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
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
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
1450-1600 (2005, University of Washington Press).
A third painting (on the
bottom right) adorns a museum in France – the Musée des
Besançon. Listed as by van Cleve and his atelier (studio
workshop), it is named "La Vierge
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
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.
contemplating a human skull, one of which we viewed at the museum at
The onset of commercialization, the Protestant reformation, and a new
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,
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
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,
to the Spanish friars,
the drama of the death of Christ, added perhaps a century after the
Mark Carter Leach in his article "Michelangelo
Explicavit" in the Journal Studies
in Iconography (vol 5, 1979, pp. 93-106) finds the Cincinnat
"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.
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
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
of rosemary and symbolic passion flower sprout from
carnation in Cincinnati
Photo by author
the carnation in the
paintings are actually sprigs of rosemary.
passion flower, itself, was discovered in the New World. It is
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
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
woodcuts in the early 17th Century.
This flower would also symbolize the universal statement of Christ. 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
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
blue bodice of the madonna in the Cincinnati painting at left. Here we
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
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
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
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
The words on the van Cleve can certainly be viewed in a Christian
scholar of Northern European art at Harvard University, responded this
way in a letter to the author:
the painting), the Hebrew lettering – whether added later or originally
there – was meant to transport us back to the historical Virgin and
to the mystery of history itself, where through Christ the old covenant
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
What we have asked is whether
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
year Columbus set sail. The conquest of Moslem Spain was marked
by final victory in Granada that year. Jews fled with what they could
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
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
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 email@example.com.