The Virgin Mary gently supports the Christ Child as he plays with her hair. He casts a curious glance at his cousin, Saint John the Baptist, who is recognisable by the fine wooden cross tucked under his arm, a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion. The Virgin’s fair complexion and golden hair were considered ideals of female beauty in fifteenth-century Florence, where appearance and virtue were closely linked; as such, she is also meant to be seen as the height of virtue, and an example to all women.
This gentle image of maternal love was well-suited to worship in the home. Images like this were hugely popular, and Perugino and members of his workshop – who worked to his designs and in his style – would have produced numerous similar pictures to meet the demand. This one was probably painted by one of his close associates.
The Virgin Mary’s attention is focused on the Christ Child – she gently supports his chubby body as he plays with her hair. He casts a curious glance at his cousin, Saint John the Baptist, identifiable by the fine wooden cross tucked under his arm. According to the Gospels, John’s role was to foretell Christ’s ministry and its divine significance: the cross is a reminder that Christ would be crucified in order to save humankind from sin.
Like so many pictures of this kind made for private worship at home, the religious message is incorporated into a gentle image of maternal love, with a pastoral background that resembles a Tuscan valley. The Virgin’s fair complexion and golden hair were considered ideals of female beauty in fifteenth-century Florence, where appearance and virtue were closely linked; as such, she is also meant to be seen as the height of virtue, and an example to all women, particularly appropriate as this kind of image was made for worship at home.
The gold decoration on the Virgin’s left sleeve was once covered with an inscription reading ‘Petrus Peruginus’, but Perugino usually signed his works ‘Petrus Perusinus’ (see, for example, The Archangel Michael). The misspelling hinted that the inscription was not original, and when the picture was cleaned in 1977 it was proven to be a much later – eighteenth- or nineteenth-century – addition, and was removed.
The artist probably included John the Baptist in this image because it was made for a Florentine patron – he was the city’s patron saint. John’s legs had been painted over with grey paint so that he looked as though he was on the other side of the parapet standing next to the Virgin, though we can't be sure why. This was probably the work of an early restorer, possibly the same person who added the false gold inscription.
The top of the painting was originally rounded, but it was cut down and transformed into a rectangular image before it joined our collection. The current arched top was added to recreate the effect of the original design – the join remains visible to reveal this intervention. Elements of the technique help us to date the picture. The artist built up the forms using very fine parallel brushstrokes of varying shades of egg tempera, a technique used by Perugino before 1500. After this, he turned to oil paint as, for example, in his Certosa panels.
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