Cano, Alonso - VM - Robert Lemm
Alonso Cano: Saint Bernard and the Virgin
Virginal Mother’s Milk
Wandering through the Museo del Prado in
In his own time Bernard of Clairvaux was considered an especially devoted worshiper of the Mother of God. To him her com-passion under the cross with her son made her a co-saviour, a title the Roman Catholic church is still reluctant to ascribe to Mary by dogma. The story goes that the sweet-voiced doctor of Clairvaux had to preach about her qualities and that the milk of the Virgin symbolises the inspiration he needed for this. Another story supposes the virginal milk to be a sign of gratitude, a reward for services rendered.
The rendition by Alonso Cano differs from earlier and other versions that show Mary and Bernard in an indistinct space with an almost invisible jet of milk, in a Gothic church with a miniscule lion as a witness, or Mary located in a celestial vault and Bernard catching the milk in his hand. However, in Cano’s portrayal we find ourselves in a concrete room with a real person as a witness, namely Cardinal Sandoval y Rojas. The Christ Child, slightly bent forward, looks down on the milk that connects his mother and the saint. The round window in the right upper corner reinforces the realism of the scene. Behind it pines are visible and a building that could be a convent. The symbolism of the scene may be beyond dispute, its astonishing feature is its lifelikeness.
Bernard of Clairvaux was hardly a softy. Founder, counsellor of kings, thinkers and other prominent people, propagandist of the Second Crusade, willing to confront the established theology as well as the heretics of his time. He was stern and reticent, contemplative, a teacher specialised in the doctrine of Mary. Especially Mary’s role of mediation was of highest concern to him, the Mother as link between humans and their Creator.
That Mary nurses her child Jesus is a scene that is depicted more often. One of these can be seen in
Alonso Cano: Saint Bernard and the Virgin, ca 1656, oil on canvas, 267 x
Alonso Cano (1601-1667) was a valued painter at the court of king Philip IV and a contemporary and colleague of Diego Velázquez (1599 –1660).
ArtWay Visual Meditation November 16, 2014