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Hunt, Preindlsberger and Barth: three styles, three visions

Women’s symbolic catechesis

 Catechesi simbolica femminile  DCM-001
05 January 2024

Art is capable of telling stories of extraordinary women who, with their creative ability and intellectual vivacity, have made history in silence. In addition, through art, many women have expressed their vision of faith, the sacred and spirituality. Three women artists from different eras demonstrate this unequivocally.

The year 1620 was one of the most difficult moments in European history. The Thirty Years' War was about to commence, while southern Italy was being sacked by the Turks and bloody frictions between Catholics and Protestants exploded in the north. However, at this very moment, a 24-year-old girl from Moncalvo, Orsola Maddalena Caccia, daughter of Luigi, a renowned local painter, crossed the threshold of the Ursuline convent in Bianzè.

That place of faith and prayer would be the cradle of her art. Five years later, thanks to her father's help, she moved to another convent in Moncalvo built for her and her three sisters where she could fully express the union of art and prayer. Orsola Maddalena Caccia was raised in her father's school, and being fascinated by Flemish art, she become known as the Raphael of Monferrato. One of her canvases, Madonna and Child with Angel, tells us of her chromatic vivacity and refined symbolism. Immersed in a rocky, riverside landscape, perhaps related to the area around Pavia (the work belongs to the Visconti Castle in Pavia) the Madonna is caught in contemplation of her divine Son. The Child looks at us as he amuses himself with a tray of fruit. What might appear to be a pictorial virtuosity is transformed, thanks to the angel's absorbed gaze, into a symbolic universe all to be deciphered.

With his left hand, Jesus touches peaches symbolizing, with apples and apricots, the forbidden fruit of the tree of life; with his right hand, however, he holds a wreath of cherries. The oranges in the foreground also hint at the original guilt that Christ heals through his passion and cross. Indeed, cherries, because of their red flesh and wooden kernel, are a sign of the cross and Christ’s blood that redeemed us. The scene is inscribed in the iconography of the stop during the flight to Egypt, the second sorrow (after the circumcision) of the Incarnate Word. During this flight, according to apocryphal literature, a peach tree would stoop as the Redeemer passed by. The roses, in the foreground, also indicate Mary as Coredemptrix for her participation in her Son's sufferings. The white rose, in fact, indicates purity and strength of mind, while the pink rose tells of Mary's inner participation in her Son's pain. Gently but masterfully, Sister Ursula Caccia leads us, within a scene seemingly promised to the decorative, to meditate on the events of salvation.

In turning the clock s back two centuries, we find a singular artist in Graz, Austria: Marianne Preindlsberger. Born in 1855 she was able, at the age of 17, to study at her city's Academy of Fine Arts, and because of her innate talent she was encouraged to embrace a career in art. She moved first to Munich and then to Paris. During a stay in Brittany, she met the English painter Adrian Scott Stokes, who became her husband. The two, though unable to have children, enjoyed a happy and fruitful relationship through art. An encounter in 1890 with Pre-Raphaelite painting brought Marianne closer to medieval and religious subjects. A beautiful northern virgin is dated from this period. One of the many Veiled Madonnas whose gestures seem to say, “Beneath the veil of flesh is hidden the Word of the Most High, born to die”. Therefore, Our Lady of Stoke is also a Lady of Sorrows: the colors of her dress, the red of blood, the blue of Mystery, tell us so. So says the mournful gaze turned toward us, and we remain almost indifferent to the unusual miracle of a God who became man. Thorny shrubs, in the background, speak of the fate of passion that awaits this child. A pinwheel of thorns, in fact, will soon envelop the Savior's head. Prominent among them is a strange shrub, the wild fennel [finocchio]. A rare symbol in art, but not on the table. At one time, in fact, it was customary to offer fennel sweets, which, because of their aromatic property, were able to correct the defects of less good wine. Thus invalidated the use of the word “infinocchiare” with the precise sense of misleading. It is no accident that Our Lady has a golden dress studded with bunches of grapes: what Christ dispenses is His blood, the true drink of joy and salvation.

Bradi Barth was an unusual artist. Born in 1922, in St. Gallen, in eastern Switzerland, (died in 2007 in Belgium), she devoted herself to painting from an early age. She led an almost monastic life, and experienced her skill as a divine gift, therefore devoting herself to religious art. In 1946, she moved to Belgium to study at the Ghent Academy and remained there for the rest of her life. One need only look at one of her many photographs to sense the human and spiritual depth of this woman. In 2000 she formed a nonprofit association called Herbronen (i.e., Returning to the Source) to which she left all her works with a threefold purpose: to spread the message of Christ, to witness her union with the Pope and to remain under the protection of Our Lady.

A work titled Mary, Mother of the Church, testifies, more than the others, to these intentions. A boat is sailing on a sea with rough waters, the sky is nocturnal, but shining in the upper left corner is a mysterious sun, resembling a great Eucharist. The contrast between the raging sea and the peace that reigns in the boat is striking. The serenity of the Virgin Mother, of Peter, of the sheep quietly lodged in the hull, makes those of us who so often watch the generally agitated sea rather envious. Today, it is so often bewilderment, scandal and fraud that win out that Bradi’s countercurrent message fascinates us. We are all in the same boat, but in this boat, there is a pearl of light that, in Christ's thinking, is the See of St. Peter. The pope is not content with the crosier but harnesses the cross, a sign in which everything can be won. She looks to the sail, the red from the blood of martyrs, which are full with the divine Spirit. Therefore, for Bradi Barth among the storms of all times Peter's boat gathers humanity under the light of Mary and the Eucharist.

by Maria Gloria Riva
Art historian and founder of the Monastic Community of the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament, Diocese of San Marino- Montefeltro