The Sick Child by Gabriel Metsu, c. 1664
I am pleased to post a guest article by a friend and art historian, Nora Hamerman. I think the background to The Sick Child that she brings to light makes this painting all the more poignant.
A Catholic `Dutch Master’
In the Golden Age of 17th century Netherlands, Gabriel Metsu infused scenes of contemporary daily life with allusions to the sacraments.
By Nora Hamerman
One of the most striking pictures at the special exhibit devoted to Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington shows a woman, her face in shadow, cradling a listless boy on her lap. The child looks wan. His outer clothing has been discarded on a nearby chair. A side table holds a porridge bowl and a spoon. On the wall over the child’s head hangs a picture of the Crucifixion of Christ in grisaille, a grey-toned technique used to imitate sculpture.
The painting, a beloved treasure of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on loan to the Washington exhibit until July 24, 2011, is labeled The Sick Child, but it might just as well be titled, “The Caring Mother,” suggests National Gallery of Art curator Arthur Wheelock. Viewers may enjoy this picture as an exquisitely brushed oil painting of red, blue, and ochre against more neutral shades; or they may look deeper for a religious meaning, specifically, a Roman Catholic one.
The child’s nude legs hanging down in front are most unusual in the domestic scenes that were a popular staple of Dutch 17th-century art. What they do call to mind are the numerous Renaissance-era paintings of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child at the Nativity, or of the Virgin Mary with Jesus on her lap at the Lamentation. The sick child’s pose is especially close to that of the dead Christ on Mary’s lap in Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican. Metsu, who never went to Italy, was a Catholic like his famous contemporary Vermeer, and trained by some of the leading Dutch Catholic artists. He would have known the work through prints.
Pieta by Michelangelo, 1499
One widely circulated engraving posed Michelangelo’s Pieta in front of a crucifix in Santa Maria della Febbre (Saint Mary of the Fever) next to St. Peter’s in Rome, where the statue had been moved in 1516. This church—a lovely view of it by another Dutch master, Saenredam, is in the National Gallery’s permanent collection—also housed a miraculous image, the Madonna della Febbre, that was invoked against the plague.
Wave after wave of the bubonic plague swept through the Netherlands during Metsu’s lifetime, felling nearly a quarter of the population of his native Leiden when he was a child, and claiming more than 30,000 lives in Amsterdam between 1663 and 1664, when Metsu, residing in that city, was painting The Sick Child. No one knew how the disease was transmitted, and children were at highest risk. Fever and thirst were common symptoms. Popular literature advised mothers to hold their afflicted children on their lap and feed them pap.
The Roman Catholic community--comprising about a third of the Dutch population, and obliged to worship in secret--relied heavily on reverence for the Virgin Mary and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and the anointing of the sick, in these desperate times. “During the height of the plague in Amsterdam, the close, personal concern of a Dutch mother with her child during a period of illness served as a vehicle for a reflection of the love and attentiveness of the Virgin Mary for her son, Christ, during his infancy and adult life,” writes Valerie Hedquist, a University of Montana professor who has analyzed the Catholic meaning in works by Metsu and Vermeer.
Most of Metsu’s pictures are what art historians call “genre” scenes, depictions of daily life. He often put a Catholic twist into these pictures. His version of An Old Woman at Her Meal highlights red wine and bread in an allusion to the Eucharist.
An Old Woman at Her Meal by Gabriel Metsu, 1657
In 1645, the Roman Catholic community observed the 300th anniversary of the miracle of Amsterdam, in which a Host had survived abuse and worked healing miracles. Joost Vondel, the nation’s greatest poet and a Catholic convert, issued a poem “Mysteries of the Altar” defending the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament.
Just before he died in the prime of life, Metsu painted a Crucifixion similar to the painting in the background of The Sick Child. His large canvas, loaned to the exhibit by Rome’s Capitoline Picture Gallery, might have been destined for one of the hidden churches in private houses in Amsterdam where mass was celebrated. Christ is silhouetted against a dark background while the Virgin Mary, Saint John, and Saint Mary Magdalene grieve at the foot of the cross. The Magdalene grasps the cross in a gesture that Catholic literature identified as the saint’s attempt to touch the blood of Christ. Her white undergarment spreads like a caporal in the center foreground under a golden chalice and paten.