An unidentified Franciscan friar kneels in veneration before the Virgin and Child. The Virgin looks down at him and touches the top of his head. Christ, sitting on her knee, holds a flower and raises his right hand in blessing.
Saint Catherine, holding the wheel on which she was tortured and the palm that shows she is a martyr, stands watching in the middle distance near a huge ruined classical building, which symbolises the triumph of Christianity over the paganism of the classical world. Christ’s flower seems to have been picked from the plant growing over the ruins. On the left, the stumps of felled trees send up new shoots, referring to the life-giving force of Christ and his triumph over death.
This painting is similar to another by Previtali now in Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut). The Hartford painting is probably the earlier of the two versions.
An unidentified tonsured Franciscan friar kneels in veneration before the Virgin and Child. The Virgin, who is seated on a stone ledge, looks down at him and touches the top of his head. This gesture was probably invented by Previtali’s teacher, the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini. Christ, sitting on the Virgin’s knee, holds a flower, possibly a wild rose – a symbol of purity and suffering – and raises his right hand to bless the kneeling friar.
As is typical of Previtali’s early works, shell gold, made with real gold powder, is used to highlight and decorate: it appears in the foliage around the ruins on the right of the painting, along the wood grain of Saint Catherine’s wheel, in the Virgin’s belt, in Christ’s curls and in the haloes and borders of garments.
Saint Catherine holds the wheel on which she was tortured and the palm that shows she is a martyr. She stands watching in the middle distance, near a huge ruined classical building which symbolises the triumph of Christianity over the paganism of the classical world. Christ’s flower seems to have been picked from the plant growing over the ruins. On the left, the stumps of felled trees send up new shoots, referring to the life-giving force of Christ and his triumph over death.
Behind the trees we glimpse an unusual timber-framed building with a very tall steep roof, which appears to be thatched. It may be a farm building. The area in front of it is fenced in with tall woven hurdles and the ground is worn, suggesting that it is used for containing animals, although none can be seen. Another building, in the middle distance, resembles a Venetian palace, with an arcaded ground floor and grouped arched windows on the first floor. It is surrounded with scaffolding poles and not yet completed. The building is unlikely to have been of special significance to the patron as Previtali used it repeatedly – a similar one covered in scaffolding can be seen in the background of The Virgin and Child adored by Two Angels.
This painting is similar to a signed panel now in Wadsworth Atheneum (Hartford, Connecticut). The two Virgins are more or less identical, and the buildings in the distance also look the same. The kneeling supplicants, however, are completely different. The man in the Hartford painting is young with shoulder-length hair, and Saint Catherine is not included.
The Hartford painting is probably the earlier of the two versions. There are more small elements in the landscape, such as pebbles on the path and flowers in the foreground meadow – features which are less common in Previtali’s work after about 1506. The fact that in the National Gallery’s painting the line of the second mountain is largely concealed by trees suggests that here the artist was modifying an earlier composition. Another reason to think our painting may be the later version is the unusual position of Saint Catherine. Such a saint would normally stand behind the supplicant with her hand on his shoulder. There is no space for Saint Catherine to stand behind the monk, which suggests that Previtali was copying and modifying an earlier composition rather than beginning from scratch.
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