Madonna col Bambino (1426)

Masaccio (1401-1428)

Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child)
Egg tempera on wood, 134.8 x 73.5 cm
National GalleryLondon

This was once the central panel of an altarpiece, probably a polyptych, made by Masaccio for the Carmelite church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Pisa. It was commissioned by a man called Giuliano degli Scarsi for the burial chapel that he built for his family. The chapel no longer exists – the church was remodelled in the seventeenth century.

Given his success and popularity it’s likely that Masaccio painted several altarpieces, but this is one of only four that survive. He painted this one without his frequent collaborator Masolino. While it’s likely that assistants helped him with some of the smaller panels, he painted the Virgin and Child alone. It’s a good example of many of his unique innovations which made him one of the most influential Italian painters of the early fifteenth century.

The Virgin Mary dominates the panel, her bulky thighs creating a sturdy seat for the Christ Child; he sits comfortably, eating grapes. She looks like an enormous sculpture, clothed in heavy blue drapery. Christ, although just a baby, is equally imposing – the folds of fat on his wrist and chubby legs have been given shape with shading and highlighting, so that some areas appear in shadow and others stand out. This sense that his flesh is catching the light helps give the impression that he has a real, physical presence and that there’s a source of natural light in the scene. Masaccio has used the same technique to make the folds and creases of the Virgin’s robes look three-dimensional, and further emphasises Christ’s and Mary’s solid presence by painting their shadows (the Virgin’s body, for example, casts a shadow on the throne).

Christ’s halo projects both forwards and backwards rather than just sitting behind his head. This completely new way of painting haloes suggests that there’s space between him and his mother, in turn encouraging us to see them as real figures, actually taking up space – ours.

Masaccio was deeply interested in sculpture; it has even been suggested that he practised as a sculptor early in his career. He may have painted this altarpiece in Pisa, rather than his hometown of Florence. There he would have seen the work of the thirteenth– and fourteenth-century Pisan sculptors, Nicola, Giovanni and Andrea Pisano. Nicola’s renowned pulpit in the Pisa cathedral baptistery featured multi-figured scenes showing the life of Christ, and Masaccio seems to have copied certain details in the predella panels.

The most important lesson that Masaccio learnt from sculpture, however, was the sense of reality that its imitation could give his holy figures. This he probably took from his fellow Florentine, the sculptor Donatello, who was working in Pisa at the same time. Masaccio might have based his image of the Virgin and Child on Donatello’s work; a sculpted relief showing the Virgin and Child with angels seated on the foot on the throne playing lutes (now in the Victoria and Albert MuseumLondon) could be a specific source. Alternatively Donatello himself might have been involved in the project – Giuliano’s records show that the sculptor was with Masaccio when he picked up one of the payments for the altarpiece.

The two artists certainly knew each other’s work and shared an interest in setting figures within their surroundings using the laws of perspective. This involved increasing and decreasing the size of objects proportionally in relation one single point in the centre of the image (the vanishing point) so that objects further away appeared smaller while those closer to the viewer seemed larger. Donatello, in his sculpture, and Masaccio in his painting made advances in this technique that changed the course of painting in Italy.

Straight lines and architectural forms were useful in enhancing a realistic sense of perspective partly because viewers‘ understanding of these shapes as three-dimensional objects helped them to believe the painted version. The Virgin’s throne, for example, looks like a classical-style building within which the Virgin sits. Like Christ’s halo its depth suggests there is space around it, despite the gold background. The small colonettes seem to make it look even bigger and more sturdy. The pale grey stone would have reminded viewers of pietra serena – the stone which the Florentine architect Brunelleschi used in his churches and a contemporary trend in architecture. In the same way, the angels’ lutes which point in and out of the picture reinforce the idea that the space they sit in is a continuation of our own.

The wavy pattern on the throne step is not purely decorative – it’s supposed to bring to mind Roman marble tombs (sarcophagi). The black grapes that Christ eats had another meaning too: they recall the wine of the Eucharist, consumed along with bread in remembrance of Christ’s body and the blood he shed at the Crucifixion. A panel showing the Crucifixion was probably placed directly above this painting; this vertical arrangement of images spelt out the Christian message of salvation through Christ’s death and its remembrance. Despite its clear theological message, the way in which the Virgin looks at the Child – as though with sadness at the thought of his future sacrifice – brings psychological realism to the image, another of Masaccio’s influential innovations.

The most complete record of the appearance of the original altarpiece comes from the second edition of Vasari’s biography of Italian artists, published in 1568. He described the Virgin and Child in the centre, with ‘some little angels playing music’. These were surrounded, he noted, by Saints Peter, John the Baptist, Julian and Nicholas. He mentioned a scene of the Crucifixion above the Virgin and Child, and that the predella included an image of the Adoration of the Kings. The three panels from the predella and the Crucifixion are in other museums but the location of the saints surrounding the Virgin and Child is not known. A number of Carmelite saints on small vertical panels have been identified; these probably decorated the pilasters. (NG)