So, where is Jacopo di Cione’s Coronation of the Virgin now? I mean, I know where it is, safe in the National Gallery for the duration. But where is it inside me, after all that contemplation, if I can’t see it? The banal truth is, that I can see it, or sort of see it, if I want to – I can look it up on the internet, even more easily than in the old days when I might have found a reproduction in a book. But where is it inside my mind, meanwhile? I’m interested in how we transport the art we love around with us, and at first I’m going to try to write down here what I remember of the painting, without looking it up or checking anything. I’ll look at it online afterwards, when I’ve finished writing, in case I’ve got anything terribly wrong. My visual memory isn’t very good, it’s not exact, not like an art historian’s, or an artist’s.
If I had to sketch out the shape of the coronation, block out its elements inside a shape, I couldn’t do it – which is quite startling to realise, after so much looking. I know that it’s big, and that in front of it in the gallery there’s a seat; I did my looking from there. A lot of what I can remember is about what I was thinking, as I looked. The painting has turned into a sort of story inside my memory; or, not quite a story – a sign, an element in my inner life of sights and signs. A sign, with accompanying intimations of mood and colour, fragments of form.
What I most of all remember is the gesture at the core of the painting, where Christ, sitting under some sort of canopy, places the crown on his mother’s head, making her the Queen of Heaven. It’s a piercingly beautiful gesture, between the son and his mother: the tenderness with which he exalts her – his careful precision in placing the crown, using both of his hands – and her humility. Their heads are bowed, their faces solemn. There are other 14th- and 15th-century Coronations around this room in the gallery, including one by Lorenzo Monaco; the gesture and its representation are conventional, repeated around the walls like a rhythm, a kind of pulse. He crowns her over and over. It’s a timeless rite, not an event.
But why the mother’s subordination to her son? She came first, and when he was helpless, he depended on her! Why isn’t he bowing his head to her, in her matriarchal primacy – why isn’t that our religious story here? We know why. And we know all the violence dissimulated in this exquisitely tranquil painting of the fixed hierarchy: a moon-faced God the Father presides in an upper panel above the Coronation, and saints and angels are ranked below it, watching obediently in their fixed order. When a woman gives birth to a child, that child must in time transcend her; every middle-aged mother knows this submission to time’s passing, and to the transfer of power between generations. I know it because I have three stepsons and three sons. But the gesture here is more than that. It’s archetypally patriarchal.
The woman gives birth to the man, who then transcends her in spirit and leaves her behind, in nature: it’s only through Christ’s favour, his lovely gesture of coronation, that the Virgin gets her exalted place in the kingdom of heaven. Among the saints watching, there are only a very few women. The son of the male godhead, out of his own humility, elevates the feminine; because his mother is worthy, chaste, exceptional, he surrounds her with consideration and glory. A beautiful gesture between a man and a woman is enshrined at the heart of the painting, but by its very nature – they’re mother and son – it’s safely purged of any suggestion of their sexuality, their sexual biology. It is an ideal pure dream of the patriarchal hierarchy, relegating female biology to the margin, even though we know that Mary has actually given birth.
I am remembering all the thoughts that played through me, as I sat in front of the painting in that quiet room, with a few visitors coming and going. I wasn’t quarrelling with the painting exactly, or even with myself: my thoughts moved, rather, around these different layers of my sensibility, between my knowingness and my naivety, my doubt and trust. And I remember that my knowing, critical resistance to the painting’s meanings seemed callow, or at least secondary, beside my submission to them, and to the painting’s beauty: its delicate light, the gravity of the facial expressions, the earth-pink tonality (Lorenzo Monaco’s candy-coloured brilliance on the next wall didn’t move me so much). The beauty of the painted gesture between son and mother was its own truth, whatever else I cared to think about it: the gesture persuaded me, for all my doubt, as a significant moment of sacred theatre, a culmination of meaning. Meanwhile, the crowd of attentive saints and angels hold their breath, wordless; some of the angels have instruments, but we can’t hear their music, because time has stopped. The son touches his mother, he recognises her. For a long moment, there isn’t anything else.