Charity is one of the theological virtues, together with Faith and Hope. From the sixteenth century onwards, Charity was commonly depicted as a mother suckling her infants. Here, one of the children looks at us and draws our attention to his mother’s example. Her breast is still exposed from feeding her babies, although they have turned away from it.
The red velvet cloth behind the woman resembles the cloth of honour often hung behind the Virgin and Child in sixteenth-century Italian altarpieces to suggest the appearance of a throne. The visual association of Charity with the Virgin and Child is frequent in Italian art of the period and would have been intentional.
The composition derives from Francesco Salviati’s larger picture of the subject in the Uffizi, Florence, painted around 1540, which is itself based on Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, also in the Uffizi. The antique-style headdress, elegant twisting pose and bright ’shot' colours strongly highlighted with white are typical of Florentine Mannerist art.
Charity, one of the theological virtues together with Faith and Hope, is here represented as a woman with three children. In his Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul places the greatest emphasis on Charity (Love): ‘So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love‘ (1 Corinthians 13). The King James version of the Bible translates the Greek word agape as both ‘love’ and ‘charity’ and uses them interchangeably for the same concept. The word ‘love’ used in the New Testament almost always carries the meaning of charity. From the sixteenth century onwards, Charity was commonly depicted as a mother suckling her infants.
One of the children looks at us and draws our attention to his mother, who seems distracted. Her breast is still exposed from feeding her babies, although they have turned away from it and two embrace each other on her lap. A fire burns in a brass dish to the left. This may represent the hearth of Vesta, the Roman goddess of the home and family. The combination of Roman and Christian elements is typical of Italian Renaissance art, which celebrated the rebirth of interest in classical antiquity.
A red velvet cloth edged with gold and silver braid hangs behind the woman. It resembles the cloth of honour often hung behind the Virgin and Child in sixteenth-century Italian altarpieces to suggest the appearance of a throne. The visual association of Charity with the Virgin and Child is frequent in Italian art of this period and would have been intentional.
The woman wears an elaborate headdress in an all’antica style and drapery of cangiante (’changing‘) colours – the fabric is yellow shot with purple and pink over her arm, and is blue lined with purple shot with green over her knee. The prominent use of rose pink, the cangiante colours and the artificial way that white is used as a highlight are seen frequently in the work of Florentine Mannerist artists.
The composition derives from Francesco Salviati’s larger picture of the subject (Uffizi, Florence) painted around 1540, and was previously thought to be by a follower of Salviati. The head of the woman and the child looking at us resemble Salviati’s image most closely. The pose of Salviati’s Virgin is itself based on that of the Virgin in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (Uffizi, Florence).
Michele Tosini began painting in the early sixteenth-century Florentine style of Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto. He was also known as ’Michele da Ridolfo' due to having spent part of his training in the workshop of Ridolfo Ghirlandaio. The influence of the Florentine Mannerist painters Salviati, Pontormo and Bronzino became visible in his works by the 1540s. He worked with Vasari on the decorations of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and through his example adopted motifs derived from the work of Michelangelo. According to Vasari, Tosini headed a large workshop that produced many altarpieces and paintings.
There are versions of this painting at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the Narodowe Museum in Warsaw and the Palazzo Giustiniani Pallavicini, Genoa.
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