Essays on Life, Art and Science
by Samuel Butler

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Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902)
English composer, novelist, and satiric author

The Sanctuary of Montrigone {6}

The only place in the Valsesia, except Varallo, where I at present suspect the presence of Tabachetti {7} is at Montrigone, a little- known sanctuary dedicated to St. Anne, about three-quarters of a mile south of Borgo-Sesia station. The situation is, of course, lovely, but the sanctuary does not offer any features of architectural interest. The sacristan told me it was founded in 1631; and in 1644 Giovanni d’Enrico, while engaged in superintending and completing the work undertaken here by himself and Giacomo Ferro, fell ill and died. I do not know whether or no there was an earlier sanctuary on the same site, but was told it was built on the demolition of a stronghold belonging to the Counts of Biandrate.

The incidents which it illustrates are treated with even more than the homeliness usual in works of this description when not dealing with such solemn events as the death and passion of Christ. Except when these subjects were being represented, something of the latitude, and even humour, allowed in the old mystery plays was permitted, doubtless from a desire to render the work more attractive to the peasants, who were the most numerous and most important pilgrims. It is not until faith begins to be weak that it fears an occasionally lighter treatment of semi-sacred subjects, and it is impossible to convey an accurate idea of the spirit prevailing at this hamlet of sanctuary without attuning oneself somewhat to the more pagan character of the place. Of irreverence, in the sense of a desire to laugh at things that are of high and serious import, there is not a trace, but at the same time there is a certain unbending of the bow at Montrigone which is not perceivable at Varallo.

The first chapel to the left on entering the church is that of the Birth of the Virgin. St. Anne is sitting up in bed. She is not at all ill—in fact, considering that the Virgin has only been born about five minutes, she is wonderful; still the doctors think it may be perhaps better that she should keep her room for half an hour longer, so the bed has been festooned with red and white paper roses, and the counterpane is covered with bouquets in baskets and in vases of glass and china. These cannot have been there during the actual birth of the Virgin, so I suppose they had been in readiness, and were brought in from an adjoining room as soon as the baby had been born. A lady on her left is bringing in some more flowers, which St. Anne is receiving with a smile and most gracious gesture of the hands. The first thing she asked for, when the birth was over, was for her three silver hearts. These were immediately brought to her, and she has got them all on, tied round her neck with a piece of blue silk ribbon.

Dear mamma has come. We felt sure she would, and that any little misunderstandings between her and Joachim would ere long be forgotten and forgiven. They are both so good and sensible if they would only understand one another. At any rate, here she is, in high state at the right hand of the bed. She is dressed in black, for she has lost her husband some few years previously, but I do not believe a smarter, sprier old lady for her years could be found in Palestine, nor yet that either Giovanni d’Enrico or Giacomo Ferro could have conceived or executed such a character. The sacristan wanted to have it that she was not a woman at all, but was a portrait of St. Joachim, the Virgin’s father. “Sembra una donna," he pleaded more than once, “ma non e donna.” Surely, however, in works of art even more than in other things, there is no “is” but seeming, and if a figure seems female it must be taken as such. Besides, I asked one of the leading doctors at Varallo whether the figure was man or woman. He said it was evident I was not married, for that if I had been I should have seen at once that she was not only a woman but a mother-in-law of the first magnitude, or, as he called it, “una suocera tremenda,” and this without knowing that I wanted her to be a mother-in-law myself. Unfortunately she had no real drapery, so I could not settle the question as my friend Mr. H. F. Jones and I had been able to do at Varallo with the figure of Eve that had been turned into a Roman soldier assisting at the capture of Christ. I am not, however, disposed to waste more time upon anything so obvious, and will content myself with saying that we have here the Virgin’s grandmother. I had never had the pleasure, so far as I remembered, of meeting this lady before, and was glad to have an opportunity of making her acquaintance.

Tradition says that it was she who chose the Virgin’s name, and if so, what a debt of gratitude do we not owe her for her judicious selection! It makes one shudder to think what might have happened if she had named the child Keren-Happuch, as poor Job’s daughter was called. How could we have said, “Ave Keren-Happuch!” What would the musicians have done? I forget whether Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz was a man or a woman, but there were plenty of names quite as unmanageable at the Virgin’s grandmother’s option, and we cannot sufficiently thank her for having chosen one that is so euphonious in every language which we need take into account. For this reason alone we should not grudge her her portrait, but we should try to draw the line here. I do not think we ought to give the Virgin’s great-grandmother a statue. Where is it to end? It is like Mr. Crookes’s ultimissimate atoms; we used to draw the line at ultimate atoms, and now it seems we are to go a step farther back and have ultimissimate atoms. How long, I wonder, will it be before we feel that it will be a material help to us to have ultimissimissimate atoms? Quavers stopped at demi-semi-demi, but there is no reason to suppose that either atoms or ancestresses of the Virgin will be so complacent.

I have said that on St. Anne’s left hand there is a lady who is bringing in some flowers. St. Anne was always passionately fond of flowers. There is a pretty story told about her in one of the Fathers, I forget which, to the effect that when a child she was asked which she liked best—cakes or flowers? She could not yet speak plainly and lisped out, “Oh fowses, pretty fowses"; she added, however, with a sigh and as a kind of wistful corollary, “but cakes are very nice.” She is not to have any cakes, just now, but as soon as she has done thanking the lady for her beautiful nosegay, she is to have a couple of nice new-laid eggs, that are being brought her by another lady. Valsesian women immediately after their confinement always have eggs beaten up with wine and sugar, and one can tell a Valsesian Birth of the Virgin from a Venetian or a Florentine by the presence of the eggs. I learned this from an eminent Valsesian professor of medicine, who told me that, though not according to received rules, the eggs never seemed to do any harm. Here they are evidently to be beaten up, for there is neither spoon nor egg-cup, and we cannot suppose that they were hard-boiled. On the other hand, in the Middle Ages Italians never used egg-cups and spoons for boiled eggs. The mediaeval boiled egg was always eaten by dipping bread into the yolk.

Behind the lady who is bringing in the eggs is the under-under-nurse who is at the fire warming a towel. In the foreground we have the regulation midwife holding the regulation baby (who, by the way, was an astonishingly fine child for only five minutes old). Then comes the under-nurse—a good buxom creature, who, as usual, is feeling the water in the bath to see that it is of the right temperature. Next to her is the head-nurse, who is arranging the cradle. Behind the head-nurse is the under-under-nurse’s drudge, who is just going out upon some errands. Lastly—for by this time we have got all round the chapel—we arrive at the Virgin’s grandmother’s-body- guard, a stately, responsible-looking lady, standing in waiting upon her mistress. I put it to the reader—is it conceivable that St. Joachim should have been allowed in such a room at such a time, or that he should have had the courage to avail himself of the permission, even though it had been extended to him? At any rate, is it conceivable that he should have been allowed to sit on St. Anne’s right hand, laying down the law with a “Marry, come up here," and a “Marry, go-down there,” and a couple of such unabashed collars as the old lady has put on for the occasion?

Moreover (for I may as well demolish this mischievous confusion between St. Joachim and his mother-in-law once and for all), the merest tyro in hagiology knows that St. Joachim was not at home when the Virgin was born. He had been hustled out of the temple for having no children, and had fled desolate and dismayed into the wilderness. It shows how silly people are, for all the time he was going, if they had only waited a little, to be the father of the most remarkable person of purely human origin who had ever been born, and such a parent as this should surely not be hurried. The story is told in the frescoes of the chapel of Loreto, only a quarter of an hour’s walk from Varallo, and no one can have known it better than D’Enrico. The frescoes are explained by written passages that tell us how, when Joachim was in the desert, an angel came to him in the guise of a fair, civil young gentleman, and told him the Virgin was to be born. Then, later on, the same young gentleman appeared to him again, and bade him “in God’s name be comforted, and turn again to his content,” for the Virgin had been actually born. On which St. Joachim, who seems to have been of opinion that marriage after all WAS rather a failure, said that, as things were going on so nicely without him, he would stay in the desert just a little longer, and offered up a lamb as a pretext to gain time. Perhaps he guessed about his mother-in-law, or he may have asked the angel. Of course, even in spite of such evidence as this I may be mistaken about the Virgin’s grandmother’s sex, and the sacristan may be right; but I can only say that if the lady sitting by St. Anne’s bedside at Montrigone is the Virgin’s father—well, in that case I must reconsider a good deal that I have been accustomed to believe was beyond question.

Taken singly, I suppose that none of the figures in the chapel, except the Virgin’s grandmother, should be rated very highly. The under-nurse is the next best figure, and might very well be Tabachetti’s, for neither Giovanni d’Enrico nor Giacomo Ferro was successful with his female characters. There is not a single really comfortable woman in any chapel by either of them on the Sacro Monte at Varallo. Tabachetti, on the other hand, delighted in women; if they were young he made them comely and engaging, if they were old he gave them dignity and individual character, and the under-nurse is much more in accordance with Tabachetti’s habitual mental attitude than with D’Enrico’s or Giacomo Ferro’s. Still there are only four figures out of the eleven that are mere otiose supers, and taking the work as a whole it leaves a pleasant impression as being throughout naive and homely, and sometimes, which is of less importance, technically excellent.

Allowance must, of course, be made for tawdry accessories and repeated coats of shiny oleaginous paint—very disagreeable where it has peeled off and almost more so where it has not. What work could stand against such treatment as the Valsesian terra-cotta figures have had to put up with? Take the Venus of Milo; let her be done in terra-cotta, and have run, not much, but still something, in the baking; paint her pink, two oils, all over, and then varnish her—it will help to preserve the paint; glue a lot of horsehair on to her pate, half of which shall have come off, leaving the glue still showing; scrape her, not too thoroughly, get the village drawing- master to paint her again, and the drawing-master in the next provincial town to put a forest background behind her with the brightest emerald-green leaves that he can do for the money; let this painting and scraping and repainting be repeated several times over; festoon her with pink and white flowers made of tissue paper; surround her with the cheapest German imitations of the cheapest decorations that Birmingham can produce; let the night air and winter fogs get at her for three hundred years, and how easy, I wonder, will it be to see the goddess who will be still in great part there? True, in the case of the Birth of the Virgin chapel at Montrigone, there is no real hair and no fresco background, but time has had abundant opportunities without these. I will conclude my notice of this chapel by saying that on the left, above the door through which the under-under-nurse’s drudge is about to pass, there is a good painted terra-cotta bust, said—but I believe on no authority—to be a portrait of Giovanni d’Enrico. Others say that the Virgin’s grandmother is Giovanni d’Enrico, but this is even more absurd than supposing her to be St. Joachim.

The next chapel to the Birth of the Virgin is that of the Sposalizio. There is no figure here which suggests Tabachetti, but still there are some very good ones. The best have no taint of barocco; the man who did them, whoever he may have been, had evidently a good deal of life and go, was taking reasonable pains, and did not know too much. Where this is the case no work can fail to please. Some of the figures have real hair and some terra cotta. There is no fresco background worth mentioning. A man sitting on the steps of the altar with a book on his lap, and holding up his hand to another, who is leaning over him and talking to him, is among the best figures; some of the disappointed suitors who are breaking their wands are also very good.

The angel in the Annunciation chapel, which comes next in order, is a fine, burly, ship’s-figurehead, commercial-hotel sort of being enough, but the Virgin is very ordinary. There is no real hair and no fresco background, only three dingy old blistered pictures of no interest whatever.

In the visit of Mary to Elizabeth there are three pleasing subordinate lady attendants, two to the left and one to the right of the principal figures; but these figures themselves are not satisfactory. There is no fresco background. Some of the figures have real hair and some terra cotta.

In the Circumcision and Purification chapel—for both these events seem contemplated in the one that follows—there are doves, but there is neither dog nor knife. Still Simeon, who has the infant Saviour in his arms, is looking at him in a way which can only mean that, knife or no knife, the matter is not going to end here. At Varallo they have now got a dreadful knife for the Circumcision chapel. They had none last winter. What they have now got would do very well to kill a bullock with, but could not be used professionally with safety for any animal smaller than a rhinoceros. I imagine that some one was sent to Novara to buy a knife, and that, thinking it was for the Massacre of the Innocents chapel, he got the biggest he could see. Then when he brought it back people said “chow” several times, and put it upon the table and went away.

Returning to Montrigone, the Simeon is an excellent figure, and the Virgin is fairly good, but the prophetess Anna, who stands just behind her, is by far the most interesting in the group, and is alone enough to make me feel sure that Tabachetti gave more or less help here, as he had done years before at Orta. She, too, like the Virgin’s grandmother, is a widow lady, and wears collars of a cut that seems to have prevailed ever since the Virgin was born some twenty years previously. There is a largeness and simplicity of treatment about the figure to which none but an artist of the highest rank can reach, and D’Enrico was not more than a second or third-rate man. The hood is like Handel’s Truth sailing upon the broad wings of Time, a prophetic strain that nothing but the old experience of a great poet can reach. The lips of the prophetess are for the moment closed, but she has been prophesying all the morning, and the people round the wall in the background are in ecstasies at the lucidity with which she has explained all sorts of difficulties that they had never been able to understand till now. They are putting their forefingers on their thumbs and their thumbs on their forefingers, and saying how clearly they see it all and what a wonderful woman Anna is. A prophet indeed is not generally without honour save in his own country, but then a country is generally not without honour save with its own prophet, and Anna has been glorifying her country rather than reviling it. Besides, the rule may not have applied to prophetesses.

The Death of the Virgin is the last of the six chapels inside the church itself. The Apostles, who of course are present, have all of them real hair, but, if I may say so, they want a wash and a brush- up so very badly that I cannot feel any confidence in writing about them. I should say that, take them all round, they are a good average sample of apostle as apostles generally go. Two or three of them are nervously anxious to find appropriate quotations in books that lie open before them, which they are searching with eager haste; but I do not see one figure about which I should like to say positively that it is either good or bad. There is a good bust of a man, matching the one in the Birth of the Virgin chapel, which is said to be a portrait of Giovanni d’Enrico, but it is not known whom it represents.

Outside the church, in three contiguous cells that form part of the foundations, are:-

1. A dead Christ, the head of which is very impressive while the rest of the figure is poor. I examined the treatment of the hair, which is terra-cotta, and compared it with all other like hair in the chapels above described; I could find nothing like it, and think it most likely that Giacomo Ferro did the figure, and got Tabachetti to do the head, or that they brought the head from some unused figure by Tabachetti at Varallo, for I know no other artist of the time and neighbourhood who could have done it.

2. A Magdalene in the desert. The desert is a little coal-cellar of an arch, containing a skull and a profusion of pink and white paper bouquets, the two largest of which the Magdalene is hugging while she is saying her prayers. She is a very self-sufficient lady, who we may be sure will not stay in the desert a day longer than she can help, and while there will flirt even with the skull if she can find nothing better to flirt with. I cannot think that her repentance is as yet genuine, and as for her praying there is no object in her doing so, for she does not want anything.

3. In the next desert there is a very beautiful figure of St. John the Baptist kneeling and looking upwards. This figure puzzles me more than any other at Montrigone; it appears to be of the fifteenth rather than the sixteenth century; it hardly reminds me of Gaudenzio, and still less of any other Valsesian artist. It is a work of unusual beauty, but I can form no idea as to its authorship.

I wrote the foregoing pages in the church at Montrigone itself, having brought my camp-stool with me. It was Sunday; the church was open all day, but there was no mass said, and hardly any one came. The sacristan was a kind, gentle, little old man, who let me do whatever I wanted. He sat on the doorstep of the main door, mending vestments, and to this end was cutting up a fine piece of figured silk from one to two hundred years old, which, if I could have got it, for half its value, I should much like to have bought. I sat in the cool of the church while he sat in the doorway, which was still in shadow, snipping and snipping, and then sewing, I am sure with admirable neatness. He made a charming picture, with the arched portico over his head, the green grass and low church wall behind him, and then a lovely landscape of wood and pasture and valleys and hillside. Every now and then he would come and chirrup about Joachim, for he was pained and shocked at my having said that his Joachim was some one else and not Joachim at all. I said I was very sorry, but I was afraid the figure was a woman. He asked me what he was to do. He had known it, man and boy, this sixty years, and had always shown it as St. Joachim; he had never heard any one but myself question his ascription, and could not suddenly change his mind about it at the bidding of a stranger. At the same time he felt it was a very serious thing to continue showing it as the Virgin’s father if it was really her grandmother. I told him I thought this was a case for his spiritual director, and that if he felt uncomfortable about it he should consult his parish priest and do as he was told.

On leaving Montrigone, with a pleasant sense of having made acquaintance with a new and, in many respects, interesting work, I could not get the sacristan and our difference of opinion out of my head. What, I asked myself, are the differences that unhappily divide Christendom, and what are those that divide Christendom from modern schools of thought, but a seeing of Joachims as the Virgin’s grandmothers on a larger scale? True, we cannot call figures Joachim when we know perfectly well that they are nothing of the kind; but I registered a vow that henceforward when I called Joachims the Virgin’s grandmothers I would bear more in mind than I have perhaps always hitherto done, how hard it is for those who have been taught to see them as Joachims to think of them as something different. I trust that I have not been unfaithful to this vow in the preceding article. If the reader differs from me, let me ask him to remember how hard it is for one who has got a figure well into his head as the Virgin’s grandmother to see it as Joachim.


Introduction  •  Quis Desiderio . . . ? {1}  •  Ramblings in Cheapside {2}  •  The Aunt, the Nieces, and the Dog {3}  •  How to Make the Best of Life {4}  •  The Sanctuary of Montrigone {6}  •  A Medieval Girl School {8}  •  Art in the Valley of Saas {11}  •  Thought and Language {16}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part I  •  The Deadlock in Dawrinism—Part II {29}  •  The Deadlock in Darwinism {20}—Part III  •  Footnotes:

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