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Marcello Venusti, after Michelangelo, The Holy Family (Il Silenzio)

Key facts
Full title The Holy Family (Il Silenzio)
Artist Marcello Venusti, after Michelangelo
Artist dates born 1512-15; died 1579; 1475 - 1564
Date made second half of the 1540's
Medium and support Oil on wood
Dimensions 43.2 × 28.6 cm
Acquisition credit Bought, 1887
Inventory number NG1227
Location On loan: Michelangelo: the last decades, The British Museum, London, UK
Collection Main Collection
The Holy Family (Il Silenzio)
Marcello Venusti, after Michelangelo

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.

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