This painting is among the earliest known works by Filippino Lippi, probably made when he was still a member of the workshop of the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli. It shows the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ in her right arm. He plucks seeds from a pomegranate – the fruit was a symbol of the Passion (his torture and crucifixion).
Christ’s cousin, Saint John the Baptist, looks on in wonder, holding his reed cross and clutching at the folds of his red cloak. A book lies open on the marble sill in the foreground, its text illegible. The vase with flowers may allude to the Virgin, who was thought of as a vessel from which the Christ Child came. A mountainous landscape opens out behind the group, with a little city in the distance.
Small paintings of the Virgin and Child with the young Saint John the Baptist were an important source of income for artists in fifteenth-century Florence; they usually decorated the chambers of their owners.
At the centre of this painting is the Virgin Mary, who covers almost its entire height. She stands in front of a low marble sill, holding the infant Christ in her right arm and supporting one of his legs with her left hand. Her expansive blue cloak with green lining, worn over her red undergarment, seems to envelop the Christ Child, as if to provide protection; sadly, to no avail. He is plucking seeds from a pomegranate that has burst open. The fruit has been interpreted as a symbol of the Passion, its red juice recalling the blood Christ shed at the Crucifixion. It may be in anticipation of his future that Mary looks down on her son with what seems to be a mixture of worry and sadness.
Christ’s slightly older cousin, Saint John the Baptist, looks up in wonder. He wears his traditional camel-hair shirt and holds his reed cross, and clutches at the folds of his red cloak with both hands. A book lies open on the marble sill in the foreground, but its text is illegible. The vase with yellow flowers may allude to the Virgin, who was thought of as a vessel from which the Christ Child came. A mountainous landscape opens out behind the figures, and a towered city appears in the far distance, behind a group of tall young trees.
Small paintings of the Virgin and Child with the young Saint John the Baptist were an important source of income for artists working in fifteenth-century Florence. These works often decorated the chambers of their original owners, offering them visual aids for prayer and meditation. However, inventories from this period also show that such images could also be displayed elsewhere in the household.
This painting is among the earliest known works by Filippino Lippi, probably contemporary to his Adoration of the Kings. An illegitimate son of the Carmelite friar and painter Fra Filippo Lippi, Filippino is likely to have made this painting when he was still a member of the workshop of Sandro Botticelli, whose influence can be perceived here. But the painting also shows the promise of someone who would quickly establish himself as one of the leading artists in Renaissance Florence, whose work was widely appreciated among the highest ranks of society.
The Virgin and Child with Saint John stands out for the step-like arrangement of the figures, leading up diagonally from Saint John the Baptist, through to the Christ Child and towards the Virgin Mary, heightening a sense of geometry that is typical of Filippino. Such qualities must have appealed to Charles Eastlake, who acquired the painting for his private collection at a time when he, as the first Director of the National Gallery, was searching for early Italian paintings to enrich the collection. It was acquired by the Gallery after the death of his widow, Lady Elizabeth Eastlake.
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