Verrocchio had a large and active studio in Florence, and trained many artists who would become leading figures in the Florentine Renaissance, including Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. He usually collaborated closely with his students, giving them the opportunity to work on important parts of a painting.
Here, recent technical analysis has shown that he allowed his student Lorenzo di Credi to paint the chubby Christ Child, the parted curtains and the angel on the right. Looking at the hands of the two angels we can see that Lorenzo was more concerned with painting flesh, while Verocchio wanted to show the definition of the joints beneath – an interest that related perhaps to his other practice as a sculptor.
Verrocchio trained as a goldsmith and has used real gold leaf, such as on the fringe of the left angel’s sleeve, and yellow paint, for example on the Virgin’s sleeves, to recreate the effect of gold – a technique derived from northern European artists to show various degrees of shine.
Paintings of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child were not only found in churches in Renaissance Italy but also in people’s homes, where they were the focus of private prayer. This painting is slightly larger than most made for domestic use and – unusually – the figures are lit from the right. It may have been made for a specific location where the natural light also entered the room from the right – possibly a private chapel within the owner’s house, a luxury reserved for only the wealthiest citizens. It makes sense that such a patron would order a work from Verrocchio; his workshop was the most prestigious in Florence and there he trained several notable painters including Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli.
Verrocchio’s training and brief career as a goldsmith are evident in the elaborate brooches of pearls and rubies worn by the Virgin and the angel on the left, and the silk fabrics woven with gold thread. The leaves and stem of the lily are gilded, transforming it too into a luxury object. Technical examination has shown that Verrocchio used three techniques to render different effects with gold. The gold thread used in the lining of the Virgin’s robe and her lilac sleeves is created entirely with yellow paint, but the star at her shoulder and the fringe on the left angel’s sleeve are gold leaf applied over a sticky base called mordant. This real gold is the brightest and most tactile. ‘Mosaic gold’, a type of tin which shines less brightly than real gold, has been used in the borders of the robes and the ribbon that flutters over the shoulders of the left angel; it gives a more subtle gilded effect that does not distract us from the overall design. As far as we know now, this is the only example of its use in Florentine painting.
Verrocchio also practised as a sculptor and certain elements of this painting reflect that occupation: the crisp, geometric folds of the Virgin’s gown, the convincingly three-dimensional shape of the left angel’s head. This angel’s elegant left hand with its defined joints and elongated fingers is comparable to that of Verrocchio’s sculpture of the Woman holding Flowers (Bargello, Florence) dated 1475–80.
Parts of the picture seem to be by a different artist, however. Verrocchio’s output as a painter has been difficult to define, partly because of his practice of collaborating with his students. Here, it seems that he has allowed one of his students, Lorenzo di Credi, to work on certain important parts of the composition including the Christ Child, the angel supporting Jesus and the curtains. Lorenzo worked in Verrocchio’s studio from 1473 until after Verrocchio’s death in 1488 and collaborated with him on a number of projects. Lorenzo’s style focused more on the flesh than the bone structure underneath, which is perhaps why he was tasked with painting the Christ Child. His involvement in this picture is given away by his angel’s left hand – the underlying structure of bones and muscle is less evident than in the hands painted by Verrocchio.
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