The Virgin holds the naked infant Christ who stands on a stone ledge and raises his hand in blessing. We do not know the identity of the saints behind them, but the older one may be Saint Jerome or Saint Anthony Abbot.
The holy characters are portrayed in the Italian countryside, making them appear humble, approachable and down to earth. Setting the Virgin and Child in a landscape was a recent innovation in Italian art, popularised by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini.
Francia used his central image of the Virgin and Child several times for other compositions, changing the saints that accompany them. The Madonna and Child with Saints Sebastian and Anthony Abbot (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) is almost identical to the National Gallery’s picture. A full-sized drawing, or cartoon, would have been used to trace and transfer the design. The degree of copying suggests that Francia’s assistants may have been involved in painting these pictures.
The Virgin Mary holds the naked infant Christ who stands on a stone ledge and raises his hand in blessing. His left hand rests tenderly on her thumb. The Virgin and Child form a broad-based triangle in the centre of the composition, giving the picture a sense of gravity and calm. Christ’s elongated body echoes the curves of his mother’s drapery; the saints, standing behind the Virgin and Child, tilt their heads at the same angles. These repeated parallel forms enhance the painting’s feeling of stillness.
We do not know the identity of the young saint standing behind the Virgin on the left. He resembles Saint John the Evangelist in other works by Francia, but cannot be him, as he is holding a palm leaf which is the attribute of a martyr. The older saint may be Saint Jerome or Saint Anthony Abbot, both of whom are usually shown as a bearded elderly man wearing a monk’s habit and holding a book.
Francia used the central image of the Virgin and Child several times for other compositions, changing the accompanying saints. The Madonna and Child with Saints Sebastian and Anthony Abbot (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) is almost identical to the National Gallery’s picture. The same drawn cartoon was used to trace the design for both paintings. The baby’s head and pose were also reused a number of times in other paintings by Francia. The degree of repetition and copying in these pictures suggests that Francia’s assistants may have been involved in painting them.
Placing the Virgin and Child in a landscape setting was a recent innovation in Italian art, popularised by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, as seen in his Madonna of the Meadow. Previously the Virgin and Child were usually shown seated on a throne or in an architectural setting with saints, as in Francia’s Buonvisi Altarpiece. The informal way that the holy characters here stand in the natural Italian countryside makes them appear humble, approachable and down to earth.
The soft, atmospheric quality of the landscape is achieved through soft rendering and blending of forms. The transition in the landscape here from green meadows to blue hills is achieved through gradual tonal changes. It suggests we are looking a long way into the distance, a phenomenon known as aerial perspective, as colours appear to change in the distance because of the nature of the atmosphere.
The ledge on which Christ stands is a feature commonly included in paintings of the Virgin and Child by Giovanni Bellini and his workshop. The ledge separates us from the holy figures and creates a sense of depth, as though we are looking through a window. Using a ledge and landscape was a popular format for portraits in northern Italy and the Netherlands at this time, and can be seen in Francia’s Portrait of Bartolomeo Bianchini. Francia’s Virgin and Child with Two Saints almost looks like a portrait of the holy figures, and this is intentional to make them seem more real. Small-scale paintings of the Virgin Child and saints in a landscape like this one may have been made for altars in private houses, chapels or confraternities.
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