This was the central panel of a multi-panelled altarpiece commissioned in 1512 by Clarice Manfredi, a Dominican prioress, for the chapel of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the church of S. Andrea in Vineis in Faenza. Side panels showing Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint John the Evangelist were placed to the right and left of the Virgin and there was a second tier of panels above and a predella panel below. Clarice endowed the chapel and also oversaw Bertucci’s decoration of it.
The Virgin Mary sits on a throne made of clouds. She holds a lily and supports the naked infant Christ, who stands on her thigh. She is surrounded by child angels – two hold a golden crown over her head and another two carry lit tapers at her side. The little angel peering out from beneath her gown appears to be conducting the child musicians who play the rebec (a precursor of the violin) and duct flute below.
This was the central panel of an altarpiece commissioned by Clarice Manfredi in 1512 for a chapel in the Dominican church of S. Andrea in Vineis (a reference to the surrounding vineyards) in Faenza.
The Virgin Mary sits on a throne made of clouds with a cloudy platform for her feet. She holds a lily and supports the naked infant Christ, who stands on her thigh. She is surrounded by child angels – two hold a golden crown over her head and another two carry lit tapers at her side. The little angel peering out from beneath her gown appears to be conducting the child musicians who play the rebec (a precursor of the violin) and duct flute below. A similar composition was painted by Lorenzo Costa in 1505 as the High Altarpiece for S. Pietro in Vincoli in Faenza, which Bertucci must have known well.
Clarice, prioress of the Dominican Tertiaries in Faenza, was a prominent member of the Manfredi family, who ruled the city during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Manfredi had a long connection with the Dominican community of S. Andrea in Vineis, making numerous bequests, especially during the fifteenth century. In Clarice’s will of 1494, she expressed her wish to be buried in the same vault as her mother and sister, beneath the chapel of Saint Thomas Aquinas in S. Andrea. She commissioned this polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece) from Bertucci and oversaw his redecoration of the chapel, which she endowed.
The contract Clarice signed with Bertucci asked for an altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with at least two angels in the central area, and Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint John the Evangelist on the panels to the right and left of the Virgin (now Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas). The landscape and paved terrace with the stone parapet continue into the side panels and resemble those in Bertucci’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas with a Donor from the Calderoni Family. Other figures were to be included in the side panels, to be decided by Clarice at a later stage. The second tier was to feature half-figures of Saint Jerome and Saint Stephen and a central panel with Christ carrying the Cross (location now unknown). A predella depicting scenes from the lives of the saints and the patron’s coat of arms was also required.
Clarice requested that the vault of the chapel should be painted with a fine azurite blue and 500 gold stars, as well as blue on the underside of the arch, gilding on the mouldings and 20 rosettes. The side walls were to include frescoes of episodes from the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas. The cost was 85 gold ducats. Work must have been completed by 19 March 1516, when Bertucci received the final payment.
Infrared reflectography has revealed an underdrawing for the entire composition of this central panel. The outlines of the main figures seem to have been transferred from a cartoon, with areas of shadow added later. The two musicians in the foreground were originally intended to have wings and they were both originally painted unclothed.
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