The infant Christ wriggles in the embrace of his mother, the Virgin Mary – just like an ordinary baby would. Behind her are two saints, Jerome on the right and Paul on the left. Saint Jerome is wearing the red robes of a cardinal, reflecting his status as a ‘father’ of the Catholic Church. Both figures are squeezed behind the Virgin, rather than stood next to her, suggesting they may have been added to the design at a late stage.
Bartolomeo Vivarini was inspired by the work of the Paduan artist Mantegna, whose style was precise, with strongly defined contours and richly coloured. The saints' faces are tanned and lined with wrinkles which appear to be carved into their faces, similar to Mantegna’s depiction of aged saints. Another similarity to Mantegna’s style is the density of the crisp folds of the draperies which also appear as though finely carved from marble.
The Virgin holds the Christ Child in her arms, his body resting against a cushion pressed against her. He wriggles in his mother’s embrace, just like an ordinary baby would. Behind her are two saints, Jerome on the right and Paul on the left.
Sant Jerome is depicted as was customary as an elderly man dressed in the red robes of a cardinal, reflecting his status as a ‘father’ of the Catholic Church, which derived from his translation of the Bible from Greek into Latin. The hat is unusual, however: cardinal’s hats usually had wide brims, but this may have been omitted due to a lack of space. Saint Paul, the apostle who preached about Christ, holds a sword, the symbol of his martyrdom – his execution for his Christian faith.
Both figures are squeezed behind the Virgin, rather than stood next to her. This unusual feature suggests they may have been added to the design at a late stage. This last-minute decision is interesting, as it seems to have been Bartolomeo Vivarini who introduced the type of altarpiece that became known as a sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’) into Venetian painting. These showed the Virgin, Christ Child and saints on the same panel, as opposed to within separately framed compartments.
Vivarini was part of a dynasty of Venetian artists which included his brother Antonio and his nephew Alvise, who he may have trained. His paintings, this one included, were inspired by the work of the Paduan artist Mantegna. Vivarini followed his style by paying attention to detail and the definition of contours and by using rich colours. Mantegna continued to use real gold as highlights on draperies, for example, but the extensive use of gold found here (which replaces the original) is unusual for the period.
The Virgin’s full, oval face is pale and smooth, just like the skin of her baby. By contrast, the saints' faces are tanned and lined. The details of the fine wrinkles around their eyes and on their brows suggest their age, but the symmetry of this geometric web of lines and curves is schematic. The way that the lines appear to be carved into their faces resembles Mantegna’s depiction of aged saints. Another very close similarity is the density of the crisp folds of the draperies, which also appear as though finely carved from marble: compare, for example, the folds of the Virgin’s white mantle with the draperies of the sleeping disciples in Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden.
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