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Barocci represents the holy family in the charming domestic setting of a bedchamber in a Renaissance palace. The infant Christ turns from feeding at his mother’s breast to observe his cousin, John the Baptist, who is teasing the household cat with a goldfinch. The bird is a traditional symbol of the Passion (Christ’s torture and crucifixion) because of the legend that it acquired its red head from a drop of blood that fell as it drew a thorn from Christ’s brow on his way to the Crucifixion.
Saint Joseph leans forward to observe the game, smiling benevolently. The Virgin Mary looks down at Christ and points to the cat, which is ready to pounce. The warmth of the gathering disguises the picture’s more serious devotional message – the anticipation of Christ’s future sacrifice.
Barocci painted the picture for Antonio Brancaleoni, Count of Piobbico. John the Baptist’s reed cross and the cat may relate to Brancaleoni’s coat of arms of a rampant lion below a cross.
This is the only easel painting by Barocci in a British public collection. It shows the holy family in the charming domestic setting of a bedchamber in a Renaissance palace. It is painted in the distinctive pastel colours, soft focus and with the sweetness of conception and inner vision typical of the work of Barocci.
The Virgin Mary is sitting beside the cot from which she has recently lifted her baby, her legs crossed at the ankle revealing her bare toes in open sandals. In her work basket is a small book with a gold-embossed leather binding and a piece of white cloth stretched over her embroidery cushion. The infant Christ turns from feeding at his mother’s breast to observe his cousin, John the Baptist, who is clutching a goldfinch above the head of the household cat. Saint Joseph leans forward to observe the game, smiling benevolently. With one arm supporting her son and one round the young Baptist, the Virgin looks down at Christ and points to the cat, which is on its haunches ready to pounce. The four figures are arranged in a subtle diagonal rising from the cat, their limbs creating a complex interplay of movement forward and backwards in space. The warmth of the gathering disguises the picture’s more serious devotional message – the anticipation of Christ’s future sacrifice.
Barocci painted the picture for Antonio Brancaleoni, Count of Piobbico, a village about 20 miles west of Urbino. Brancaleoni commissioned Barrocci to paint a Rest on the Return from Egypt (Vatican Museums, Vatican City) for the parish church at Piobbico at about the same time, but the smaller scale, square shape and domestic subject of ‘La Madonna del Gatto’ (‘Madonna of the Cat’) suggest it was intended for Brancaleoni’s household. Given the allusions to feminine domesticity it may have been meant for the countess’s apartments, the decoration of which was finished in 1574 (the decoration of the count’s apartments was not completed until 1585). We know that La Madonna del Gatto passed down the female line of the family, having been inherited by the countess’s daughter Isabella, again suggesting that the painting was associated with the Brancaleoni women.
The cat is a relatively unusual motif in representations of the holy family. Here it is poised to pounce on the goldfinch – a traditional symbol of Christ’s Passion. According to legend the goldfinch acquired its red head from a drop of blood that fell as it drew a thorn from Christ’s brow on his way to Calvary before his Crucifixion. The caption to Cornelis Cort’s 1577 engraving of the picture explains that this is the moment when the Christ Child becomes aware of humanity’s expulsion from paradise, thus understanding his future role as redeemer. The Brancaleoni coat of arms consists of a lion rampant surmounted by a recumbent cross, and this appears throughout the decoration of their palace. The cat and John the Baptist’s cross in the picture may be a pun on the family’s heraldry.
Indicative of Barocci’s meticulous approach, no less than around 35 preparatory drawings survive for La Madonna del Gatto, including a full-size cartoon (private collection, France). These explore the relationship between the figures, the Virgin’s complex pose, the drapery and the beautiful tender expressions. Barocci also made a drawing of the finished picture (now in the British Museum, London) so that it could be engraved.
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