The Christ Child lies on a bundle of straw before his mother, the Virgin Mary, on a grassy patch in the foreground of this picture, his head supported by a kneeling angel. Making direct eye contact with the viewer, he suckles his index finger in a gesture that may have been understood as a kiss of peace. The Virgin, her hands joined, prays towards her son, while her husband Joseph rests on a saddle and holds a staff in his left hand. Behind him rise the ruins of an ancient building – a distant landscape with little buildings can be seen through its arches.
This painting may have been made by the Florentine painters Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere and his brother Donnino, who specialised in the production of devotional paintings in Florence in the decades around 1500. Its circular shape was very popular at the time.
The crumbling ancient buildings, a common feature of Italian Renaissance nativity scenes, express the idea that Christianity superseded the pagan religions practised at the time of Christ’s birth. Another common feature of religious paintings of this period is Joseph’s characterisation as a passive bystander, uninvolved in the miracle before us. It was only through the foundation of confraternities dedicated to Saint Joseph and the promotion of his cult from the late fifteenth century onward that he received a more favourable treatment in art. The tradition of showing the Christ Child lying before his mother, rather than in her arms, was inspired by the influential writings of the fourteenth-century mystic and saint Bridget of Sweden, who described such a vision during her journey to the Holy Land.
This painting may have been made by the Florentine painters Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere and his brother Donnino, who specialised in the production of devotional paintings in Florence in the decades around 1500. Their identities were only discovered in 1988 – they were formerly known under the pseudonym ‘Master of Santo Spirito’, in reference to three major altarpieces in the prominent Florentine church of that name. The Mazziere brothers seem to have run their own workshop by the late 1480s. Surviving payment records chart their activity until about 1515, with important commissions for altarpieces and fresco cycles for confraternities, churches and civic buildings, both in Florence and outside of it. Praised for their draughtsmanship, works by the Mazziere brothers were much in demand at the time but they were overshadowed by their more famous contemporaries, from whom they often drew inspiration.
A painting like this one was part of the core production of every workshop of this period. Its shape would have guaranteed the interest of customers in Florence. Circular paintings, known as tondi, typically adorned the chamber of their owners, providing a focus for prayer. This tondo stands out for its sheer size, measuring 126 cm in diameter; it is not impossible that a painting of this size would have been placed over an altar or decorated a civic building, although only a few such examples are documented.
It’s possible that the landscape background was painted by a different artist. Similar buildings appear in the background of works by Sandro Botticelli, who often didn't paint his own landscapes – he was even criticised by Leonardo da Vinci for not caring much about them.
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