The infant Christ is shown greeting his cousin, John the Baptist, who comes bearing a goldfinch, an emblem of Christ’s suffering and death. Saint Joseph is seen behind the Virgin Mary to the right; Zacharias is behind his wife Saint Elizabeth to the left, where another saint, perhaps Francis, also appears.
Both Christ and the Baptist stand on the sides of an elaborate golden cradle, the foot of which is decorated with two bearded cherubim with intertwined tails. There is a similar cradle in The Holy Family dated 1533 by Garofalo, now in the Royal Collection (Hampton Court). It is likely that the National Gallery’s painting is a little earlier and dates from the 1520s. The prominence of the cradle in this painting suggests that Garofalo knew Raphael’s works, several of which feature a similar composition.
In this painting by Garofalo we see the meeting between the infant Christ and his cousin, Saint John the Baptist. Christ has risen from his cradle to greet John and accept a goldfinch from him. The goldfinch is traditionally associated with Christ’s Passion because of the legend that one flew down and took a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns and its own head was marked red with Christ’s blood.
John the Baptist is held by his mother Saint Elizabeth, the Virgin Mary’s cousin. The older man whose hand is raised in amazement between the two children is Elizabeth’s husband, Zacharias. Elizabeth and Zacharias miraculously conceived their son when they were both elderly.
Both Christ and the Baptist stand on the sides of an elaborate golden cradle of a classical design. The cradle’s foot is decorated with two bearded cherubim with intertwined tails. There is a similar cradle in The Holy Family dated 1533 by Garofalo, now in the Royal Collection (Hampton Court). It is likely that the National Gallery’s painting is a little earlier and dates from the 1520s.
The bearded man on the right leaning his head on his hand, covered with his orange cloak, is the Virgin Mary’s husband, Saint Joseph. The male saint behind Saint Elizabeth has the distinctive haircut (tonsure) and habit of a monk. He must be a much later follower of Christ and therefore couldn't have been present in the episode depicted. He may be Saint Francis, although his habit is a cream colour rather than the usual brown of the Franciscan Order.
Above the meeting, God the Father appears among a throng of musician angels. They seem to have sailed into the room on a bank of clouds through the open window. God points up towards the golden light of heaven, through which we can make out a multitude of faces belonging to the saved souls in heaven. His triangular halo represents the Trinity: God the Father, Christ and the Holy Ghost.
The view through the window is of a north Italian town of Garofalo’s time. A shepherd sits on the grass minding his sheep while two people stand and converse on a path. Garofalo may have included this contemporary view to emphasise the presence of the holy figures and God himself in everyday life.
The prominence of the cradle in this painting suggests that Garofalo knew one or more of Raphael’s works, several of which feature a similar composition. Garofalo may have seen Raphael’s original paintings or engravings of them. In Raphael’s Holy Family of Francis I, dated 1518 and sent to France in that year (now in the Louvre, Paris), Christ springs from a similar cradle and Joseph, behind the Virgin, looks on with his hand on his cheek. The heavenly choir in the clouds suggests that Garofalo had also studied Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of Raphael’s first composition for the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna).
The painting almost certainly came from the collection of the Duke of Ferrara. It was transferred from panel to canvas, probably in the early nineteenth century, and has been cropped on all sides.
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