This is a very unusual depiction of the Virgin Mary. She is shown standing, with eyes trained towards the viewer, the Christ Child perched in the crook of her arm. Her attire is exceptionally sumptuous and, as with the garments of the surrounding angels, it reflects contemporary Florentine fashions.
This type of costume would have looked out of place on an altarpiece, but it’s possible that the painting was made for someone who would have placed it in their bedroom to worship privately. These sorts of private images of the Virgin and Child were often made for women – in this case, perhaps a very wealthy woman who would have been able to identify more closely with the Virgin if she resembled one of her contemporaries. There is some evidence that images like this were given as wedding gifts.
The Virgin Mary in this painting is majestic – she looks directly at us while holding the infant Christ in her left arm. The Christ Child, equally regal, makes a blessing gesture towards the figures below.
The Virgin’s standing pose is unusual for an image of this size. It shows off her elegant velvet gown, which is woven with a pattern and lined and trimmed with ermine fur. If you look closely, you‘ll see it is edged with gold tassels. Her large jewelled crown sits on top of a semi-transparent veil. Christ’s elaborate outfit, complete with fur-lined cape, is a miniature version of his mother’s but includes even more gold embroidery.
The details of their clothes reflect fashionable outfits of the period – this is clothing that wealthy Florentines would have aspired to wear in the mid-fifteenth century. The Virgin’s belt is high on her waist, a trend that was fashionable in the late 1440s or early 1450s. The angels surrounding the Virgin and Child wear patterned hose (stockings) and fur-trimmed tunics with sleeves decorated with gold thread – clothes that resemble men’s fashion in Florence in the 1440s and up until the early 1450s. If it weren’t for the tiny wings which poke out at their shoulders, we might think they were page boys attending to a queen.
The other references to the divine are equally subtle. Cherubim are inscribed into the gold background rather than painted. The flowers held by two of the angels are carnations, which symbolised the nails of the Crucifixion (they smell like cloves, which look like nails). Their Greek name, dianthos, means ‘flower of God’.
The secular qualities of the image may indicate that this work was painted for a domestic setting rather than a church. It is possible that the painting was made for someone who would have placed it in their home to worship privately. These sorts of private images of the Virgin and Child were often made for women – in this case, perhaps a wealthy woman who would have been able to identify more closely with the Virgin if she resembled one of her contemporaries. There is some evidence that images like this were given as wedding gifts.
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