for the configuration of an altarpiece as
in the church of Santa Croce; Florence and this may have born some influence on Crivelli at least in
The Madonna della Candeletta panel (see photo) can be examined for its
style and symbolism revealing the times and the artist, Crivelli. This central
panel measures approximately 7 ft. x 2 ˝ ft. and was done in tempera which was
mostly the medium of choice for Crivelli. The point of view is below the
painting with the horizon line being two-thirds up the panel. “Plainly the
altarpiece in its original setting rose so far above the floor of the nave so
that eyes had to be turned upwards from below to the shining splendor of its
heavenly images.”4 The specific name of this panel
comes from the candle placed at the left of the painting. It is presently in
Brera Gallery, Milan.
sumptuous painting iconographically depicts a young Madonna enthroned with the
Christ child seated on her lap. Both she and the child are clothed in rich
fabrics trimmed with jewels and on Mary’s head is a jeweled crown. Her cloak
covers partially her red gown and is held together by yet more jewels above her
breast; however, the sash around her waist is plain. Both figures have golden
hair and golden haloes. There is a rich fabric conforming to the
three-dimensionality of Mary’s head known as a dossal. This fabric with the
arch of natural forms and the marble seat combine to create an image of
enthronement and are superimposed on a gold background. Conspicuously and
somewhat randomly placed at the feet of the Madonna are a pitcher with flowers,
fruit, a flower and the extinguished candle. Yet another lower tier of marble is
rendered completing the throne.
forms of the Madonna and the Christ child are painted realistically and occupy
space three-dimensionally as is typical of Renaissance paintings of the second
style. The Christ child holds a pear with a wooden stem and the expressions of
both are quite somber. Taken at face value, the painting speaks to us in the 21st
century on one level as nothing more than a religious image of the Christian
faith inspiring the Renaissance devotee and can inspire us today as well.
Discovering the candle at the lower left of the painting might singularly
satisfy some as to its naming yet upon closer examination of the work however,
the images of the pitcher, the flowers, the fruit and candle might lead us to
look beyond the initial significance as indeed, when understood at its fullest,
the face value is a very minor part of the whole. The Madonna della
Candeletta is incredibly rife with multiple layers of symbolism. Crivelli
drew on a long teaching tradition of church doctrine which he incorporated as
visual instruction in to the work. The Renaissance mind would have understood
us now begin to uncover all that awaits our investigation. It is a fascinating
journey as we open a door onto another world that ultimately takes the knowing
viewer to Christian salvation and to the promises of an eternity through the
Virgin Mother. First the Madonna herself, figure and face, which may have been
modeled on an earlier late thirteen Century panel of the Madonna di
Santa Maria in Via still in a church in Camerino perhaps done by a local
Umbro-Marchigian painter (see photo). Purportedly this image was based on an
authentic portrait by St. Luke. Nonetheless, there is no other Madonna figure
painted by Crivelli with this type figure or long, oval-shaped face.
influences may be seen in her tall body rendered as Andrea Mantegna would have
done adding to her dignity, majesty, aristocratic grace, all things fitting for
the Queen of Heaven, a 6th century notion and a concept fundamental
to Marian devotion of the Middle Ages. Something else learned from Montegna was
the ability to foreshorten which creates the illusion of depth. In this panel,
Crivelli does so with the left foot of the Madonna projecting from just beneath
her clothing. In all of Crivelli’s Madonnas there is an idealized depiction of
her as youthful and beautiful. Purposefully this Madonna with her child follows
suit even to her plucked brows, a fifteen century notion of loveliness.
we must understand the sad countenances of both figures. In Catholic Christian
understanding, the Incarnation of Christ, Savior, is made possible through the
consent of the Virgin Mother who will bear Him. The dogma is that as humankind
sinned, redemption could be made only through a god-man, Christ, born
miraculously through the Virgin. The Christ will suffer terribly and die a
brutal death. All of Crivelli’s Madonnas had this foreknowledge, so while
there is great joy at Christ’s incarnation, the Madonna, Mother, also knows
what is to come. Thus is revealed in her reflective countenance a knowing sorrow
as she holds her precious child. This understanding transcends linear time.
Interestingly enough is the fact that the Crucifixion panel was placed directly
above this panel so that the viewer was impacted with the entire message.
Christ child is seated on the Madonna’s right knee which is also rendered
naturalistically and three-dimensionally occupying illusionistic space. His
knowing little face looks out at those who by sinfulness will cause the great
anticipated suffering He will endure as expiation for their transgressions. His
hands hold a large pear with its wooden stem supported by the Madonna, a telling
continuation of meaning regarding her consent as a part of the whole redemptive
let us probe the symbolic data of the entwined fruit, vegetable and laurel vine
which serve as a bower in the throne of Madonna and Child. This way of creating
such an image apparently came from a stock motif Crivelli had incorporated from
Padua and Venice in his youth. There is evidence that the motif was used in
Northern painting, specifically in Germany, but as it passed through Venetian
interpretation, this iconography became less delicate, more monumental and
richer with symbolism. Donatello used garlands as did other Renaissance artists
lifting the image from sarcophagi and altars in antiquity.
The bower here is comprised of pears, apples, apricots, cherries and two
cucumbers side by side with apples on the lower part of each side of the arch.
All the fruit and the cucumbers are bound together by the laurel vine and all
are rendered with exquisite detail. R. W. Lightbown states in his authoritative
book, Carlo Crivelli, that “There is no single medieval manual which is
definitive for meaning of fruit … incomparably the greatest source of symbols
was the Bible itself, either directly or in the interpretation of its
us endeavor however to sort through the multiplicity of meanings which have come
down through the ages. The pear along with the peach, the apple and the
pomegranate could be the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the
Garden of Paradise. (Notably, the peach which is Persian in origin is aptly
chosen as it comes from the area where the Garden of Paradise is thought to have
been.) All these are orchard fruits which is all that is referenced in Canticles
4:13 and in Crivelli’s day since the specific fruit was an unknown it was
perfectly acceptable to have various interpretations of it. Another connotation
for the pear is that it is a symbol for the Virgin and the Christ while at the
same time symbolizing the love of the Incarnate Child for humankind. The pear
therefore being held by the Christ child and supported by His Mother at once
becomes the complete symbol for the fall and the redemption through Christ born
of Mary. She is sometimes referred to as the Co-Redemptress.
apple, while often depicted as the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve, is also a
prefiguration of the Crucifixion in addition to representing the Incarnation in
the Virgin, the new Eve. The cherry is simultaneously a fruit in the Garden of
Paradise enjoyed by the blessed and may be held by the Christ child representing
the shedding of His blood at the Crucifixion. The pomegranate, too, is possibly
the forbidden fruit but is also a symbol of resurrection, immortality and
cucumber vegetable which figures so prominently in many of Crivelli’s
paintings and certainly here, is phallic, bitter and misshapen representing sin,
especially lust. It is also associated with Jonah and the gourd which protected
him as well as the resurrection of Jonah from the belly of the whale for three
days before being spewed out (Jonah 4:6). “Certainly
for Crivelli the fruits, which garland his paintings, seem to weigh heavily with
sweetness and sorrow.” 6
There are as many positive associations
as there are negative ones for the images of the bower.
throughout the entire arch is the laurel representing Christ’s victory over
sin. Woven together these fruit along with the laurel become a continuance of
the medieval understanding of symbolism in nature as they represent again and
again the Passion, Death and Resurrection necessary for redemption. In Venetian
art, these symbols were no longer used after 1460, but Crivelli continued to use
them well in to the1490s and always in his Madonnas.
must now move on to the remaining fruits in the painting, the one single peach
placed on the base of the marble throne by the Madonna’s right foot and a
single cherry to the left of the plinth with double cherries to the right of it.
That these fruits should be selected from any of the afore-mentioned ones is
significant. As if to whisper to us again should our thoughts stray, Crivelli
gently and beautifully reminds us of the meaning of the peach and the cherries
as forbidden fruit and redemptive fruit.
the puzzle continues to unfold, let us examine the iconography of the jug with
gilded leaves and the flowers therein. Placed significantly at the Virgin’s
feet in the center of the painting, it represents her womb filled with the
Incarnate Christ. She is the spiritual vessel and as such, the jug is decorated
with finely detailed golden grape leaves, yet another symbol of the Incarnate
Christ through the Eucharist symbolic in the consecrated wine at Mass considered
the blood of Christ. The jug is filled with lilies and roses some of which are
buds. The white of the lily is widely accepted as a symbol for purity and points
to the Madonna’s virginity. It is often depicted in scenes of the Annunciation
and sometimes held by the Angel Gabriel. The red roses are to honor her and the
white roses again speak of her virginity. She is sometimes referred to as the
rose without thorns (without sin).
with the singular fruit placed separate from the bower, Crivelli places a single
white rose on the plinth. The Renaissance devotee finds here again the Virgin
Mother. Due to his early training in Padua and Venice where symbolism was an
expected part of the painter’s vocabulary, Crivelli uses his art in this
fashion naturally. One cannot help but additionally associate this incredible
attention to detail and profound duality in meaning of inanimate objects with
the works of Northern Renaissance painters such as the Master of Flemalle, Jan
van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden of the 15th century in the
Netherlands. “But so personal to him (Crivelli) did his symbolism become that
his pupils and imitators copied from it only one or two motifs whose meaning was
generally obvious, notably the apple.”7
investigating the throne, clothing and jewels there remains one object seen only
once in the painting and from which the painting takes its name in part. At the
lower left of the work is a single, ecru, extinguished candle. This is what the
Virgin’s sadness indicates and such knowledge accounts for the distressing
countenance of the Christ child as well for it is a reminder of His eventual
crucifixion. From the bower of fruits and laurels at the top of the painting to
the jug, flowers, fruits and candle at the bottom along with everything else in
between, the entire story of the fall, Incarnation, Crucifixion and ultimate
redemption is inescapably told visually over and over again.
marble seat and plinth seems to be the most direct in meaning only associated
with a person of importance and therefore not pregnant with additional
does show in the painting of this architectural feature however, is how he
renders the colors and veins of marble. Choosing
this way over the trend of grisaille adds to the richness of textures seen on
the clothing and the rest of the painting for that matter. The architectural
feature of the throne is really secondary to the ornamentation of the fabric,
jewels, fruits etc. and yet is stately in three-dimensional appearance
manifesting Crivelli’s ability and mastery of color, textures, and detail. The
throne absolutely complements everything else in the painting via color.
fabrics of clothing for the Christ child and the Madonna as well as the dosall
behind her head and the cloth at her feet reveal many influences. Using gold,
red, pink and black with exquisite textures and patterns harkens back to
something called the International Style used by Simone Martini in late Italian
Gothic painting (14th century) and then by the Limbourg brothers in
the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry in Northern painting (early 15th
century). Additionally Gentile da Fabriano clothes his figures in similar
sumptuousness in his Adoration of the Magi (early 15th
century) and Rogier van der Weyden’s Escorial Deposition details gold
brocade on one of his figures (early 15th Century).
is a respectable tradition upon which Crivelli draws artistically both from the
north and the south. His early exposure to textiles from Venetian silks and
opulent velvets with gold embroidery must have appealed to his sensibilities in
his formation. If Florence is remembered for its sculptural forms, Venice is
remembered for its color, especially Venetian red. While Camerino could boast of
a new wealth with people whose clothing reflected that, one gathers that this
was incidental to Crivelli’s impressions. Further validating the adornment of
the Madonna and Child are writings of the visionary, St. Bridget of Sweden, who
describes her ethereal beauty and clothing relevant to her status as is that of
the Christ child. Thus in color and texture Crivelli’s fabrics are befitting
of the Queen of Heaven and her little son.
continuing we must acknowledge something which came into existence in 15th
century Italy apparently as the result of extreme excesses in clothing, jewels,
and foods etc., known as the Sumptuary Laws. While applied (albeit loosely) in
many areas and to several classes of people, one of the motivating principles of
this law was to safeguard the populace from excessive materialism and thus
immorality. Limits were placed on the amounts of jewels worn as well as colors
and fabrics. Therefore Crivelli takes all that is forbidden to humankind in his
day and adorns his Madonna and Child with the most exquisite things reserved for
the royalty of heaven. This concept is based on the idea that nothing material
is too good for the honor and glory of God and throughout the history of
has created a dichotomy of thought. The opposite stance was taken most
especially by the 12th Century monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who
railed against the expenditures and lavishness of ornamentation for church
objects at the expense of monies for the poor. Nonetheless, Crivelli’s own
tastes pulling from a long history of influences surface in all his Madonnas who
are royally and elegantly clothed. The red forbidden to the general public and
the detailed golden velvet patterns are used with loving disregard and find
their way as dress and mantle in the Candeletta panel.
on other cloths, we must note the transparent veil on the Madonna’s head, a
Medieval and Renaissance symbol of her virginity, the red and gold dossal, a
mark of royalty framing her head from behind, and the little pink tunic of the
Christ child, a color befitting and all continuing with the multiplicity of
meaning so intriguing in Crivelli’s luscious art. It must also be noted here
that the sash around the Virgin’s midriff is devoid of jewels. Ordinarily for
a person of status, this would have been decked with jeweled ornamentation. The
lack of it represents the Madonna’s humility.
an examination of the particular stones used in the Madonna’s crown, on the
clothing of both the Madonna and Child, and as a brooch holding the Madonna’s
mantle together is most fitting. Traditionally, crowns of gold with stones were
thought to be worn in heaven as early as the 6th Century. From the
early Middle Ages, stones had possessed magical powers of protection from
illnesses and all sorts of difficulties and represented many things as well as
cures. Renaissance stones continued in that heritage.
us now look at the golden crown of the Virgin with its seven fleurons (lilies /
purity) set with pearls, rubies and sapphires. This crown and stones were seen
as most appropriate for the Queen of Heaven and had been worn in Western Europe
by royalty since the 11th Century. While there were five notable
stones from medieval times, (the diamond, the emerald, the pearl, the ruby and
the sapphire), the diamond and emerald were used the least and not at all in the
Madonna della Candeletta.
have a very long history from medieval literature and art as representing purity
and virginity. The pearl additionally represents Christ, “the Pearl of Great
Price” from the New Testament and Christ in the Virgin’s womb as with the
oyster. Crivelli uses this stone in the Madonna’s crown, in her brooch and as
trim on Christ’s and her sleeves and neckline. The ruby is multi-layered with
connotations of lordship and illuminating the world as does the Madonna and the
sapphire is at once cool, serene, beautiful and hopeful. These virtues of the
Madonna and Child are extolled visually through the beauty of the gold and
can only imagine the prayers of the Renaissance faithful before this splendid
representation of the Virgin and Child. From fruit and laurel leaves, flowers
and jug, cloth and stone, countenances and candle, Christian mysteries are
visualized over and over again through the paint brush of this gifted artist who
created such sumptuous, symbolic beauty. No matter where the devotee’s eyes
wander, it is understood that Christ Incarnate through the Co-Redemptress Virgin
Mother would suffer and die for the salvation of mankind due to the Fall of Adam
and Eve. He would leave Himself in the sacrifice of the Mass and in the
Eucharistic shedding of His Blood.
Carlo Crivelli breathes into life these divine mysteries through his exquisite representations. The result differentiates him from all other 15th century Italian artists due to the symbolic naturalism in his works. He is unique. Five hundred fifteen years hence, the Madonna della Candeletta still draws us close to her, inviting us to understand on a plane more profound than words, the fulfilling part her humble “yes” played in surrendering to the will of God. Through her and the Son, the Christian mysteries are accomplished. Whether one sees the work as simply a lovely, intriguing painting from times gone by or as a means for the present day believer to experience deeper faith, we must nevertheless acknowledge and respect the intellectual, spiritual and artistic achievements of the consummate Italian Renaissance painter, Carlo Crivelli, whose exquisite Madonna della Candeletta spans the centuries touching us all on some level.
Lightbown, R.W., Carlo Crivelli, Yale
University Press, 2004, page 3.
Ibid., page 5.
Ibid., page 6.
Ibid., page 425.
Ibid., page 20.
Fisher, Cecilia, Flowers and Fruit,
National Gallery Limited, 1998, page 27.
Lightbown, R.W., Carlo Crivelli,
Yale University Press, 2004, page 8.
Fisher, Cecilia. Flowers and
Fruits, National Gallery Publications Limited, 1998.
Hall, James. Illustrated
Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art,
Westview Press, 1917.
Hart, Frederick and Wilkins,
David G. History of Italian Renaissance Art, 5th Edition,
Prentice Hall, 2003.
Lightbown, R. W. Carlo
Crivelli, Yale University Press, 2004.
Tansey, Richard G. Kleiner, Fred
S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 10th Edition, Harcourt
Brace College Publishers, 1996.
Watkins, Jonathan. Untricking
the Eye, The Uncomfortable Legacy of Carlo Crivelli,
Art International (0004-3230),
Issue: 5, 1988.
Michael W. Pathways: Civilizations Through Times Scarborough,
Prentice Hall, Ginn Canada, 1998
Aileen. Dress and Morality, Holmes and Meier, 1986.
Leigh. “Carlo Crivelli”. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 4.
Online Edition, 2003.
Thiel Hood is an Art History Major. She currently works as a secondary teacher
of Studio Art and as the AP of Art History in a college preparatory school. She
holds a MFA in Studio Art.
Thiel Hood is an Art History Major. She currently works as a secondary teacher
of Studio Art and as the AP of Art History in a college preparatory school. She
holds a MFA in Studio Art.