This panel is like a miniature altarpiece. The Virgin Mary and Christ Child occupy the central arch, with Saint Mark on the left and Saint John the Baptist on the right.
There is a Latin inscription in gold next to the Virgin, which means: ‘Holy Mary of Humility’. This title was often given to images in which Mary is shown seated on the ground. The brooch at her throat is in the shape of the sun, there is a crescent moon beneath her feet and 12 stars around her figure. These are the symbols of the so-called ‘Woman of the Apocalypse’ – a cosmic mother figure mentioned in the Book of Revelation and associated with the Virgin.
This painting was probably made for private worship. Saint Mark was the patron saint of Venice; the picture might have been made for a Venetian patron, perhaps someone named after Saint John the Baptist.
Mary is seated on a green mound, probably intended to represent the ground. Next to her, a gold inscription in Latin gives her title, ‘Holy Mary of Humility’. This was often given to images in which Mary is shown seated on the ground; another example is The Virgin and Child. It’s possible that as well as being a humble pose, the title is related to the Latin word humus, meaning ‘earth’.
Saint John, who makes a blessing gesture, holds a scroll. It is inscribed with words the saint spoke about Christ when he was preaching in the wilderness: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’ (John 1: 29). Under his green robe he wears a camel-hair tunic. According to the Gospels, this is what he wore in the wilderness (Matthew 3: 4; Mark 1:6).
Mary’s almond-shaped eyes, with their slightly puffy lower lids, are characteristic of Lorenzo’s style but other elements also point to its Venetian origins. The image of the Virgin seated on the ground probably came from Siena, but it was popular in Venice too. In Venice, it was often combined with the celestial elements we see here: the sun-shaped brooch at the Virgin’s throat, the crescent moon beneath her feet and the 12 stars – made with tiny indentations called punch marks – around her figure. These are the symbols of the so-called ‘Woman of the Apocalypse’, a cosmic mother figure mentioned in the Book of Revelation and interpreted as the Virgin Mary. The depiction of Mary as the ‘Woman of the Apocalypse’ seated on the ground emphasises her humble background and her divine role as the mother of Christ. The infant Christ’s feet are crossed and poke out of his swaddling cloth; the soles of his feet are very prominent. This may be intended to bring to mind the wounds of the Crucifixion, when Christ’s hands and feet were nailed to the Cross.
The picture remains in its original frame, and the spiral colonettes are typical of frames made in Venice. Technical examination reveals that the roundel decorations between the arches were once in fact rosettes, later changed to the appearance they have now.
This painting was probably made for private worship and created as an independent work, never joined to another panel (unlike many of the other small-scale early Italian pictures in our collection). Saint Mark was the patron saint of Venice; the picture might have been made for a Venetian patron, perhaps someone named after Saint John the Baptist.
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