At the centre of this painting is the Virgin Mary, seated in a narrow space, a wall behind her and a ledge before her. She holds the infant Christ, who seems unsteady on his feet as he leans to the right. He makes direct eye contact with the viewer. The young Saint John the Baptist, identified by his camel-hair shirt, looks on in devotion, his crossed arms embracing a little reed cross. An angel approaches from the opposite side wearing a wreath of roses and holding a white lily, common symbols of the Virgin’s purity.
Special tools have been used to decorate the golden background and the figures’ haloes, probably to increase the effect of flickering candlelight by which the painting would sometimes have been seen. It is likely to have decorated the bedroom of its original owners, offering a visual aid for prayer. It still has its original frame, which is actually part of the wooden panel on which the picture is painted.
At the centre of this circular painting is the Virgin Mary, seated in a narrow space, a wall behind her and a ledge before her. She holds the infant Christ, who seems unsteady on his feet as he leans to the right. The fact that he is nude – unlike his mother, who wears several layers of garments and a headdress – highlights his vulnerability. It may be for this reason that Mary looks down with concern on her face. She may also anticipate Christ’s future crucifixion. It is the viewer with whom he makes direct eye contact.
The Virgin and Christ Child are joined by the young Saint John the Baptist, who will go on to baptise Christ in the river Jordan. Identified by his camel-hair shirt, he looks on in devotion, his crossed arms embracing a little reed cross. An angel is standing on the opposite side, wearing a wreath of roses and holding a white lily, common symbols of the Virgin’s purity. His right hand rests on a sash decorated with an illegible inscription.
The painting still has its original frame, which is actually part of the wooden panel on which the picture is painted. It is richly gilded, and decorated with blossoms and vines that form regular patterns that are further divided by rope-like rings. Special tools have been used to decorate the surface of the painting’s golden background: some areas are embossed while others are raised using pastiglia, a paste of gesso or white lead. The haloes have been densely incised to appear like rays of light. All these efforts have probably been undertaken to heighten the effect of flickering candlelight by which the painting would sometimes have been seen.
A circular painting like this one, also known as a tondo, is likely to have adorned the bedroom of its original owners, offering a visual aid for prayer. The format may appear unusual, but was actually very common during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially in Florence. There are other examples in the National Gallery’s collection, including The Virgin and Child with Saint John and an Angel by Botticelli and The Virgin and Child with the Magdalen and Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raffaellino del Garbo. Florentines would have especially appreciated the inclusion of the young Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of the city. Florence’s most important church, the Baptistery, is dedicated to him.
We do not know the name of the artist who produced this tondo, but its design is indebted to works by the Florentine painters Fra Filippo Lippi and Pesellino. Its artist was possibly a member of Lippi’s workshop, or someone who reproduced Lippi’s designs, which were treasured by some of Florence’s leading families, including the Medici. The artist’s strong emphasis on contours makes him easily distinguishable and there are many more paintings by the same hand that are based on designs by Lippi, including versions of this composition. In the absence of a proper name, art historians refer to this painter as Pseudo Pier Francesco Fiorentino.
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