The Virgin and Child are seated on a throne in front of a cloth of honour in this large and highly decorative altarpiece. They are surrounded by saints, in a composition known as a sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’). On the Virgin’s right are Saints John the Baptist and Gall, the patron of the church for which this was painted. On her left are Saints James, with pilgrim badges in his hat, and Bartholomew, holding the knife which which he was flayed.
Inscribed on the vaulting of the apse behind them are the abbreviated Latin words, ‘Rejoice, Queen of Heaven, Hallelujah’, the opening lines of a famous hymn to the Virgin. The church’s decoration reflects the tradition of mosaics in medieval Venetian churches; the artist, Marco Marziale, was Venetian. His name and the date, 1507, are painted on the cartellino (a piece of parchment or paper depicted within the painting) on the marble step of the throne.
The Virgin Mary and Christ Child are seated in front of a gold cloth of honour, topped with a tasselled baldachin, in this large and highly decorative altarpiece. They are surrounded by saints, in a composition known as a sacra conversazione (‘holy conversation’).
On the Virgin’s right is Saint John the Baptist, wearing his traditional camel skin – the saint lived as a hermit in the desert for many years, wearing uncomfortable clothes to bring him closer to God (as in Saint John the Baptist by Carlo Crivelli). He points at the Christ Child and holds a cross, around which curls a scroll with a Latin inscription: Ecce Agnus Dei. These are the first words of the phrase with which John recognised Christ as the Messiah when he baptised him: ‘Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.’ Next to him is Saint Gall, the patron of the church for which this was painted, dressed as a bishop. He was one of the missionary saints who converted the pagan French to Christianity in the seventh century.
On her left is Saint James, with a pilgrim’s staff and a hat decorated with pilgrim badges; he was patron saint of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the most important pilgrimage church in medieval Europe. Next to him is Saint Bartholomew, holding the knife which which he was skinned alive. He must have been especially important, as the Christ Child turns to look at him – he may have been the donor’s name saint.
The whole group appear to be under the dome of a church decorated with mosaics, and in front of a niche – as if Virgin and Child are seated on the altar itself. Inscribed on the vaulting of the apse behind them are the abbreviated Latin words, ‘Rejoice, Queen of Heaven, Hallelujah’, the opening lines of the famous hymn to the Virgin. The decoration of the church reflects the tradition of mosaics in medieval Venetian churches; the artist, Marco Marziale, was Venetian. He has painted his name and the date, 1507, on the cartellino on the marble step of the throne.
This picture was painted as the high altarpiece for the church of San Gallo in Cremona. In 1507 Cremona was part of the Duchy of Milan, which was at that time under French rule – which is presumably why there’s what looks like a fleur-de-lis on Christ’s halo.
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