Living With an Endangered Species; Painting and Poetry

October Is Month of Rosary, Down Syndrome Awareness

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ROME, OCT. 6, 2011 ( As it happens, I have one of the world’s most precious treasures sitting in my own home: an endangered species. Now, if I had a Siberian tiger or a giant tortoise in my living room, there would be animal activists, NGOs and plain old tourists beating down my door to defend its rights, sensitize humanity or just snap a couple photos of my furry, slimy or scaly creature.

My endangered species, however, is a child with Down syndrome. He is indeed the most endangered of all, as he is not even recognized as such. There are 600,000 elephants in Africa, assiduously protected from those who would kill them for a bit of ivory, but only 400,000 Down syndrome people in the United States. Yet while it seems that every newborn panda is front-page news, 92% of unborn children diagnosed with Down syndrome are killed by abortion.

This October marks the 30th anniversary of National Down Syndrome Month, begun in 1981 in the United States to raise awareness about the abilities of people with Down syndrome. In Italy, Oct. 9 is the National Day for Down Syndrome Awareness. In 200 Italian piazzas, volunteers will distribute literature regarding the syndrome — along with chocolate bars (with us, it’s always about the food!)

Italy is indeed a remarkable country for people with Down syndrome, or Trisomy 21 as Dr. Jerome Lejeune named the genetic anomaly that produces the characteristic set of symptoms. Hospitals arrange and organize regular screenings for possible problems known to be associated with Trisomy 21, such as heart defects. There is state-run physical and speech therapy. Schools arrange for Trisomy 21 kids to take classes alongside kids their age. But mostly it is the Italians themselves who are welcoming and loving with Trisomy 21 people, reacting without awkwardness or pity.

Pablo Pineda, the first person in Spain with Trisomy 21 to obtain a university degree, noted in an interview that «Italy is the only European country I know of where things are better for persons with Down syndrome.» Chaos and crazed driving aside, the spontaneous warmth that Italians have always shown people with disabilities, always make me love Italy all over again.

Many, many Americans have rallied to the aid of these endangered children. Motorcycle riders in Florida will parade in solidarity this weekend. Austin Ruse, founder and president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, is taking a first-person pro-life stand and biking a hundred kilometers to benefit Best Buddies, an organization that provides friends and support for people with Trisomy 21. TV star Eva Longoria, whose sister has Trisomy 21, has been a long-time activist for the rights and protection of those affected by Down syndrome and will be on the cover of a new Toys R Us guide featuring toys for special needs children.

As the numbers of Trisomy 21 births dwindle and this quiet genocide works its way through the world, there are many ways one can help these endangered children. Best Buddies sponsors walks all over the United States, and the National Association for Down Syndrome proposes several ways to lend a hand. Many expectant mothers who fear raising a Down syndrome child are not aware of how many people would be delighted to adopt these children. Spreading the word about how much these children are desired would save many lives.

But mostly, this October, the month of Mary, mother par excellence, the easiest way to help those with Trisomy 21 is to offer a rosary.

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The Greek poet Simonides of Coes once wrote, «painting is silent poetry, poetry is eloquent painting,» a phrase that best expresses the art of Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli. This week, a new exhibition at the Papal Stables of the Quirinal Hill invites visitors to explore the Renaissance world of visual poetry through the works of these two Florentine masters.

Botticelli, born Alessandro di Filipepi in 1445, studied under Fra Filippo Lippi, father of Filippino, before joining the studio of Verrocchio where he worked alongside artist Leonardo da Vinci. Recognized immediately for his formidable talent, he would become a darling of Lorenzo de’Medici’s court and the only contemporary artist mentioned in Leonardo’s writings.

Filippino, born in 1457, first learned to paint with his father, but after Filippo’s death in 1469, Botticelli took the young man under his wing. The relationship between master and student, which eventually transformed into rivalry, is one of the main themes of the exhibit.

Both artists were praised by contemporaries for their gifted drawing and their skill in color, and Botticelli was singled out by mathematician Luca Pacioli for his mastery of linear perspective. Although both artists had a complete command of the «grammar» of art, they chose to compose their works with a lyrical tone, favoring effect and emotion over faithful interpretation of reality.

Biographer Vasari praises Botticelli repeatedly for his «restless,» «inquiring» and «agile» mind, as much of a thinker as a painter. Botticelli’s image of St. Augustine from 1480 seems like the aspirations of the artist himself. The Bishop of Hippo is depicted in a cramped stone cell, surrounded by his books, astrolabes and other instruments of learning, but the scholar focuses upward, interested only in earthly knowledge as a gateway to seeing the divine.

Botticelli’s most well-known works are his mythologies, «The Birth of Venus» and «The Primavera,» on which scholars have poured forth torrents of ink in interpretation. These «profane» works, destined for a restricted audience, make up only a small percentage of his ouvre and are mostly contained in Florence.

Botticelli’s greatest productions were his Madonnas: ethereal beauties tinged with a faint melancholy. He produced dozens of these smaller works for domestic settings, each different from the other. One in a gated garden recalls Mary, «hortus conclusus,» another with a tall tower implies «Turis Davidica.» Seen together in the exhibition they become a litany always evoking Mary, «totus pulchra est.»

Botticelli’s later works grow more intensely meditative closing with the mysterious «Mystic Nativity,» an image of the birth of Christ that simultaneously evokes the Second Coming, capturing the two bookends of Christ’s arrival in human history in a single panel.

Botticelli himself grew more contemplative in his later years, first drawing near to the circle of Savonarola, the great preacher of repentance in Florence, then, in the words of Vasari, «wasting a great deal of time» on illustrations for Dante’s epic mystic poem, the Divine Comedy.

Looking at the delicate drawings, however, visitors might perceive Botticelli’s work as a portal from the literal story of Dante’s journey to the anagogical interpretation, mentioned by Dante himself, of religious ecstasy. Art historian Charles Dempsey perhaps saw Botticelli’s late works better than any other when he described the metamorphosis of his images of Venus to his portrayals of Beatrice and Mary as the transformation from «eros» to «caritas.»

Filippino Lippi shared his master’s «restless» mind, using each one of his artistic commissions to experiment with new media, techniques and styles. The exhibit emphasizes his development, starting from his years in Botticelli’s studio. There he mastered the exquisite outlines of his modest Madonnas and the fluttering robes of the older painter’s nymphs and angels.

At the age of 27, Filippino w
as selected for a singular honor, to complete the fresco cycle begun by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel and left unfinished when the great genius died at the age of 27. Filippino used this opportunity to train his hand to form statuesque figures and voluminous drapery.

Lippi’s repertoire grew when he saw the Flemish altarpiece of the «Adoration of the Shepherds» by Hugo van der Goes, brought to Florence in 1483. His most famous panel exhibited in the show, «The Vision of St. Bernard,» was painted shortly thereafter. St. Bernard, weary of writing, looks up to see an apparition of the Madonna. The saint, lodged in a grotto surrounded by rocks, twigs, books and stones, is a symphony of beige while Mary, iridescent, appears accompanied by a cohort of adorable angels. Lippi’s imaginative work conceals two frustrated demons in a grotto who had hoped to lure the saint away from his work.

Rome enriched Filippino greatly as he studied the ancient decoration in the underground area of Nero’s Golden House while he painted his masterpiece, the Caraffa Chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The brilliant young artist was chosen by Cardinal Olivero Caraffa, protector to the Dominicans, to interpret his chapel with the images of the Virgin and stories of Thomas Aquinas. The collaboration between the cardinal and the painter was a blueprint for combining theology and beauty. Unfortunately, this and most of Filippino’s best works are in fresco and therefore impossible to transport to the exhibit.

I found the most moving work to be his «Madonna adoring the Christ Child,» where Mary kneels before the infant Jesus contemplating the wonder of her Son. The radiant beauty of her face and golden hair comes from the workshop of Botticelli, while the heavy robes that anchor her to earth derive from Masaccio. The sward of grass dotted with wildflowers is rendered with Flemish naturalism, but this eclecticism is secondary to the message: The Child lies on the ground, luminous yet vulnerable. Positioned in a chapel above the altar, the work invited viewers to contemplate the beauty of the Incarnation but also the mystery of the Passion.

«Filippino Lippi and Sandro Botticelli in 1400s Florence» is on display until Jan. 15.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at

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