Hans Baldung’s ‘Seven Ages of Woman’

I’ve had this one on my mind for awhile.  This may be one of the earliest images featuring a semi-nude little girl in the history of Western art.  Of course, it presents her in the context of a woman’s aging process.  What immediately catches your eye about these figures are their chests, and this was clearly intentional on Baldung’s part.  Your eye alights on the flat chest of the young girl to the far left, then proceeds to the right along the line of ever-burgeoning mammaries until it reach the sagging breasts of the old woman.  Or maybe it flows in the opposite direction, moving from largest to smallest.  Whatever the case, it is only on the second glance that we take in the diagonal ‘Z’ pattern of all seven figures, including the infant girl on the ground and the barely visible ghost behind the line of corporeal females.  But it is the bosoms more than any other element that leads the eye in this composition, as they represent a clear pattern.

So what can we say of a painting that intentionally channels our attention towards the girl’s and women’s chests?  That it’s erotic?  I don’t believe that was the point here.  It is rather my contention that Baldung intended to draw our attention to the breasts as the most obvious and acute element of the aging female form.  Otherwise why not paint these female bodies entirely nude?  It wasn’t as if he was squeamish about doing so, as one can see from his painting “Allegory of Music,” in which we see an adolescent girl or young woman in full nakedness:

hans-baldung-allegory-of-music-1527

Hans Baldung – Allegory of Music (1527)

We can also say that this painting is allegorical. There clearly are not seven distinct ages of women (nor three, as he depicted in another painting); there are no absolute natural cutoff points between infancy and childhood, childhood and adolescence, adolescence and young womanhood, and so on and so forth. These periods are transitional. But Renaissance thinkers, in the early stages of creating what would become modern science, loved to classify and quantify everything, including humans. Or rather, especially humans.  Thus was born, as well, the modern conception of the child.

Hans Baldung - The Seven Ages of Woman (early 16th century)

Hans Baldung – The Seven Ages of Woman (early 16th century)

And the Virgin’s Name Was Mary, Part 1

The Virgin Mary is believed to have been the daughter of Joachim and Anne.  She may have been a Levite, or perhaps a descendant of the tribe of Judah.  Mary was a resident of Nazareth, and in keeping with Jewish tradition at the time, probably was married off during early or mid-adolescence.  According to Christian scripture, it was the Archangel Gabriel who decended to Mary to give her the news of her impending motherhood to the Messiah, Jeshua (Jesus.)  Some scholars have argued that Mary may have had a sexual encounter prior to her marriage to Joseph and made the story up to keep from being subjected to the harsh punishment imposed on females for premarital sex in that era.  If that’s so, the real miracle of the story of the virgin birth is that it not only kept her out of legal hot water but flourished, becoming the seed that blossomed into one of the world’s major religions.  All of this, of course, presupposes that Mary actually existed.  For this we have no hard evidence.

Artistic images of Mary with the infant Christ (generally divided into either Nativity scenes or Madonna and Child portraits,) were one of the earliest and most profusely worked themes in the history of Western art, with the first known representations showing up in the early Medieval era and then becoming a veritable flood thereafter.  What are less common are paintings and sculptures of Mary’s own birth and childhood.  The examples we do have are, I think, often more interesting than their counterparts, perhaps because the artists felt less constrained by the degree of reverence accorded to Mary’s deified son and so toned down some of the formality one tends to find in many Nativity and Madonna and Child artworks.  Whatever the case, these pieces often get overlooked in discussions or overviews of religious art and iconography.

Anton Pitscheider-Menza – St. Anne and Mary, St. Ulrich parish church, Gröden

Domenico Ghirlandaio – Birth of Mary, Tornabuoni Chapel (1486-90)

Domenico Ghirlandaio: The Complete Works

Wikipedia: Domenico Ghirlandaio

Estácio Zambelli - Maria bambina, Caxias do Sul Cathedral, Brazil

Estácio Zambelli – Maria bambina, Caxias do Sul Cathedral, Brazil

Giotto di Bondone – The Birth of the Virgin (1304-06)

Wikipedia: Giotto

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet - The Education of the Virgin (1700)

Jean-Baptiste Jouvenet – The Education of the Virgin (1700)

Wikipedia: Jean Jouvenet

Juan de Borgoña - The Birth of the Virgin (1495)

Juan de Borgoña – The Birth of the Virgin (1495)

Wikipedia: Juan de Borgoña

Master of Bambino Vispo - Saint Anne and the Young Virgin Sewing (early 15th century)

Master of Bambino Vispo – Saint Anne and the Young Virgin Sewing (early 15th century)

Wikipedia: Master of the Bambino Vispo

Domenico Beccafumi - Birth of Mary (1540-43)

Domenico Beccafumi – Birth of Mary (1540-43)

Wikipedia: Domenico di Pace Beccafumi

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo – Birth of Mary (1660)

Wikipedia: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

Master of Joachim and Anne - Birth of the Virgin (1450)

Master of Joachim and Anne – Birth of the Virgin (1450)

Wikimedia Commons: Childhood of Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary’s Birth, Childhood, Betrothal and Marriage

The Early Life of the Virgin Mary

Early Life of the Virgin Mary Till the Birth of Jesus Christ (Recounts the tale of how Mary was wed at age 12.)