The Virgin Mary is seated at the centre of this painting, in the middle of a landscape. She is breastfeeding the infant Christ; a little bird (a coal tit) perched in the large tree behind her also feeds its young. Saints Jerome, kneeling before the Virgin, looks on in devotion. He clutches the stone that he is said to have pounded against his chest to help him resist temptation. Saint Dominic kneels opposite, absorbed in the book he is reading. The white lily, his traditional attribute, alludes to the Virgin’s purity.
This altarpiece by Filippino Lippi originally stood on an altar in a chapel belonging to a member of the powerful Rucellai family in the important medieval church of S. Pancrazio in Florence. The elaborate frame is a nineteenth-century reproduction of what may have been the original one. It includes a horizontal panel at the bottom that depicts the dead Christ flanked by Saints Francis and Mary Magdalene between the Rucellai coats of arms.
This large painting originally stood on an altar in San Pancrazio, an important medieval church dedicated to Saint Pancras in the centre of Florence. This church belonged to the Vallombrosans, an order of reformed Benedictines founded by the nobleman Giovanni Gualberto in the early eleventh century. Among the Florentine families who owned chapels in San Pancrazio, the Rucellai were the most distinguished. They not only held the patronage rights over the high altar, but also commissioned a funerary chapel in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem from the celebrated architect and humanist Leon Battista Alberti.
This altarpiece came from the chapel originally adjacent to the Rucellai Sepulchre, a space now completely altered as a result of renovation works in the eighteenth century and the suppression of the church under Napoleon in the early nineteenth century. Except for the Rucellai Sepulchre, none of the works made for San Pancrazio are still preserved in the church (which is now used as a museum for the twentieth-century sculptor Marino Marini). Many of the altarpieces were scattered. This one was returned to the Rucellai family and stored in their Florentine palace, another celebrated work of Leon Battista Alberti and a prime example of Italian Renaissance architecture. The altarpiece was sold to the National Gallery directly from the palace in 1857, becoming one of the first early Italian paintings to enter the Gallery’s collection.
At the centre of the altarpiece, in the middle of a landscape, sits the Virgin Mary. She is breastfeeding the infant Christ, a composition known as ‘Virgo Lactans’. A coal tit perched in the branches of the large oak tree behind her also feeds its young. Saint Jerome is kneeling before the Virgin, looking on in devotion. He clutches the stone that, according to the Golden Legend, he used to beat his chest to help him resist sexual temptation. Saint Dominic, the founder of the religious order named after him, kneels opposite, absorbed in the book he is holding. He grasps a white lily in his left hand – his traditional attribute and symbol of the Virgin’s purity.
The Virgin and two saints form a triangular shape that is set off against the landscape background. On the left, a lion can be seen warding off an intruding brown bear. The lion is the companion of Saint Jerome, who appears again in the cave beyond, praying towards a Crucifix. On the opposite side is a little church with garlands suspended from its porch; in the centre of the painting, Saint Joseph walks just behind a donkey, perhaps a reference to the holy family’s flight into Egypt.
The elaborate frame is a nineteenth-century reproduction of what may have been the original one. The long horizontal panel at the base of the altarpiece shows the dead Christ lifted from his tomb – possibly an allusion to the Rucellai Sepulchre – flanked by Saints Francis and Mary Magdalene and the Rucellai coats of arms.
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