Louis Brea: Adoration of the Child

From the Mediterranean coast, between Nice and Genoa, there ran a number of short but steep salt roads to the southern Alpine communities of what was then the kingdom of Savoy and is now part of France and Italy. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries were built small chapels offering shelter and the opportunity for prayer to the mule drivers, with their loads of wine, oil and wood as well as the salt, and to shepherds and others who passed through these tiny hilltop villages. Dedicated to the Virgin or to saints associated with healing, they often had a wide, arched entrance and no door.

Some twenty of these chapels survive, with devotional paintings inside of very different style and quality. The finest come from the so-called Nice School, and the best of these from Louis Brea (c.1450–c.1523). Born into a family of coopers in Nice, his two brothers, Peter and Antonio, were also painters.

He has never attained the fame or recognition he deserves: this may be because of the modest contexts of his work, and their restricted range, and also because he painted wooden altarpieces and polyptychs, a form that began to fall out of favour shortly after they were finished.

There is nothing specially original in his composition: it is instead his delicate sensitivity that is so powerful. The vividness of his portraits, and the gentleness of his depiction, would make one suppose they had been painted a century later than they were, or more.

He deserves to be better known in our own day, at a time when many depictions of Our Lady can only be described as brutalist, so deliberately anti-devotional are they. One may understand the reaction to cheap, sentimental, popular portrayals; but how much more productive it would be to return to a true early master – one who understood the power of incarnational love in the beautiful gentleness of a real person.

Nigel Anthony