The Virgin holds the infant Christ close to her, drawing his cheek to her face. The pair are flanked by four saints. We can't be sure of their identities, but the one holding a book wears the brown robes of the Franciscans, a religious order of friars.
The tender pose of mother and son derives from Byzantine (Eastern Christian) icons, but this version – Mary cradling Christ, who is partly wrapped in swaddling bands and has his eyes open – comes from an engraving by Mantegna. Archival documents suggest that Bonsignori probably knew it from his time working for the court of the Marquess of Mantua, where Mantegna had also worked.
The composition as a whole – its horizontal shape, the dark background and the arrangement of the figures – is also Mantegna’s invention, found, for example, in his Presentation of Christ (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).
The Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ close to her, drawing his cheek to her face. The pair are flanked by four saints, but as none of them have specific attributes we can‘t be sure who they are meant to be. The one holding a book is probably a Franciscan, because he wears their uniform of a brown habit. To the right is a martyr saint who holds a branch of palm, the traditional symbol of martyrdom.
The tender pose of mother and son originally derives from Byzantine icons that show them with their faces pressed together (known as the ’sweetly-kissing’ Virgin). This version – Mary cradling the child, who is partly wrapped in swaddling bands and has his eyes open – comes from an engraving by Mantegna. The artist did not create many images of the Virgin and Child, and this one was the most significant of them all. It has been identified with a picture Mantegna calls a ‘quadretino’ (a ‘little picture’) in a letter to Federico Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, in 1491.
Bonsignori was working for the Gonzaga from 1492, like Mantegna before him. An inventory of the possessions of a subsequent marquess, Ludovico III Gonzaga, made in 1510 after his death, mentions an object which by its description seems to be the engraving plate for Mantegna’s Madonna. It seems likely, then, that Bonsignori was directly copying an image that he had seen while he was working for the Gonzaga. Bonsignori has reversed Mantegna’s composition, showing it as it would be seen on a plate, except, unusually, for the position of the hands.
The composition as a whole – its horizontal shape, the dark background and the arrangement of the figures in two rows behind a ledge – derives from Mantegna’s invention and is found, for example, in his Presentation of Christ (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). The format was also copied by Mantegna’s brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini. The plain background would have appealed to Bonsignori who was better known for his portraits and rarely included landscape or architectural backgrounds in his pictures.
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