Joseph Stella: Madonnas & Related Work

by Irma B. Jaffe



The "Rose" in the title is, of course, the Madonna. Located at the center of the vertical axis, like the head of a standing figure, the flower radiates an aureole of light from which a richly flower-decorated triangle descends, its geometric shape softened by the curves of the white herons at each side. The configuration evokes a human figure, even a female figure, as Stella clearly intended, for, enmeshed in the design are birds and flowers and curving stems that create a lacy, filigreed, fabric-like surface suggestive of a dress. Near the base of the vertical axis, exactly aligned with the rose, is a lotus. The two flowers are visually related to underline their symbolic relationship. Writing about his painting, The Birth of Venus, 1922, Stella identified the lotus with the goddess of beauty. The Madonna and Venus, representing sacred and profane love, are thus brought together in Stella's dual image of Woman. The symbolism and exotic atmosphere were very much to the Victorian taste of his patron.

The Madonna as nurturing mother is depicted in Mater Dei, a painting that must have been executed during his 1926-27 sojourn in Italy, since it was exhibited in Stella's solo show at the Valentine Gallery in New York in 1928. Although iconic in its absolute frontality, there is a charming reality about this Madonna; she is a young Italian mother, perhaps a peasant with dark hair and large, capable hands. The clue to her reality lies in the way the left sleeve of her green dress is set forward of the dress itself. The figure is therefore situated in real space.

Whether or not Mater Dei is the Madonna as peasant, there can be no doubt that in Purissima Stella represents her as the Queen of Heaven, wrapped in a gloriously regal cape. There is a curious, yet somehow attractive, incongruity between the naturalistic face and the totally stylized figure standing imperiously in a blue gown exposed in the opening of her mantle. This is reminiscent of the sacred effigies carried in religious holiday processions in predominantly Catholic countries.

Purissima is the figural counterpart of The Apotheosis of the Rose. Both paintings recall the artist's visual autobiography, Tree of My Life, 1919, in which appears the dense fabric of flowers, fruits, and birds seen in these works of the twenties. The idea of fertility inherent in such paintings is of a spiritual nature as is clear from a number of Stella's writings. He remembers, for example, that in Assisi:

all the places where St. Francis and St. Clare performed the most significant of their sublime deeds are marked by flowers, kept perennially fresh by the faithful and the devout. Thus, in the course of centuries, the lives of the most glorious artists appear like miraculous flowers, luminous, lucky stars lighting up the darkness for succeeding generations. [10]

For Stella, flowers, fruits, and birds had dual roles as natural creatures and as metaphors for art, for religion, and for spiritual and natural fertility. Spirit and nature were as inextricably entwined as the flowers, fruits, and birds through which he made visible his mystically inclined imagination. Their brilliant colors were nature's art, which the artist appropriated to express his mimetic, aesthetic, and ecstatically spiritual perceptions.

The "most glorious artists" in Stella's pantheon were Italian. The artist August Mosca, Stella's friend and pupil in his late years, recalls how he loved to discourse to his artist friends on the stylistic particularities and relative greatness of Raphael, Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Mantegna, Giotto, and Masaccio, among others; and it is not surprising, in exploring the wide-ranging sources of Stella's art, to find in it many echoes of Italian masters. The hieratic and iconic treatment of the Madonna in Purissima, with its strong emphasis on the voluminous cape, brings to mind Piero della Francesca's Madonna of Mercy. In both paintings, the opening of the cape plays an important role as a symbol of birth and protection. There may be a sense of surprise, however, in noticing that Stella's Madonna owes something to Leonardo Da Vinci's Leda and the Swan, known to us only through a copy by Cesare da Sesto. Surely Stella's imagination was nudged by Leonardo's Leda who is embraced by the large white bird with its long, curved neck and upthrust, adoring head. [11]

Also included in this exhibition are The Heron and The Flamingo, no longer to be seen simply as beautiful birds, but rather as mythical, magical, spiritual creatures that bathe in the blue tropical waters and rise with "joyous voices" into the air, "singing a chorus of praise as they celebrate the divine marriage of Heaven and Earth." [12] Equally with the Madonna, the flowers and the birds that accompany her carry the essential message of Joseph Stella's strangely modernist art.



1. Irma B. Jaffe, Joseph Stella. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1970, Chapter VIII (reprinted, New York: Fordham University Press, 1988), hereinafter, Jaffe, Stella.

2. Jaffe, Stella, Appendix I, nos. 1,2, 3. The quotations here and elsewhere in this essay are my translations from several of Stella's notes in Italian.

3. Jaffe, Stella, p. 78; p.57; p. 58.

4. Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams. New York, Modern Library, 1931, p. 380.

5. Jaffe, Stella, p. 30.

6. The Virgin of the Rose and Lily was exhibited in Il Mostra Internazionale d'Arte Sacra, Rome, Italy, 1934 and at the Riverside Museum, New York in 1941; it has been lost to public view since then. Purissima and Mater Dei were exhibited in 1928 at the Valentine Gallery, New York (with The Virgin), and have not been exhibited since that time.

7. Joseph Stella, "Discovery of America: Autobiographical Notes," ARTnews, November 1960, pp. 41-43 and 64-67. Written in 1946. Quoted in Jaffe, Stella, p. 188.

8. Ibid., p. 34. Stella and Modigliani became friends in Paris in 1912.

9. The lily in this painting is like the one in Song of the Birds, c. 1919, in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Janss. illustrated in Joseph Stella: The Tropics, exhibition catalog, Richard York Gallery, New York, 1988. This tends to confirm the early date of 1922 for The Virgin of the Rose and Lily.

10. Jaffe, Stella, Appendix I, no. 21 (in Italian).

11. I want to thank Dr. Yvonne Korshak most warmly for bringing to my attention the similarities of Stella's Purissima and Leonardo's Leda.

12. Jaffe, Stella, Appendix I, no. 28.


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