Lotto’s San Bernardino Altarpiece (1521)

Art scholars are in wide agreement that Lotto’s works reveal a profound adherence to themes involving the Imitation of Christ. It was both a Christocentric practice in the Renaissance and the title of an enormously popular book which we know was in Lotto’s library.1 (For a brief but better understanding of how Lotto would have practiced Christianity, see The Inner Tradition.) Lotto, in this respect, is little different from many other artists over the centuries except that scholars have recognized in Lotto’s art much of what their academic colleagues miss elsewhere. Nevertheless, based on the catalogue of the current Lotto exhibition in Rome (March - June 2011), they still fail to see the implications of their insight: that Lotto's religious scenes take place in his own mind and are, thus, all allegories of his own creative process.2 Here, as an example of how the ordinary art lover can make their own way into a painting, we take a look at a figure seemingly extraneous to the central subject.

 

An angel in this Bergamo altarpiece writes in a book while turning around to look out of the canvas. His figure seems like a minor detail but is so charmingly posed that it was chosen for the cover of the catalog, a demonstration, I believe, of the figure’s significance even if the experts who chose him cannot consciously explain his importance. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Cover of the catalogue for the 2011 Lorenzo Lotto exhibition in Rome showing a detail of Lotto's Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, John the Baptist, Antonio Abbot and angels (1521)

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It could be the result of the light on his face because the only other figure who looks out of the image is the Virgin directly above him whose own face is in shade. She also gestures towards him, drawing attention away from herself and signaling his importance. As a result the composition does not revolve around the Virgin and Child, as you might expect, but this little angel. The only other figure brightened by the light behind us, as though lit from a studio window, is Joseph who does not look at his wife and son but, again, directly down at our angel.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lotto, Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, John the Baptist, Antonio Abbot and angels (1521) Oil on canvas.  San Bernardino in Pignolo, Bergamo

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The catalogue reports that he is carefully and accurately recording the pleas of the faithful.3 How they know that, I am not sure. The page we see is blank. so there is no evidence for their claim and they provide none. It seems like guess-work from the Church’s point-of-view not the artist’s. A regular user of this site, though, will probably recognize the "over-the-shoulder pose" as that of an artist looking out over his shoulder to paint in the mirror. That is exactly what is happening. Lotto signed his name by the angel's foot as if to emphasize that "this is me."  

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Lotto's Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, John the Baptist, Antonio Abbot and angels (1521)

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Once again, as in Velazquez's Las Meninas and Manet's Olympia, the entire surface of the picture is a mirror. The angel-artist turns to look in the mirror and sees the same scene we do, all from his point-of-view which is inside Lotto's mind. (Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are age-old symbols of the mind.) Regardless of what the Church might have thought the angel was up to, there can be little doubt from the poetic point-of-view what artists would have thought. The angel is a representation of "Lotto the artist" drawing or painting the very scene we are looking at. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lotto, Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, John the Baptist, Antonio Abbot and angels (1521)

Click image to enlarge.

Lotto, like many medieval artists before him, has also used the writing of a religious text as a metaphor for drawing and painting. The angel, therefore, is not extraneous to the central theme but fundamental to its whole conception. It is through the angel that we understand the scene, not as an illustration of the Bible or Church doctrine, but as inside Lotto’s creative mind.4  

See conclusion below

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Lotto's Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Bernardino of Siena, John the Baptist, Antonio Abbot and angels (1521)

Click image to enlarge.

Lotto has created a scene on two levels: one that can be read as an orthodox rendition of Catholic belief, the other as poetry whereby the creative imagination of individual viewers, those more willing to question Church orthodoxy than the masses, can find an alternative and ultimately more persuasive route to the divinity within their own soul. There may be more levels than this but I do not know of them. Not everyone is ripe, though, for their own independent analysis of Christianity and divinity which is why the literal reader of the Bible, like the literal viewer of this painting, has an alternative story to believe in, however incredible and unbelievable the story. Followers of Lotto’s way though – the way of many Church fathers and mystics before him – are guided by a maxim that Lotto inscribed in Latin on his design for the choir stalls in the Basilica of Bergamo.5 Long before Christ even, the phrase was displayed over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is deceptively simple: Know Thyself.

Notes:

1. Adriano Prosperi, "The Religious Crisis in Early Sixteenth-Century Italy" in Lorenzo Lotto: Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art) 1997, pp.23-4; Augusto Gentili, "The Stories, The Metaphors" in Lorenzo Lotto, ibid., p.39; Wendy Stedman Sheard, "The Portraits" in Lorenzo Lotto, ibid., p.49

2. Lorenzo Lotto (Rome: Scuderie del Quirinale) 2011

3. Lorenzo Lotto (Rome) 2011, p.114

4.  The angel's wings, unusually for an angel but appropriately for "a visual artist", are decorated with eyes like those on peacock feathers. Wings decorated with eyes are more commonly seen on Renaissance dragons than angels. However, considering that dragons are in many ways an angel's direct opposite, Lotto might well be merging their opposing characteristics (good/evil, chaos/order) into his unified, creative self.

5. Mauro Zanchi, The Bible According to Lorenzo Lotto: The Wooden Choir, Inlaid by Capoferri, in the Basilica of Bergamo (Bergamo: Ferrari Editrice) 2005, p.9; Jodi Cranston, The Poetics of Portraiture (Cambridge University Press) 2000, p. 93

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