As Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (1245–1305) contemplates the Christ Child, rays of golden light impress a sun with the face of a cherub upon his breast. Christ eats the cherries offered by Saint Joseph, symbolising the fruit of paradise. Angels watch and play music; God the Father, together with the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove, bless the holy family below.
The presence of Saint Nicholas, an Augustinian friar who was based in Tolentino for the last 30 years of his life, makes it likely that this picture was commissioned by a member of an Augustinian community in or near Ferrara. The distinctive haloes made of tiny gold lines are typical of Mazzolino, as are the classical friezes and ornaments in the background architecture. He often reused the same motifs, which suggests that he was working from a collection of drawings kept in his studio.
The Virgin Mary sits on a very broad wooden throne with the infant Christ. He stands partly on her thigh and partly on the throne’s seat holding bunches of cherries, symbolising the fruit of paradise. Saint Joseph leans on the arm of the throne, which is covered with an orange cloth, and offers Christ the cherries.
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino (1245–1305) is kneeling beside the Virgin with one hand on his heart and the other clutching a lily – symbolic of his virginity – and a small Crucifix. He was an Augustinian friar who was based in Tolentino for the last 30 years of his life. He ministered to the needy, converted sinners and became a very famous preacher. He has a radiant sun with the face of a cherub on his chest, which is a reference to a miraculous star that appeared several times at the door of his cell towards the end of his life. The presence of Saint Nicholas makes it likely that this picture was commissioned by a member of an Augustinian community in or near Ferrara. The holy figures have distinctive haloes that, like other parts of the painting, are executed using shell gold, forming tiny gold lines typical of Mazzolino. These can also be seen in his Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth, Francis and John the Baptist and Nativity with a Shepherd.
Two angels lean on the other arm of the throne, while above God the Father and the dove of the Holy Ghost descend on a cloud and a burst of light to bless the holy family. The arches of the architecture behind God seem to spring from his hands, reinforcing his gesture. Above the classical architecture behind the throne, a host of angels make music with a lute, harp and organ. The pyramidal composition of the holy family group is reinforced by the diagonal openings of the orange cloth covering the sides of the throne. The lines of the architecture and the wings of the angels above form another, inverted, triangle. At the intersection of these two triangles, the dove of the Holy Ghost is central and pivotal to the entire composition.
The pale stone architecture is covered in low relief decorations in antique style. Mazzolino frequently depicted such classical friezes and ornaments in the backgrounds of his paintings – a similar example can be seen in his Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth, Francis and John the Baptist. He may have based these on drawings after engraved objects, coins, antique sarcophagi fronts and triumphal arches that he kept in his studio. This would explain why identical motifs recur in different pictures. A fallen horse with a riding soldier next to it in the central frieze here also appears in the frieze of Christ disputing with the Doctors in the Temple. The subjects of the friezes do not seem to relate to the religious subjects of Mazzolino’s paintings. Mazzolino also reused the sacred figures from his paintings in other works, often in reverse, which suggests that he was working from a pattern book.
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