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Three madonnas and a riddle: Will mother and child reveal true story
of the strange passion flower and of the mysterious 'Hebrew script?'

Cincinnati Madonna

Three versions of Joos van Cleve's madonna and carnation  are known to exist. A
bove, courtesy
of and Copyright
Cincinnati Art Museum. Top right, courtesy of and Copyright Nelson-Atkins
Museum, Kansas City, Mo.;
at bottom  right, courtesy of and Copyright Besançon, Musée
des beaux-arts et d'archéologie (photo Charles Choffet).  Permission must be obtained
from respective museums for use.

Kansas City Madonna

Besançon, France, Madonna

By Michael E. Abrams
Copyright 2011

•See mystery script appear, vanish

The silence of the charming, bashful Madonna has become deafening. She gives up her secrets slowly. For almost five centuries, this lovely young lady has comforted her frightened curly-haired child, knowing he was destined to die on the cross. Life is precious when you have it. The task at hand was to participate in a drama that would change the world.

But newly discovered camouflaged words within the folds of the clothing of one of van Cleve's Madonnas (the existence of this script is a matter of debate) may touch on the terror of the Inquisition and a mystery involving the lives of those who fled persecution in Portugal in the early 16th Century.

Do the words exist? Are the markings simply pseudo-Hebrew, as one are historian has argued to us? Or the artifacts of restoration?

For more than 400 years, the  letters may have been unrecognized in a painting that presents at least two puzzles.

We have written about the counterfeit red passion flower, sprouting from the carnation in the middle painting,  and the purported mysterious Hebrew text described as "I am the Lord Your God" - the biblical First Commandment -  by a rabbi. All three paintings are by Flemish artist Joos van Cleve (ca. 1485-1540/41) born "Joos van der Beke" in Germany. We have more discussion and close-up pictures at  http://www.flwildflowers.com/hebrew2.

The paintings are dated in the 1530s writes John Oliver Hand, a curator at the National Gallery,  who attributes the paintings to van Cleve and his workshop in Antwerp, in Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings (2004, Yale University Press).

Art historian Burton L. Dunbar compares the two American held paintings. He gives an extensive description of the Kansas City painting at the Nelson-Atkins (the painting at top right) in German and Netherlandish Paintings 1450-1600 (2005, University of Washington Press).

A third painting (on the bottom right) adorns a museum in France – the Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archeologie in Besançon.  Listed as by van Cleve and his atelier (studio or workshop), it is named "La Vierge á l'oeillet" - Madonna of the Carnation - and it is painted with oil on an oak panel.

Why three Madonnas?

The answer may lie within the new capitalism and rising merchant class.

The bustling art market in Antwerp, the second largest port in Europe, brought thousands of visitors who came on ships laden with valuable commodities. The port became a center for trade in spices and herbs from the far East and the New World. Just as we want to bring souvenirs home today,  visitors would take home the work of noted masters and their workshops. Some were offered for sale, on speculation. At this time of prosperity, the population of Antwerp doubled over a short period of time.

To meet the demand, van Cleve's workshop, one of many in the city,  produced several copies of certain popular paintings by the master, such as the  colorful St. Jerome contemplating a human skull, one of which we viewed at the museum at Harvard University.

The onset of commercialization, the Protestant reformation, and a new bourgeois class assured a new kind of prosperity.  Circulation of copies led to even more imitation, borrowing or stealing subtance and method. Many hands were involved in altarpieces, for instance. Artists stole from the work of the popular German illustrator Albrecht Dürer.  Every master had a workshop, and many of the brushstrokes were made by journeymen, following the pattern laid out by the master. An absorbing description of the new business is found in Making and Marketing: Studies of the Painting Process in Fifteenth-and Sixteenteh-Century Netherlandish Workshops by Molly Faries (29006 Bepols Publishers, Turnhout, Belgium);  Painting for the Market; Studies in European Urban History 2: Commerialization of Art in Antwerp's Golden Age, by Filip Vermeylen (2003, Brepols) and Early Netherlanish Painting at the Crossroads: A Critical Look at Current Methodologies, edited by Maryan W.  Ainsworth (2001, Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia, Yale University Press).

Motifs for religious paintings followed new testament stories or legends. The "annunciation" in the 15th and 16th centuries, with a newsbearing Gabriel and a shy, diffident Madonna, range from the stoic to the melodramatic. Compare  van Cleve's workmanlike annunciation (ca. 1525 Metropolitan Museum) with the earlier dramatic craftsmanship of Botticelli (ca. 1489 Uffizi).

The botany of art

What intrigues us is the botany of the madonna and child paintings. Van Cleve's work displays a carnation representing the blood of Christ. It is said that a carnation sprouted where Mary dropped her tears.We see leaves of the mint rosemary sprouting from the carnation.  (see The Mysterious "Nejlican" Revisted: Some Thoughts about thr Symbolism of the Carnation by Miriam Milman, (1996 in the journal Konsthistorisk tidskrift . . .  Vol. 65 number 2)  The rosemary was used in medieval times to provide a refreshing  smell in the presence of death. The cherries, held by the child, represented the joys of paradise and the sweetness of heaven. The a quince, at right, is a fruit which is a customary symbol of fertility. The quince cannot be eaten plain until it is beyond ripeness, which begins to show on it its skin. Or is it an apple? An orange? A pomegranate as the womb of the church? Each carries the weight of symbolism and we have seen differing interpretations.

 The Christ child is uncircumcised, common in Madonna and child paintings and the Christian conception of Christ, although a violation of Jewish custom and law, beginning with the self-circumcision of Abraham and the covenant with G-d, in the Hebrew portion "Lech lecha" in Genesis. The child, thus, symbolically belongs to all nations, but, it goes almost without saying, not to the Jews. The theology is made more emphatic by the icon of the red passion flower in the middle painting, representing in its parts, first to the Spanish friars, the drama of the death of Christ, added perhaps a century after the artist died.

Mark Carter Leach in his article "Michelangelo Invenit, Joos van Cleve Explicavit" in the Journal Studies in Iconography (vol 5, 1979, pp. 93-106) finds the Cincinnat painting "Leonardesque in style but inspired by Michaelangelo."

Of all the experts, he comes closest to understanding the passion flower, but does not access the full history of the flower, which would have told him van Cleve had never seen such a flower.

"In Joos' version of the picture in Kansas City, the painter is content to let well enough alone by simply showing the virgin holding a carnation from which Christ violently recoils. In the Cincinnati version he makes the allusion even more explicit by showing the flower "proliferating,"that is, putting forth a shoot which shows a flower above a flower. This upper flower, rendered in blood red, proves not to be composed of natural elements but rather the column, nails and crown of thorns of Christ's coming passion."

Leach observes that the flower bears "a striking resemblance to a woodcut" of the Passiflora carulea, a New World flower native to South America. We contacted an art historian who specializes in botany. Sam Segal is the author of  Flowers and Nature: Netherlandish Flower Painting of Four Centuries (Rijksdiest Beedende Kunst, 1990).  He pointed out to us by email that his research tells him the first genuine passion flower to appear in the works of the Flemish masters was painted about 1625 by the Jesuit Daniel Seghers in a flowered wreath around a religious cartouche of two airborne and one seated putti, the putti thought to be the work of another artist. By that time, we know of gardens in Europe with passion flowers sprouting.

We know of at least two paintings by Seghers with passion flowers, and one such painting  is now displayed at the Louvre (above and below, photo of the  courtesy of David Abrams; passion flower in center).

of rosemary and symbolic passion flower sprout from
carnation in Cincinnati

Photo by author

Further, as Segal observed, the small sprouts from the carnation in the paintings are actually sprigs of rosemary.

The passion flower, itself, was discovered in the New World.  It is not mentioned by a European herbalist until about 1570, when Spanish physician Monardes describes it, more than 30 years after the death of van Cleve. It was not depicted until the early 1600s, although an earlier Aztec codex is thought to have a rough representation. Although European gardeners eventually grew these exotics,  they were not present in Europe during the lifetime of the artist, and the first clear botanical drawings were not distributed in Europe until sometime after the year 1600, according to botanical historians, when they were shown to the pope. We have shown possible models for the flower in woodcuts in the early 17th Century.

This flower would also symbolize the universal statement of Christ. The discovery of the problematic "untutored" races in these new lands, not mentioned in the Bible, raised serious problems of inclusion. More than one Spanish romantic suggested the Garden of Eden existed in the New Found Land, and at least one proposed that the fruit of the passionflower or "granadilla" (little pomegranate) was actually the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve.

The first drawing of the flower may have been sent to Europe in the late 16th century by Phillip II's medical man and botanist Francisco Hernandez.  His original volumes, now  lost, were shipped from Mexico to his sovereign. At least two drawings, possibly by Hernandez, do exist in posthumous publications dating around 1650.  We write about Hernandez and the Mexican historian Sahaguin and their rumored Converso/Jewish backgrounds.

The 'Hebrew' script: real or illusory?

As much of a riddle is the possible Hebrew writing camouflaged upon the blue bodice of the madonna in the Cincinnati painting at left. Here we have a disagreement. Cincinnati museum conservator Per Knutas believes that the markings are mistaken for Hebrew and are simply the byproduct of impainting during restoration. The letters can only be seen from a distance and disappear under the scope. At the opposite, a rabbi interprets the words as "anochi adonai" which are the first words of the First Commandment in Hebrew Bible.  The words are the foundation of Judaism, for they say "I am the Lord your God" to the exclusion of all other Gods. This is the basis for Judaism, the statement of monotheism. The first letter of the phrase, the "aleph," appears to be missing.

The word "anochi" is pronounced  aw - no - chi with a guttural "ch" sound, like a hard "h." Rabbi Schneur Oirechman of the Chabad center in Tallahassee, Florida, interpreting these word in the traditional Hassidic sense, explains that the word means more than simply the pronoun "I" which can be represented in Hebrew more compactly by the word "ani."  Interpretation is that "anochi" contains flesh and soul and is a cosmography of the first person, that the meaning is that Hashem (G-d) puts divine emphasis on this commandment, which encompasses the ineffable and universal.  Therefore, one should put his entire soul into the study of Torah (the Hebrew bible).

Gary Schwartz, an art historian in the Netherlands, who has collected hundreds of examples of "pseudo Hebrew" strongly disagrees with the interpretation of Oirechman and says the letters simply represent the same sort of random letters he has been seeing. His writing can be found on the web, with examples, at http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/homepage/

It is not unique to see Hebrew writing on clothing in a painting of this period,  according to Larry Silver, an art history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. A painting by van Cleve contemporary Quintin Massys, of Jesus, shows his geneaology on his collar, and the virgin possesses the first words of Genesis on her clothing, he said. We found a Massys Jesus on the web wth Hebrew writing. This writing is an occult Renaissance name for Jesus, the name for God with an additional letter "shin" written in Hebrew, adapted by Christians and later used in a mystic pentagram.  We mention other evidence and scholarship here.

The words on the van Cleve can certainly be viewed in a Christian manner. Joseph Koerner, a scholar of Northern European art at Harvard University, responded this way in a letter to the author:

The added flower is a fascinating event in this painting's career.  It would be hard to say whether the Hebrew lettering belongs to that later event:  technical analysis might begin to answer that question.  In my view (without seeing the painting), the Hebrew lettering – whether added later or originally there – was meant to transport us back to the historical Virgin and Child, and to the mystery of history itself, where through Christ the old covenant (as typology had it) is replaced by the new. 

The presence of Christian Hebraists in Europe was emphasized by Prof. emeritus Aaron Katchen of Brandeis University, an author and scholar. At the time, an educated person needed to know three languages - Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  Universities offered courses. Polyglot Bibles were being produced.

"The question is whether the artist himself knew Hebrew," said Katchen. "Is that his hand or a calligraphic hand?"

The questions that must be asked

What we have asked is whether the script was written to be hidden and known only to those who recognize Hebrew. The Hebrew letters may have been  a message that that the painting could relay to  those who might feel threatened by the widespread religious intolerance of the day. About 40 years before van Cleve painted his Madonna, the Jews had been expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, in 1492, the same year Columbus set sail. The conquest of Moslem Spain was marked by final victory in Granada that year. Jews fled with what they could gather to Portugal, North Africa,  Northern Europe and to the Levant. Some set sail for the New World, establishing themselves in Brazil and the Caribbean Islands, mostly under Dutch auspices where the Reformation had brought with it a tolerance for apostates.  As the Inquision proceeded in Spain and later in Portugal, and thousands were tortured and killed for refusing to convert to Catholicism,  the Netherlands offered sub rosa refuge to the New Christians. We discuss the "Nation of Portugal" and the flight of refugees to Antwerp and then to Italy.

Whether van Cleve employed Jews in his workshop is something history does not reveal to us. We do know that Antwerp was probably the hub of commerce in Northern Europe up until the Phillip's unpaid soldiers sacked the city in 1576, killing 7,000 people, some of them New Christians who had fled Portugal and Spain. 

  The other paintings appear to contain no Hebrew script. The provenance of the Kansas City painting, listed by Hand, is "probably a convent in or near Palencia" as related by a correspondent in a 1932 letter.  It was exhibited in Vienna in 1930. More information can be found in the Dunbar book. The Cincinnati provenance can be traced only as far back as 1913 in Munich, and is more likely to have had a greater degree of workshop participation because of the harder and more enamel-like surface, writes Hand. What may be a third such painting, perhaps sold in Paris in 1924, is possibly the Cincinnati painting, writes Hand.

The French painting has a provenance as "legs Louis-Joseph Chenot, 1896.

 Many questions remain unanswered. If there is a Hebrew script on the Cincinnati Madonna, when was it added?  Could impainting or restoration have obscured the message?  Or is is simply an illusion, a cryptomorph, something we imagine?

Is it possible to trace further the provenance of the three Madonnas?

Do any other passion flowers exist in 16th century paintings?  Does the precise pattern for this flower exist?

Does the painting tell us a dramatic story of the refugee Conversos in Antwerp in the early 16th century?

 We must continue to search for clues.

The lovely Madonna knows a story,  but she is not speaking.

Michael E. Abrams, Ph.D., is a professor of journalism at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. He can be reached at meabrams@earthlink.net.