Lotto’s Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian (c.1522)

This painting by Lorenzo Lotto is yet another illogical composition that only the paradigm – every painter paints himself – can help make logical. It depicts the Virgin and Child accompanied by St. Sebastian to our right and St. Roch to our left. Some have noted that it must be an important picture because it was copied so many times by others, a compelling fact given its strangeness. For instance, an imaginary line runs from Sebastian’s nearby head on the right across the Virgin’s to St. Roch’s in the distance thereby implying great spatial depth. Contradicting this, though, the Virgin’s feet and St. Roch’s raised hand and thigh are all near the surface. Roch's staff even seems to touch the painting near its top edge.1

Artists have commonly interpreted St. Sebastian’s arrows as paintbrushes painting his own figure. He was a popular symbol for the painter, well-known by artists, unknown by scholars.2 Here he faces the canvas and appears so cropped that you can actually imagine him as the artist outside the painting. Yet the shorter, heavier bolt of the crossbow, though more like a paintbrush than the saint’s traditional arrows, pierces his chest from the wrong side. The arrow-brush should point towards the canvas, not away from it.

Although Roch’s raised hand echoes Christ’s gesture, much else about him is the mirror-image of Sebastian. Their heads both angle away, their eyelids lowered; their torsos face one another. Most significantly, the large sore traditionally seen on Roch’s thigh has been transferred, minimized, onto St. Sebastian’s.3

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Lotto, Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian (c. 1522) Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

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Lotto, identifying with both Christ and the Virgin, signed his name in shade below the Virgin’s foot and Christ’s figure. Christ symbolizes the creative mind united with God and of the artist’s Immaculate Conception; many artists, including Michelangelo, thereby identified with the Virgin.4 She, like them, conceives divine perfection. The saints symbolize the artist too, not conceiving like Mary, but physically painting. Here’s how. 

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Detail of Lotto's Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian

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Imagine, as we have often shown, that the surface of the painting is the artist's mind, a mirror.5 Sebastian, in front of it, could then be painting the Virgin. As Lotto stretched his own arm imaginatively towards the "mirror/canvas", he would have seen his paintbrush facing him thereby triggering the idea of an arrow-bolt piercing Sebastian from the "wrong" side. In the distance, St. Roch’s angled head reflects Sebastian’s as his thigh does too. With Roch as his reflection in the mirror, Sebastian-Lotto imagines Roch’s traditional sore transposed to his own thigh but shrunk to the size of his own traditional wounds. Confirming this, St Roch’s staff resembles an artist’s mahlstick.

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Lotto, Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian (c. 1522)  

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Mahlsticks are long, stiff rods with a bulbous end that rest on the surface of the canvas. They allow a painter to minimize hand movement when painting small details as Salvador Dali does in the photograph at left.6 

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Lotto's Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian
R: Anon., Photo of Salvador Dali painting with a mahlstick

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The foreshortening of St Roch’s rod/mahlstick is so extreme that its top appears to rest on the “mirror-painting” as Lotto would have imagined it in its reflection, just as the direction of Sebastian’s arrow-bolt-brush is seen in its reflection. St. Roch’s hand, echoing Christ’s gesture of blessing in the artist’s mind, touches the surface of the mirror to “paint” it. His other hand, its thumb separated from the fingers, suggests that is holding an invisible palette with thumb penetrating the thumb-hole.7

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Captions for image(s) above:

Lotto, Virgin and Child with Saints Roch and Sebastian (c. 1522)  

Click image to enlarge.

The problems raised by others, as mentioned above, are not features of a new style but elements of meaning. One expert, for instance, observed that the the light on the pearls decorating the Virgin’s head resonate with the light on Sebastian’s hair.8 That’s correct but not for decorative effect. The brightly-lit, off-white twisting strings of pearls echo the color and curls of Sebastian’s hair in order to convey that the Virgin is a self-representation of the artist’s own fertile mind.

That brings us to the green fabric behind, the color of fertility. While it is intended to resemble the cloth-of-honor that often hangs behind the Virgin’s throne, here it is off-center; it cannot be a cloth-of-honor. Indeed its shape so closely resembles that of the painting itself, that it may indeed be “a painting”, covered up and leaning against a studio wall. This explains moreover why the Virgin is not on a throne, as specialists of the period expect, but sits on the floor like a Madonna of Humility on some cushions. Mother and Child are both a painting on the surface of the mirror and in the artist’s imaginary studio, like models sitting on cushions on the floor.

The general tendency to explain the visual inconsistencies as an early abandonment of the classical style of the High Renaissance for the elongated, less “correct” proportions of Mannerism is a cop-out.9 Without the concept “every painter paints himself”, the composition is inexplicable.

Notes:

1. Lorenzo Lotto, ed. Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa (Scuderie del Quirinale) 2011, p. 174

2. See, for example, my entry on Mantegna's St. Sebastian (1490) or Egon Schiele's Self-portrait as Saint Sebastian (1914-15)

3. Lorenzo Lotto, p. 174

4. See, for example, Michelangelo's Vatican Pieta (1499)

5. See the theme, Mirrors

6. See Manet's use of a hidden mahlstick in Argenteuil (1874)

7. See many similar examples under the theme, Brush and Palette

8. Lorenzo Lotto, p. 174

9. Lorenzo Lotto, p. 174

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 03 Oct 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.