Elliot Wise and Dr. Mark J. Johnson, Art History and Curatorial Studies
Since their arrival in Naples during the thirteenth century, the Carmelite friars have safeguarded a miraculous icon of the Virgin and Child in their church of S. Maria del Carmine Maggiore on Piazza Mercato. Due to the dark complexion of the Virgin and her son, the image acquired the name, “La Bruna,” or “the Brown One.” Mary holds the Christ Child lovingly against her face, the vivid red of his robe enveloped by her dark blue mantle and highlighted by the gold ground behind them. Visitors to the Carmelite shrine will seldom find the Brown Madonna’s chapel above the high altar empty. The faithful crowd into the narrow space to whisper prayers and blow kisses to the beloved patroness of their city.
My research on the Brown Madonna grew out of my involvement with BYU’s Apolline project. Our team of professors and students worked at an archaeological dig about a twenty minute train ride from the church of S. Maria del Carmine Maggiore. I had participated in the Apolline project the year before and had taken advantage of my time in the Naples area to sudy the origins of another famous image of the Virgin and Child housed at the shrine of Madonna dell’Arco. Under the supervision of Dr. Mark Johnson from the Art History and Curatorial Studies department, I found evidence suggesting that the cult of Madonna dell’Arco might be a variation on devotion to the Hodegetria icon of Constantinople. Versions of the Hodegetria Mother of God had appeared throughout southern Italy shortly after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the mid fifteenth century. I first became aware of the Brown Madonna while working at the shrine of Madonna dell’Arco. The two cults have many connections, and the overly Byzantine painting style used in the Brown Madonna icon supported my claim that Madonna dell’Arco might also have an Eastern Orthodox background. I decided that when I returned to Italy in 2007 with the Apolline project, I would research the Byzantine influences in the Brown Madonna.
I read all the literature I could on the Brown Madonna during the months before I left for Italy. There were not many books on the image, and most of them were in Italian. During winter semester of 2007 I took Dr. Johnson’s graduate seminar on medieval patronage. For my class research project, I studied the paintings commissioned and acquired by Italian Carmelites during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. My study familiarized me with the early history of the order, and I even found several panel paintings that duplicated the composition of the Brown Madonna. Originally hermits living in the silent deserts of the Holy Land, the Carmelites began to move west as tensions with the Saracens escalated during the thirteenth century. Separated from the slopes of Mount Carmel, the European transplant chapters of the Carmelite order struggled to reconcile the exotic austerity of their contemplative tradition with bustling cities like Naples ministered to by thriving mendicant orders. They asserted their origins in the east by collecting images of the Virgin and Child in the archaic and authoritative Byzantine style.
When I got to Italy I used the library at S. Maria del Carmine Maggiore to research. The shrine had a wealth of books, mostly written by Carmelite friars, on the Brown Madonna and the history of the order. My background in the Carmelites helped me immeasurably in sifting though the information in the library. I applied my findings from the graduate seminar specifically to the Brown Madonna. The image has a remarkable ability to bridge dichotomies between groups of people, a tendency which resonates with the history of the Carmelites. The Neapolitan friars used art, feast days, and liturgy to mediate between the extremes of old and modern, orthodox and popular. The iconography and folk traditions surrounding the Brown Madonna enabled the Carmelites to hold tenaciously to the legacy of their ancient, eastern origins and at the same time fulfill their mendicant responsibilities in cultivating an accessible “religion of the people.”
For many years, the Carmelites kept the Brown Madonna in a grotto beneath the shrine, as if trying to recreate the rocky slopes of Mount Carmel in downtown Naples. This would have enhanced the liturgy celebrated at the shrine since the early Carmelites continued to use the rite of the Holy Sepulcher, its processions and unique masses continually reminding the friars of Christianity’s most sacred sites and relics. During a procession to Rome in 1500 the Brown Madonna emerged from its grotto and healed diseased commoners in a theatrical extrapolation of the Carmelites’ mendicant duties. The pilgrimage culminated at St. Peter’s Basilica when the pope himself publicly venerated the image, giving a long-awaited papal endorsement to the order. After its return to Naples, the Carmelites installed the Brown Madonna over the high altar as the symbol of their order. Carmelite theologians connected their deep Marian devotion to the symbolic colors and compositional elements of the Brown Madonna image, and during the seventeenth century, the Belgian houses decreed that every Carmelite foundation needed to venerate a copy of the icon. Old Testament prophets decorating the Brown Madonna’s stone tabernacle reminded the faithful of legends claiming that the Carmelites had been disciples of Elijah and even ministered to the Virgin Mary during her lifetime.
These messages of authority and antiquity frequently mix with the friars’ mendicant efforts to encourage the popular devotion of the masses. Feasts at the shrine reenacted the Virgin’s protection of Naples and echoed the Carmelites’ flight from Israel. In 1647, a peasant revolt used the Brown Madonna as the symbol of their uprising. Children licked the floor of the shrine in frenzied “folk” devotion, and the crowds canonized their executed ringleader as a martyr. Even today, the weekly votive masses in honor of the Brown Madonna draw crowds of faithful Neapolitans who sing folksongs while clerics intone the ancient liturgies of the Church. The church’s eclectic collection of votive offerings — ranging from awkwardly painted panels and a fish jaw to jeweled necklaces and a golden papal crown — bears witness to the odd mix of powerful prelates and humble fishermen that kneels together in veneration around the Brown Madonna.
My completed research paper begins with a discussion of the obstacles facing the early Carmelites migrating to Europe. I then explore the friars’ tension between their ancient, Eastern origins and their mendicant obligation to the masses using the lens of the Brown Madonna. I also build on some of my research last year on the Byzantine origins of Madonna dell’Arco. I will present my findings in March of 2008 at the BYU Museum of Art symposium, “Pageants and Processions: Image and Idiom as Spectacle.” I hope to have the paper included in the symposium’s publication, and I will also be applying to present at other conferences next year.