The infant Christ is seated on the Virgin’s lap, accompanied by saints in the meadows of a mountainous landscape. The large semi-ruined classical building behind the Virgin and Christ divides the composition into three, making them appear enthroned in the centre.
Saint James sits reading on the near left. Saint Jerome looks up from his Bible to gaze at Christ, while the lion that normally accompanies him causes havoc in the background. Saint Catherine of Alexandria holds part of the spiked wheel on which she was tortured for her Christian faith and points at the infant John the Baptist, who kisses Christ’s foot. In one hand the Baptist holds a reed cross and in the other a scroll marked with letters from the phrase Ecce Agnus Dei (‘Behold the Lamb of God’).
The scroll and reed cross refer to Christ’s sacrifice for mankind. The Virgin turns to us as though unable to watch as her baby son reaches for the cross, about to grasp the destiny that awaits him.
The infant Christ is seated on the Virgin Mary’s lap, accompanied by saints in the meadows of a mountainous landscape. The large semi-ruined classical building behind them divides the composition into three parts and makes the Virgin and Child appear enthroned in the centre. A youth scales the wall of the building, which is marked with an indecipherable coat of arms and kabbalistic characters. The Kabbalah was a mystical method of interpreting scripture developed by rabbis. In images of the Nativity, a ruined classical building is usually a symbol of the ancient pagan world being superseded by the new Christian era.
The Virgin and Child are flanked on either side by two saints, each with objects (known as attributes) that allow us to identify them. Saint James sits reading on the left. His pilgrim’s hat, decorated with the scallop shell worn by those who have made the pilgrimage to Santiago da Compostella, hangs on his back with a cross and Saint Veronica’s veil. Saint Jerome is identifiable by his scarlet robes but he is without the lion that usually accompanies him. He looks up from his Bible to gaze at the infant Christ. Behind him a group of soldiers in armour ride across the landscape. On the right of the landscape, a lion – perhaps Saint Jerome’s – is attacking one of the herd of cows grazing nearby. The herdsman is sleeping at the far right. This scene perhaps symbolises the need for watchfulness against the devil.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria holds a fragment of the spiked wheel on which she was tortured for her Christian faith and looks at us. She points at the infant John the Baptist, who kisses his cousin Christ’s foot in reverence. In one hand he holds a reed cross and in the other a scroll marked with letters from the phrase Ecce Agnus Dei (‘Behold the Lamb of God’). The scroll and reed cross refer to Christ’s sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. The Virgin turns to us as though unable to watch as her baby son reaches for the cross, about to grasp the destiny that awaits him. The hands and limbs of this group have been carefully positioned to lead our eyes towards the message contained in this image.
This type of composition in which the Virgin and child are accompanied by saints is known as a sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’). Although the holy figures are not usually shown speaking, the term implies a psychological connection between them. The horizontal format sacra conversazione set in a landscape was established by Giovanni Bellini and Cima and made popular in early sixteenth-century Venice by artists in the circle of Titian, particularly Palma Vecchio, to whom this picture was once attributed. But it is looser and coarser in handling than paintings by him and is now generally dated to a relatively early phase of Bonifazio’s career.
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