The Virgin Mary is seated on a bench, holding the infant Christ. He raises his right hand to bless Saint Francis, who kneels with his hands raised to reveal his stigmata – marks on his body which correspond to the wounds suffered by Christ during the Crucifixion.
Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband, leans on his stick, with his eyelids lowered or closed. Saint Elizabeth touches the head of her son, the infant John the Baptist, who is holding a lamb and trying to protect it from the monkey perched on a ledge. The classical architecture in the background may be intended to indicate that the pagan world has been superseded by a new Christian era.
The monkey is a puzzling feature. It seems to be threatening the lamb, a common attribute of John the Baptist and a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. The monkey may represent evil, but as the saint seems to be enjoying its antics it may just be a decorative element.
The Virgin Mary is seated on a bench, holding the infant Christ who grasps his mother’s mantle with his left hand while he raises his right to bless Saint Francis. The saint kneels before him with his hands raised to reveal his stigmata – marks on his body which correspond to the wounds suffered by Christ during the Crucifixion. Golden rays radiate from Saint Francis’s stigmata on his hands and side. The haloes painted with fine cross hatching in shell gold are typical of Mazzolino and can also be seen in his Nativity with a Shepherd.
Saint Joseph stands on the right, leaning on his stick, with his eyelids lowered or closed. Mazzolino also showed Saint Joseph slumbering in the Nativity with a Shepherd. Behind Saint Francis stands Saint Elizabeth, who touches the head of her son – and Christ’s cousin – John the Baptist. The chubby infant is holding a lamb and trying to protect it from the monkey perched on a nearby ledge. Elizabeth is depicted as an old woman as she miraculously conceived her son in old age after many years of being barren. She looks down at her nephew, Christ, with her mouth open and palm raised as if speaking to him.
A building with a very unusual portico is painted in the background. Two plain pillars support a relief of battling Amazons. The block above it is decorated with a similar classical subject. On either side of this there are two imaginary sculpted scenes of military leaders on plinths addressing groups of soldiers. Roman military standards are displayed in the background. The classical architecture may be intended to represent the pagan world that has been superseded by a new Christian era.
The monkey is a puzzling feature. It seems to be threatening the lamb, a common attribute of John the Baptist and a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. It has been suggested that the monkey might represent evil, but the Baptist seems to be enjoying its antics so it may just have been included as a decorative element. Monkeys appear in other pictures by Mazzolino, such as the Holy Family with the Infant John the Baptist and Saint Elisabeth (Bargellesi collection, Milan) and the Dispute in the Temple (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). In a Holy Family by Mazzolino in the Louvre, the infant Baptist holds out cherries for a monkey. A monkey also appears in Garofalo’s The Virgin and Child enthroned with Saint Dominic and Saint Catherine of Siena.
This was one of the paintings bequeathed in 1830 to the National Gallery by the Revd William Holwell Carr. In addition to Mazzolino’s Holy Family he also bequeathed two other Ferrarese pictures: Garofalo’s Saint Augustine with the Holy Family and Saint Catherine of Alexandria and The Conversion of Saint Paul by Giacomo Panizzati.
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