The Virgin sits in front of an Italianate landscape, the Christ Child standing on her lap. He twists his body to gaze lovingly at his mother, while her hand cups his left foot.
This picture, with its brilliant blues and greens, is among Cima da Conegliano’s finest works. It is one of several versions of the composition painted by him and his workshop. This one is thought to be mainly by Cima: the clear light and the contrasting colours are very characteristic of his style.
As well as being highly decorative, the composition has a strong underlying geometric structure. The Virgin and Child together form a wide-based triangle, their heads meeting at the apex. Christ’s body makes a narrower triangle, and the shapes of the hills, towns and mountains all echo these forms.
The Virgin Mary sits in front of an Italianate landscape, the Christ Child standing on her lap. He twists his body to gaze lovingly at his mother while she cups his left foot in her hand. Behind them, on the left, a man drives a laden donkey along a winding path which crosses a bridge to a walled town. On the right, another man balances rather precariously, one foot in the air, on a tree which has been laid across a stream.
This picture, with its brilliant blues and greens, is among Cima da Conegliano’s finest works. As well as being highly decorative the composition has a strong underlying geometric structure. The Virgin and Child together form a wide-based triangle, their heads meeting at the apex. Christ’s body makes a narrower triangle, and the shapes of the hills, towns and mountains echo these forms. The marble parapet serves to push the Virgin back into the picture space, while the zigzagging road and path across the stream draw our eye into the painting, linking the foreground and hills. Cima has also used aerial perspective: the distant mountains on the left are coloured blue and on the right a succession of slopes and shrubs alternate dark and light, creating a sense that they are receding. These kinds of techniques were to become especially popular in early sixteenth-century Venetian painting, as in Titian’s Noli me Tangere.
This composition was evidently much in demand with Venetian patrons in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, and this is one of several versions painted by Cima and his workshop. This one is thought to be mainly by Cima himself: the clear light and the contrasting colours are very characteristic of his style, and also appear in The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. He used the cartoon of the figures of the Virgin and Child at least three times between 1496 and 1499 – two other works are in the North Carolina Museum of Art and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In addition to these three main versions there are others in which his assistants played a greater role. The landscape background reappears almost identically in a less accomplished version in Treviso and in a painting of Saint Helena (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C). It probably represents a fairly accurate view of fifteenth-century Conegliano, Cima’s home town.
Cima’s signature normally includes ‘of Conegliano’ – as in another Virgin and Child – but here he has omitted the town’s name from inscription on the parapet: IOHANNES BAPTISTA P (for ‘PINXIT’ – ‘John Baptist painted this’). Its absence suggests the painting was made for Conegliano itself, where he would not have had to distinguish himself from any other Cima.
Paintings showing the Virgin and Child were extremely popular. They made up a large part of the output of Cima’s workshop, as they had done for Giovanni Bellini, whom Vasari claimed was Cima’s teacher. Both artists often set holy figures in an Italianate landscape; look at Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow. During the Renaissance, people believed that the holy family existed here and now, not just ‘then and there’.
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