Saturday, August 06, 2016

Art: Lorenzo Lotto, The Legend of St. Brigid

From the Web Museum at Christian Iconography Info, Lorenzo Lotto's mural, The Legend of St. Brigid:

Suardi Chapel, Trescore, Italy

The panel on the left portrays St. Brigid's taking the veil – that is, her consecration as a nun. The bishop is identified in one source as St. Mel and in another as a St. Maccaille"1 On the floor at Brigid's left are her former clothes; on the step above them is the white veil she will be wearing. White is traditionally St. Brigid's color, so the yellow habit she wears throughout the fresco scenes is a bit puzzling.2

Above the group of women on the right of this panel we see painted a scene of Brigid distributing milk to the poor. Her veil is not white but gray, a reference to the fact that this episode in her life occurred before her consecration.3

The middle panel gives us three scenes with four episodes from the life of St. Brigid. In the lower foreground, she blesses food and water, turning the water into beer.4 Behind her is a further episode in which she cures a blind man. The figure in rags behind the blind man is the "leprosus" who guided him to the saint.5 (The texts use leprosus indiscriminately for any poor person who is also ailing in some way.)

In the upper left of the middle panel, Brigid blesses a wild boar who was about to attack a flock (of pigs in the story, here a flock of sheep). Above her is a further scene in which the boar, having been blessed, grazes peacefully among the other animals.6

In the panel's upper right scene, the saint calms a storm that was threatening to ruin the harvest.7 In a nice touch of Renaissance perspective, Lotto places a well-satisfied harvester in the foreground with a big sheaf on his shoulder.

The episodes in the right panel are most likely drawn from some specific text. In the Suardi Chapel frescoes Lotto tends to follow his written source faithfully.8 However, I have yet to find a Life that corresponds to the scenes shown. In the foreground of the street scene, the saint takes a glass pitcher of milk from someone at a window. At her feet, two poor men have taken the pitcher, which is now empty (and perhaps broken – it is hard to tell from the photograph). 

Behind her, a number of what seem to be officials or soldiers are hustling a poor man off-stage.  There is one episode in the Latin vitae in which a poor man is condemned to death for breaking a precious vase and Brigid saves him by restoring the vase.9 Conjecturally, that could be what she is doing as she sits above the crowd scene on the second floor of the building.

Lotto's source for these episodes is most likely a work based on Cogitosus' Vita Sanctae Brigidae and partly on the Saint-Omer Vita in the Acta Sanctorum.10 Of the five vitae presented in the Acta Sanctorum, only Cogitosus has all five of the episodes in the left and middle panels, though Lotto departs from Cogitosus in a few details. Like Cogitosus, Lotto ignores or suppresses the references to fire signs in most other vitae. (Mysteriously prophetic fires are seen while Brigid is still in the womb, after she is born, and when she is consecrated as a nun.11) In Cogitus, this suppression is just one aspect of a persistent  de-mythologizing of earlier tales. In the miracle episodes, for example, the narrator continually attributes these wonders to God.12  {See my note below regarding this last statement.}

Detail of the right panel
Detail of the boar scene
Detail of the storm scene
More of St. Brigid

I take exception to the last statement, that Cogitosus is suppressing and demythologizing earlier stories. The evidence points toward Cogitosus's vita being the earliest, and as various authors have argued, much is added in later tales for a variety of reasons: each author from Cogitosus onward has had reasons for portraying Saint Brigit in the way they have chosen. (See Lisa Bitel, Landscape with Two Saints and Isolde Carmody and Chris Thompson "Revisiting Mythical Women 05: The Search for Brigid", for example.)

Christian Iconography Info, by the way, is quite a neat website. It endeavours to help viewers of Christian art unpack what is going on. Attend:
(formerly at

Learn how to identify the saints in medieval and renaissance art. 

Read the stories that the paintings refer to. 

Find out the "why" behind traditional elements in paintings of scriptural events. 

Use this search engine....  {HINT: You'll have to go to their actual page to use their search engine.}

Example: if you're curious about a picture of a saint shown with a tower, just enter "tower" into the search field (without the quotation marks). You'll learn she is St. Barbara, and you can read about her, view similar images, and follow a link to the medieval legend about her. 

.....or learn how artists have portrayed specific saints, topics, or scriptural events by clicking on any one of these links: 

Aaron     Abel     Abraham     Acisclus and Victoria ... {Have a look! There are saints galore.}


Anonymous said...

Absolutely stunning!

Mael Brigde said...

Glorious, yes. I'd love to see it in person.