Christ lies across his mother’s lap in a position intended to recall the pietà, when his dead body was returned to her after the Crucifixion. Saint Joseph watches him sleeping and the infant John the Baptist raises his finger to his lips, asking us for silence.
The Virgin holds open a Bible. The position of the fingers of her other hand suggests that she was originally meant to be lifting a veil from her child. The hourglass marks the passing of time and symbolises the inevitability of death. As the sand runs from the upper bulb to the lower one, Christ’s sacrifice, as prophesied in the Bible, comes ever closer.
This is one of many painted copies based on a presentation drawing in red chalk by Michelangelo (Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire), which dates from about 1538. The composition has been known as ‘Il Silenzio’ (Silence) since the sixteenth century. Venusti’s picture was probably painted in the second half of the 1540s.
Christ sleeps lying across his mother’s lap in a pose intended to make us think of the pietà, when his dead body was placed in a similar position after the Crucifixion. Saint Joseph and the infant John the Baptist watch him sleeping. As the young Saint John looks down at his cousin, he raises his finger to his lips, asking us for silence. It is this gesture from which the picture’s title is derived. It is traditional for Saint John to wear a robe made of camel skin, intended to recall his time in the wilderness, however here he is mysteriously dressed in a leopard skin.
This picture is the finest of many painted versions of the composition, all originating in a presentation drawing in red chalk by Michelangelo, which dates from about 1538. He took the posture of Mary appearing to lift a veil from the Child from a painting by his former friend and collaborator Sebastiano del Piombo, the so-called Madonna of the Veil painted in the mid- to late 1530s and now in the Capodimonte in Naples.
The drawing is in the Portland Collection, managed by the Harley Gallery, Nottinghamshire. The composition has been known as ‘Il Silenzio’ (Silence) since the sixteenth century. Venusti’s picture was probably painted in Rome in the second half of the 1540s, but Venusti executed several versions of the composition and continued working after Michelangelo’s designs through the 1560s, so it is impossible to date accurately. It follows Michelangelo’s drawing very closely, although the steps, columns and curtain in the background of Venusti’s painting are not included the drawing.
The Virgin sits on a marble bench with her legs crossed, her son’s head resting on her lap. The hourglass in the right-hand alcove of the bench marks the passing of time and symbolises the inevitability of death. With one hand, the Virgin holds open a Bible, and with the other she appears to point down at her son whom she watches sleeping. In fact, she was probably meant to be lifting a veil from him, a gesture of revelation that appears in similar paintings by Sebastiano del Piombo and Raphael. However, Michelangelo omitted the veil from the drawing and Venusti, apparently not realising it was missing, did not paint this detail. As the sand runs from the upper bulb of the hourglass to the lower one, Christ’s sacrifice, as prophesied in the Bible, comes ever closer. The writing in the Bible in Venusti’s painting is illegible.
According to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, Venusti, who was a talented and trusted associate of Michelangelo, painted numerous small-scale copies of drawings and also frescoes by him. Although Michelangelo did not make many easel paintings, he is known to have made and given away drawings for works which were subsequently painted by other artists. Michelangelo seems to have particularly admired Venusti’s highly finished, enamel-like painting style, and their long, fruitful collaboration was already established by the 1540s. Michelangelo was even godfather to Venusti’s first child, named in his honour. The Purification of the Temple is another painting that Venusti made after drawings by Michelangelo. Rather than being regarded as of lesser value, during the Renaissance these works made in collaboration with Venusti were seen as combining the best of Michelangelo’s design (disegno) with Venusti’s talent for colour (colore).
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