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The subjects painted on the inside of the covers are the Trinity and the Annunciation.
That of the Trinity fronts the left-hand of the spectator, and is represented by God the Father, with Jesus Christ sitting at his right hand, and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove with extended wings, over them; and flying round them are the heads of Cherubims, whose ruddy countenances glow with divine ardour.
God the Father is figured as the Ancient of Days, the hair of whose head was like the pure wool*, and with a white beard falling on his breast. His right hand reclines on a globe which is between him and Jesus, and with his left he is giving his benediction; not in the Roman manner, with his fore and middle fingers erect, and the thumb with the other fingers depressed, but in that practised by the Greek church, with the fore and middle fingers joined together, and extended strait, except a little bending of the middle tinger, with the thumb touching the third finger, and with the little finger bent also somewhat inwards.
The intention of this disposition of the fingers I shall beg leave to transcribe from “ A Collection of Prints in Imitation of Drawings, &c.” lately presented to your Society, tome I. p. 44.
“ S. Gregorius Nissenus insinuates, that among the Greek priests the custom prevailed of giving their blessings with their fingers lifted up in such a manner that by them they might express the name of Jesus Christ : the demonstration of which is thus given from Bishop Nicolaus. The second finger of the right-hand,”, [but in the painting before us it is the left] " and the third joined to the second are extended strait, although the third be a little bent in the middle; which disposition of the hand effectually denotes, and, as by an image, expresses the name of Jesus; for the second finger extended strait denotes the letter I, the third a little bent describes C; which letters joined together signify Jesus. Besides, the thumb joined to the fourth Ginger, and crossing it a little obliquely, forms the letter X, and the little finger bent inwards C [being the first and last letters of the words IHLOYC XPICTOC.] Thus the name of Jesus Christ is described in the hand of the Bishop; and as Jesus conferred grace and benediction on the Apostles, so the Bishop,
* Danici, vii. 9.
strengthened with the name of Christ, diffuses his benediction*
The inscriptions in these pictures are partly in Greek, but chiefly in Russian, characters; which Mr. Peters, a studious gentleman who resided some years at Petersburgh, has very obligingly interpreted for me. Those on each side and over the head of this figure are,
of Sabaoth. Jesus is represented with a beard and hair so dark as to be almost black; his right hand rests on a book (containing probably the Prophecies of the coming of Christ,) which is supported by his knee, and his left holds the Cross of Salvation over the Globe, an emblem of his being “ Salvator Mundi." Over and on each side his head are written,
Holy Trinity have Mercy upon us.
Visitation of the Holy Mother of God. In this the Virgin Mary sits on a seat richly carved, with her head a little inclined, and her right-hand on her bosom, receiving the joyful tidings with great humility. She is with her neck and breast covered, and expresses a modesty becoming the Queen of Heaven, in the manner Luigi Scaramuccia, a painter of Perugia, prescribes to modern artists; and in which, he observes, the old Greeks drew her (although in their plain style) as is even at this time seen in their representations of her in the houses of the devoutt.
A book is open before her, lying on a table covered with a cloth of gold embroidery, in which is written,
“ And thou, Virgin, shalt conceive a Son in thy Womb, and his Name shall be Nare."
* Numismata Sum. Pontificum a P. Pbilippo Bonanni Societatis Jesu. Full 1699. Tom I. p. 356.
+ Le Finezze de Pennelli Italiani, p. 210. you. III.
In reference to the Prophecy of Isaiah (vii. 14.) of “Behold a Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
On her left breast is a star, perhaps denoting that which was to go before the Wise Men from the East to Bethlehem, and stand over where Jesus was to be born*.
May not this lead us to conjecture, that the representation of the Star of Bethlehem is intended by those embroidered on the breasts of the knights of several orders ?
Behind the Virgin is seen a canopy-bed, with crimson curtains worked with gold, and other decorations, in an apartment so highly finished as to be more suitable to the Queen of Heaven than the spouse of an artisan ; unless we may esteem such painters as this to be somewhat justified in their imagining the Virgin Mary to be rich, and representing her apartment sumptuously furnished at the time of the Annunciation, by being told, from St. Hiere. that Joachim and Ann, her father and mother, were en., ed to divide their substance into three parts; one of which wione was sufficient for their own uset.
The Dove is descending to her; and the Archangel Gabriel, that stood in the presence of God, has a white lily in his left-hand, the hieroglyphic of Christ and Angelsi, and holds up his right, as saluting the Virgin with " Ave gratia plenag.” The inscription over the Dove is,
Ghost holy. That over the Virgin,
Mother of God. And over the angel,
Archangel Gabriel. The painter has not ill expressed the instantaneous arrival of Gabriel, and his quick descent from Heaven, by his yet standing on the clouds without his feet touching the foor, by one of his wings being yet extended upright in the air, and by the fluttering of his garinents, which have not had as yet time to fall into their proper positions.
* Matth. ij. 9. + Aurea Legenda per Jacobum de Voragine, folio 99. verse 6.
Vide J. Pierii Valeriani Hieroglyphica. Lib. LV, cap. 10. Luke i. 19, 28.
The Aureolum, or Nimbus, appropriated to Saints, is round the heads of all the figures here represented, as well as round the Dove; but the head of God the Father, and the Dove, are likewise painted in double quadrangles intersecting each other.
All the figures are rather encumbered with drapery than otherwise, with no other variety in their colours than that the upper garments of God the Father, and of the Angel, are green heightened with gold, and their under, red likewise heightened with gold; which colours are reversed in the draperies of the other figures.
Notwithstanding the dryness peculiar to the age in which these pictures were executed, we find in them a correctness of drawing, and a delicacy in the faces, particularly in that of the Virgin, superior to what we might expect.
After this long description it is time to observe, that the execution of these tablets is in a method of painting mentioned by Giorgio Vasari, in his very valuable work of the “ Vite de' piu eccellenti Pittori, &c.” who informs us, that “ earlier and since the time of Cimabue, are seen works executed by the Greeks in distemper, both on wood and on walls. And these old masters, in preparing their grounds, fearing lest the joints should open, were accustomed to fasten with glew all over the wood a linen-cloth, and then to spread upon it a coat of plaister made of chalk, in order to lay on it their colours, which were mixed with a yolk of an egg and distemper; and that even now things in distemper by our old masters are seen preserved for hundreds of years with great beauty and freshness*.”
The coat of plaister is very discernible in the broken edges of these pictures, and the linen-cloth above-mentioned seems to have been torn in that part which is behind the Virgin's left shoulder.
The painter has given us his name at the bottom of the tablets in this manner :
“ Drew Johannes Maximof." “ Maximof” sounds like a Russian pame; but it is by no means improbable that an ingenious artist of Russia should be drawn to Constantinople, or even to Smyrna, where the art of painting was encouraged ; the communication between Muscovyand Greece being not difficult by the Euxine or Black Sea.
If these tablets be not of an age so early as the eighth century (in which the second Council of Nice, held in 787, re-established images in churches, in opposition to the Iconoclastes, and to the great advancement of sculpture and painting,) or even the tenth century, they may be al. lowed to be of one prior to that of Giovanni Cimabue, the great restorer of painting in Italy, who was born at Florence in 1240.
* Introduzione, cap. 20.
I have the honour, Sir, to be your most obedient and obliged servant, 1784, April.
XXXVI. Letters from Dr. Johnson, relative to the Lives of the
Poets. MR. URBAN, THE following little billets will tend to illustrate the his. tory of that Opus Magnum, Lives of the English Poets.
J. NICHOLS. 1. IN the Life of Waller, Mr. Nichols will find a reference to the Parliamentary History, from which a long quotation is to be inserted. If Mr. Nichols cannot easily find the book, Mr. Johnson will send it from Streatham.
Clarendon is here returned.
2. You have now all Cowley. I have been drawn to a great length; but Cowley or (and) Waller never had any critical examination before. I am very far advanced in Dryden, who will be long too. The next great Life I purpose to be Milton's.
It will be kind if you will gather the Lives of Denham, Butler, and Waller, and bind them in half-binding in a small volume, and let me have it to shew my friends, as soon as may be. I sincerely hope the press shall stand no more*. July 27, 1778.
SAM. JOHNSON. 3. You have now the Life of Dryden, and you see it is very long. It must, however, have an Appendix. 1. The
* The first Life that was begun at the press was that of Cowley, in Deepmber, 1777. The progress made in July, 1778, appears above. Butler was the Life in which the doctor at that time more part'cularly prided himself. Diiltou was begun in January, 1779, and finished in six weeks.