Madonna col Bambino (c.1480-1485)

Lorenzo di Credi (c.1459-1537)

Madonna col Bambino (The Virgin and Child)
Oil on wood, 71.1 × 49.5 cm
National GalleryLondon

The Virgin Mary is seated directly in front of us. Together with swathes of drapery, she covers almost the entire picture plane, forming a triangular shape that is set off against the dark background. Light radiating from the front brings out the vibrant colours of her garments. These colours are taken up by the flowers in the glass vase that stands on a table near the window. The naked Christ Child is seated on a tasselled pillow in her lap, his legs crossed. He reaches for his mother, but he gazes at us while breastfeeding.

Such intimate portrayals of the Virgin as a breastfeeding mother, known as ‘Virgo Lactans’, were very popular in the fifteenth century. They made the son of God appear human and approachable rather than divine and distant. Correspondingly, he and his mother are almost pressed against the foreground, as if to offer themselves for our engagement. It may be for this reason that Christ stares at the viewer, rather than focusing on his nourishment.

The Florentine painter Lorenzo di Credi specialised in the production of such devotional paintings. His sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari explained that this was partly because of his meticulous painting technique. According to Vasari, Lorenzo had no wish to make many large works because he took great pains in executing his pictures, putting an extraordinary amount of work into them. Vasari particularly praised the way in which he refined his oils and mixed his colours, creating an almost infinite amount of shades of colours on his palette. Such fine gradations can be appreciated here in the flesh tones of the infant Christ, and they help to create the illusion of three-dimensional form.

We don’t know for whom Lorenzo made this particular painting, but the depiction of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael may give a clue. Based on the apocryphal Book of Tobit, the journey of Tobias was a popular subject in fifteenth-century Florence, especially appreciated by those whose jobs depended on travel, such as merchants. Here, they are approaching together from an alley seen through the doorway, accompanied by a small dog. Tobias holds the fish with which he will cure the blindness of his father, Tobit.

A celebrated Florentine representation of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael is also in the National Gallery’s collection: Tobias and the Angel. It is attributed to the workshop of the painter and sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, where Lorenzo trained together with the young Leonardo da Vinci. Recent research has shown that Verrocchio’s painting was made for a member of an important religious confraternity dedicated to the Archangel Raphael. A member of such a confraternity might also have welcomed the ways in which Lorenzo’s painting engages the viewer, and its colonnade and landscape background may have evoked the rural setting of the villa for which the painting could have been made. (NG)