This early work by Garofalo probably dates from about 1499–1502 when he was in Ferrara. Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican Order, is identified by the lily and the miraculous star on his chest. Saint Catherine of Siena is also a Dominican saint; her hands, feet and side are marked with Christ’s wounds, known as the stigmata.
The tethered monkey is an unusual feature and may represent man’s base nature disciplined by the Christian faith. It could have been copied from a monkey in an engraving by the German artist Dürer or from a real monkey in the Duke of Ferrara’s menagerie.
Christ’s sacrifice is symbolised by the goldfinch he holds on a string. The bird 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 while he was on his way to the Crucifixion, and its head was marked red with Christ’s blood.
This may be one of Garofalo’s earliest surviving works, probably produced during his stay in Ferrara in 1499 or shortly afterwards. This type of composition was generally used for altarpieces but this picture is very small, only 46 x 35 cm. It shows the infant Christ seated on the Virgin Mary’s knee, holding a tiny goldfinch on a string. The bird is traditionally associated with Christ’s Passion because of the legend that when one flew down and took a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns its own head was marked red with Christ’s blood.
The Virgin and Child are seated on an elaborate architectural throne. It is decorated with carvings resembling the compositions found on coins and ancient engraved gems. Curtains have been tied back either side to reveal a landscape divided from the foreground by a wall. The sticks at the bottom of the picture are probably meant to represent a small dam in a stream and also appear in Garofalo’s The Agony in the Garden. The painting has probably been trimmed, especially at the lower edge.
The saints flanking the Virgin’s throne wear the black and white habits of the Dominican Order. They are the founder of the order, Saint Dominic and the most revered of the female Dominican saints, the mystic Catherine of Siena. Both saints carry lilies and a book. Saint Dominic places his hand on his chest, drawing attention to the star on his breast. Saint Catherine’s hands bear the stigmata – marks corresponding to the wounds that Christ suffered during the Crucifixion. They are also visible on her feet and in her side where the blood has stained her habit. She holds a cross with a tiny figure of Christ attached to it. A label has been impaled on the top of the Crucifix rather than attached to the front, as is more usual.
The monkey sitting on the step of the throne is an unusual feature and may represent man’s base nature disciplined by the Christian faith. It appears to be derived from one in an engraving by the German artist Albrecht Dürer, in which the infant Christ also holds a bird on a string (British Museum, London). Dürer’s engraving probably dates from about 1498 and was probably an exciting novelty circulating at the time. Alternatively, Garofalo’s monkey could have been copied from an actual monkey in the Duke of Ferrara’s menagerie. A similar monkey appears in another early work by Garofalo, The Adoration of the Kings (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Mazzolino also included monkeys in his religious paintings, which suggests they may have been popular in Ferrara.
The only other miniature Virgin and Child like this in the National Gallery, The Virgin and Child with Saints by a follower of Pietro Perugino, features the same Dominican saints. The format may have been particular to that Order.
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