Madonna col Bambino (c.1480-1490)

Ghirlandaio, Domenico (1448-1494)

Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child)
Tempera on poplar, 88.9 × 57.8 cm
National GalleryLondon

The Christ Child looks up at the Virgin Mary, raising the index finger of his right hand as though he is preaching – even though he is still just an infant. The gesture refers to his divine authority and his future teaching ministry.

Both of the holy figures have fleshy but well defined features, characteristic of Florentine painting in this period (look at, for example, The Virgin and Child with Two Angels by Verrocchio and Lorenzo di Credi). Drawing was important in Florentine art in the Renaissance, and it was key to achieving accuracy in the depiction of the facial features even when the head – like that of Christ’s here – is shown upturned, for example. Analysis of this picture using infrared light reveals Ghirlandaio’s underdrawing in carbon black, showing how he worked out the design of the Virgin’s headdress and mantle.

The folds of the Virgin’s red dress are broad and stiff, as though it is carved from stone, and the solidity of Christ’s chubby body reinforces the three-dimensionality of the holy figures, continuing a tradition which was important in Florentine painting, intended to give the sense of the figures’ real presence before us. The bold colours of the striped textile upon which Christ stands draw our attention to the foreground, while the delicately painted background with its hazy outlines appears as though it is far off in the distance. The picture, made for private worship at home, provided not only a focus for prayer but also a fictive window into a beautiful landscape.

Renaissance panel paintings were made up of individual lengths of wood which were joined together. Here, the artist has used a wide central panel flanked by two narrower ones, ensuring that any movement between the joins would not disrupt the paint of the Virgin’s face. The top of the painting was originally rounded, but it was cut down and transformed into a rectangular image before it joined the National Gallery’s collection. The current arched top was added to recreate the effect of the original design – the join remains visible to reveal this intervention. The Virgin’s cloak has a greenish-blue tone because the pigment, azurite, has changed over time; it would have originally appeared more blue. The sky is painted with the expensive pigment called ultramarine, made from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.

Once thought to have been produced by Ghirlandaio’s workshop, after cleaning it became apparent that the methods used and the quality of the painting were so similar to pictures by Ghirlandaio dating from the 1480s that it must be a work of his own hands. (NG)