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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Corona Beatissime Virginis Marie

One of the most interesting parts of my splendid week in Poland with Berenike (thank you, Berenike!) was a visit to the National Museum in Warsaw, which is really the National Gallery and has an excellent collection of medieval art. It is mostly fifteenth and early sixteenth century, from within the boundaries of modern Poland; which means that in fact a good deal of it is north German. It is a most edifying collection in several respects; from the historian's point of view, among the most interesting is that most of the art is in broadly the same idiom - late medieval north-central Europe, mostly devotional panel paintings - but was produced for a variety of clients, for various contexts, on various levels of quality. One therefore gains a well-rounded impression of this section of the late medieval visual world. That's what I thought, for what it's worth, anyway.

Possibly the most remarkable single work is a vast panel painting of c.1500, 5x3 metres, from the Bernardine (Observant Franciscan) church of Wroclaw/Breslau. Sadly I can't find an image online, and they didn't have postcards of it, so you'll have to make do with a description. In the bottom quarter or so of the painting are the Virgin and Child in sole, standing upon a crescent moon. To each side of them are four Bernardines, carrying scrolls with lines of the Pater and Ave. Behind Our Lady's head is a scroll saying Corona beatissime Virginis Marie. And above her head, taking up the rest of the painting, is a huge crown, supported by two angels. The crown is filled with 49 roundels in seven rows of seven. The rows depict, from bottom to top:
The Seven Joys of Our Lady;
the Seven Sorrows of Our Lady/Blood-sheddings of Christ;
the Seven Choirs of Heaven (Angels, Apostles, Martyrs, Bishops, Widows, Virgins and All Saints);
the Seven Deadly Sins;
the Seven Contrary Virtues;
the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit;
and seven groups who trust in Maria's intercession (Parents, clergy, laymen, religious, those in need of help, sinners and the dead (in Purgatory)).
Over the top of the crown, each column is headed with a star, labelled Prima stella, Secunda stella, etc..

It's a quite astounding sight, and like nothing Berenike or I had seen before; nor did it correspond exactly to any late medieval devotion of which I'm aware. By the magic of Google, however, I came across a helpful article: Katarzyna Zalewska, '"Corona beatissime Virginis Marie": Das mittelalterliche gemalte Marientrakat aus der Berhardinerkirche in Breslau', Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte lv (1992). Surprisingly, not much seems to have been written about this painting before 1992. Zalwska notes that corona was often used as a metaphor for glory, frequently referring to the glory of the Mother of God, about which tractates were written from the early thirteenth century. Most notably, an anonymous tract called Corona Beatae Mariae Virginis, which had more than ten printed editions between 1485 and 1500, gave twelve different readings of the Virgin's crown of twelve stars in Rev. 12:1. Among other things, twelve Patriarchs and twelve Old Testament women were presented as presonifications of 'properties which first reached perfection in Maria.' Similarly, in the Bernardines' painting 'virtues, sins and gifts of the Holy Spirit are personified in Old Testament figures and figures of the Saints.'

The pattern of this Corona, however, is more closely connected to various Rosary-type patterns of prayer called Coronae which were current in the later middle ages. These usually consisted of 63 or 72 Aves, corresponding to the numbers of years Maria was supposed to have lived on earth, divided into seven or eight sections by Paters. Usually the Joys or Sorrows of Our Lady provided the subjects of meditation. A song current in Poland and Silesia mentions the Corona of 63 Aves. Particularly relevent is the form of prayer recommended by Bl Wladyslaw of Gielniow (found in Wadding's Annales Minorum..., 2nd ed (Quarracchi, 1505), iv.349-350): 72 Aves divided into eight sections by Paters, during the first of which the Seven Joys were to be honoured, in the second the Seven Sorrows honoured, in the third the Seven Heavenly Choirs to be honoured, in the fourth hatred of the Seven Deadly Sins to be aroused, in the fifth strengthening of the Seven Virtues to be asked, in the sixth the Gifts of the Holy Spirit to be prayed for, and the seventh and eighth to be offered for persons whom one wished to recommend to the care of the Mother of God. Although the numerical symbolism is imperfect, with nine Aves per section, this arrangement, far more complex than other Franciscan Coronae, is clearly closely connected to that of the painted Corona, and it is to almost without doubt that the Wroclaw Bernardines had heard Wladyslaw's prayer.

The prominence of sevens in Wladyslaw's Corona, despite his sections of nine prayers, arises from the catechetical pattern of sevens - sins, virtues, gifts, sacraments, petitions in the Our Father - so widely taught. Zalewska argues that the painting more perfectly reflected the catechetical habit, and served a catechetical purpose in the Bernardine church. She also supposes that it aided the Bernardines in praying a Corona devotion, as they are seemingly pictured doing in the picture itself. She further notes that the images in the roundels, using Biblical stories and events in saints' lives to characterise virtues and vices, was in line with other late medieval art, and was itself influenced by devotional literature which typically used such personifications. (Incidentally, I wonder if one could here further the argument that Franciscan preaching, with its habitual use of colourful exempla, encouraged the naturalism of early renaissance art, which so well served narrative illustrations in preachers' churches? One might argue that narrative became a dominant idiom in moral education, and thus fed back into Franciscan art and preaching again... But I've never been quite sure about the Franciscans-caused-the-Renaissance line, myself...)

'The Corona, Zalewska concludes, 'is above all the work of an imaginative and highly educated theologian, who drew upon many sources and knew how to connect elements of the most various sort with one another.' She suggests that the closest iconographic comparison is thus in some respects found in the Rosenkranzen illustrated with differents states of life and various saints (there's a good one, incidentally, at the end of the first printing under James V of the Acts of the Parliament of Scotland).

Hurrah for Dr Zalewska!

The only sad thing is that this painting is in a museum, rather than in a fab Lady Chapel somewhere with this devotion being prayed.

Might I recommend that you all go to Warsaw?