Allegory Of Charity by Jan Massys

Jan Massys had particular interest in depicting the female figure. He is perhaps best known for his semi-nude, often heavily bejewelled women impersonating Susanna, Judith, Venus, the daughters of Lot or, in this painting, the personification of Charity. The artist’s characters often sit or stand in a setting with palaces, balustrades or exotic luxurious locations in the background, like the figure of Charity in front of a palm tree.

The theme of Charity allowed Massys to explore the Mannerist maxim of dynamic intertwining of forms, though he never fully overcame the stiff poses of the prior generation and his smooth, enamel- like technique is forever rooted in the style of his father. The present depiction of Charity is seen as inspired by Italian classical forms, such as the “Madonna and child” by Andrea Solario, a copy of which is held in the National Gallery, London, England; or the slightly smaller but very similar Charity in the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, Italy that has been associated with Raphael’s “Madonna dell’Impannata” in Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.

The Christian Charity is part of Christian iconography, at least since the Renaissance. In the focus of this allegory are the contrasting aspects of human love versus divine love; the former is intended to illustrate the fragility of human love, and the latter the immortal love of the human soul.

During the Counter Reformation the theme of a beautiful woman nursing her child was undoubtedly considered to be an allegory of Charity or Love. However, a woman could also represent a personification of the Roman Catholic Church, her children representing the human soul hungry for spiritual nourishment provided only by the Church’s sacraments. That was an undeniably powerful Catholic doctrine rejected by most Protestant denominations. (
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