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The Virgin and Child with Saints, Angels and a Donor
Probably by Bartolomeo Caporali
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Two saints kneel at the feet of the Virgin Mary, who sits on a marble throne and gazes down at the Christ Child. We're looking at Saint Francis, founder of the Franciscan Order, on the left and the famous Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena on the right. The small figure kneeling at the front is the altarpiece’s patron.

This arrangement of the Virgin and Child between Saints Francis and Bernardino was popular in Italy in the later fifteenth century. It first appeared in the work of the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli, but Caporal reworked the composition, making it tighter and increasing its expressive power.

Gestures direct our eyes from bottom to top: we are drawn up from Saint Francis’s hand on the donor to his upturned palm, then to Christ’s, and then to the Virgin. Her still, crossed hands – which are emphasised by size and colour – stop the upwards movement.

Key facts
Artist Probably by Bartolomeo Caporali
Artist dates active 1467 - 1491
Full title The Virgin and Child with Saints, Angels and a Donor
Series Altarpiece: The Virgin and Child with Saints
Date made probably 1475-80
Medium and support Tempera and oil on wood
Dimensions 122.6 x 83.2 cm
Inscription summary Dated
Acquisition credit Bought, 1881
Inventory number NG1103.1
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Altarpiece: The Virgin and Child with Saints

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Two of the most popular late medieval saints – Francis, who died in 1226, and Bernardino of Siena, who died in 1444 – present a young man to the Virgin and Child and a choir of angels; he’s the altarpiece’s patron. In the outer panels stand Saints John the Baptist and Bartholomew.

We don't know where this altarpiece came from, although Caporali seems to have worked mainly in Umbria. Neither do we know who the patron was, though clearly he was a man with a special devotion to the Franciscans, the religious order Francis founded.

This is one of the rare paintings of saints that actually resemble the person they depict. Bernardino was a famous travelling preacher who drew large crowds to his outdoor sermons. Many paintings of him were made immediately after his death – possibly from his death mask, which still survives – and show him as here: an old man with a toothless mouth and sunken cheeks.

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