Art is always open to multiple interpretations. It is clear just from the average viewers’ reactions to the same piece of art at the exhibition. Modern art has the power to derive strong responses from the audience. Paintings from the UoFo Museum of Art are another confirmation of that. The first glance at the exhibits can make one confused. To be more precise, the older paintings from this museum are quite puzzling. One of the paintings strikes the eye immediately. It is “Madonna and Child with Music-Making Angels” by Jan Gossaert (or Mabusse). This oil painting belongs to the first half of the 16th century. Many consider this painting to be strange and confusing because it is full of inappropriate elements like the absence of visual contact with the audience, the landscape, and angels-musicians.
To start with, both Madonna and little Jesus do not look at the spectators. This is very unusual since the characters of most of the icons and paintings look at the audience. Visual contact is very important to those who look at such paintings. Next, the choice of the background is a mystery. On one hand, Madonna is sitting on some kind of throne, which is quite expected and appropriate. On the other hand, the reason why she is sitting outdoors is unclear. As a rule, the members of the Divine Family are always depicted either in heaven or in front of some one-color background. Maybe the author wanted to make the picture original. Alternatively, he might have wanted to show that Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ are very close to people. If saints and the members of the Divine Family are not in royal apartments, they are not so remote. Another weird element of the painting is the canopy. Although it adds some solemnity to the composition, it also creates the effect of beetling over. In any case, it is probably one of the canonic elements in depicting Madonna and the Child.
Finally, angels with musical instruments are quite unusual to be depicted in a painting. Probably they are there to entertain little Jesus, and so they play their musical instruments. Some people feel that the image reveals how close Madonna and Jesus are to the human world. They enjoy being surrounded by beautiful nature. Besides, they enjoy listening to human instruments.
To be objective, one should learn more about the artist and cultural background of the painting in question. Jan Gossaert was born in Maubege, a small French town near the border with Belgium, from which his nickname Mabusse is derived. He was one the first Netherlandish painters who visited Italy and it influenced his works a lot. According to Marian Answorth, this painting reveals Roman influences in the works of Jan Gossaert. “The view of modern Italian painting and sculpture that Gossart was thus offered would have a long-lasting effect that can be seen in the works he produced after his return to the North” (Answorth, 2010). Besides, Gossaert was the inventor of Romanism in art. His artistic experience resulted in unique mixture of Italian Renaissance style and tendencies of the North. Jan Gossaert became famous by painting religious artworks, portraits, and utilizing mythological subjects.
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Gossaert’s decision to paint Madonna and the Child reflects the tendencies of his time. According to Answorth and Christiansen, the cult of the Virgin was very popular during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They describe such painting as follows, “the significant demand for this devotional image suggests that the type was highly regarded for its spiritual value, perhaps because miracles or indulgences were associated with it” (Ainsworth & Christiansen, 1998). Not only were Madonna and the Child popular religious subjects of the time, but also these depictions had their own widespread and accepted genre peculiarities. For instance, general tendencies of that time were depictions of such genre elements as flowers, landscapes, “altering the strictly iconic presentation of the early works” (Answorth and Christiansen, 1998).
Next, Gossaert endowed his painting with several symbolic elements and specific images.
Answorth and Christiansen provide the interested parties with an exhaustive interpretation of the angels-musicians presence. According to these authors, “Music-making angels […] were often included in representations of the Virgin and Child to evoke the joyful choirs of the heavenly realm” (Answorth and Christiansen, 2010). Apart from that, angels’ task was to evoke multiple popular hymns sung to the Virgin to praise her virtues such as mercy, kindness, and charity. One more symbolic element of the painting is a parrot. A sixth angel presents the infant Jesus with a parrot, and Jesus responds with a gesture of blessing. It was believed the parrots could say “Ave,” the Latin greeting used by the archangel Gabriel to greet the Virgin Mary and announce that she would bear the son of God. The parrot, thus, became a symbol of the Annunciation and Mary’s purity and innocence (Cohen, 2008). Inserting these elements was a way to add more meaning to the painting.
Now, by learning more about the artist’s background and historical context, people change their perception of the painting. Popular initial interpretations are limited and do not account for the historical significance. To modern people, the images of Virgin Mary do not have the same value as they did in the past. The secular world does not pay as much attention to paintings of the Virgin and the Child. On the contrary, such paintings are rarely the subjects of popular exhibitions. Therefore, it is impossible to see the whole picture, without reading more on the subject. Otherwise, the interpretation would be far from the actual meaning of the painting. Besides, the painting makes more sense afterwards. Jan Gossaert painted his work keeping in mind the demands and fashion of his time.
The painting had a special meaning that people of the 16th century could read between the lines. To people of those times, this painting was a typical depiction of Madonna and the Child. The painter included all the elements required by the genre. Madonna and the Child are seated on a throne with a complex canopy through which viewers can see a lush landscape. While it is difficult for an unprepared spectator to understand the sense of landscape in the painting, it was necessary. The landscape did not mean what one may presume. Thus, even if it looks strange to modern people, it was something trivial in that culture.
Another thing is that the painting is full of symbols that convey additional meanings. First, sometimes people do not realize that the angels reflect the joy and veneration of the Virgin. It is easy to presume that they are the entertainers of the little child. Luckily, additional reading helps people to clarify their thoughts. Thanks to it, they can realize that the angels were the mediators of Madonna’s greatness to people. People venerated Madonna and created many hymns for her, so the angels are very appropriate in the painting. It is like depicting dancers around a star on a modern poster. Any great historical personality and royalty needed their “court.” The painting of Gossaert encourages the viewers to imitate the angels and praise the Virgin Mary as they do it.
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Apart from that, additional research about the painting draws attention to the elements one might not notice at first glance. In particular, some do not even notice the parrot at first. The painting may seem to include only the main characters and their clothes. As the parrot is green, it is easy to mistake it for a part of Madonna’s clothes. However, unprepared spectators who do spot the bird find it an even more confusing element. It is difficult to realize why would little Jesus not look at the spectators, but bless the bird. It does not make any sense, as parrots are not as important as people are. Without the historical background, people would never guess the symbolism of the parrot. Luckily, it is not difficult to learn that it is charged with a very positive meaning.
In conclusion, different interpreters ask different questions of works of art. “Madonna and Child with Music-Making Angels” by Jan Gossaert is a strange and confusing painting. Some do not see meaning in seemingly inappropriate or useless elements. Others can not recognize the importance of the angels-musicians, landscape, and a parrot in a religious artwork. Nevertheless, learning more about the culture and historical background of the picture shed more light to its meaning. In fact, the painting meets all the expectations of the 16th century and was widely accepted by the audience. Mabusse knew how to appeal to the public, and he did it in his own manner. Modern understanding of the painting is rather limited, as most spectators interpret the artwork from the modern perspective. Nevertheless, old art requires interpretation from the perspective of the past. Therefore, people should practice learning more about the paintings before they see them.