The Virgin’s sculptural presence – her voluminous draperies look as though carved from stone – is a moment of stillness in this little panel that rings with colour, pattern and gold details.
Gozzoli, who trained as a goldsmith and also painted illuminated manuscripts, was a popular artist among the wealthy and powerful. His glittering and exquisitely detailed pictures were luxury objects suitable for magnificent patrons; he worked on frescoes for the Pope and the ruling Florentine family, the Medici. Gozzoli may have painted this picture for an important cleric – the central shield decorating the edge of the canopy is engraved with a cross.
The formal pageantry of this scene is broken up with intimate details such as the angel who leans over to offer the infant Christ a little bird. The hedgerow in bloom that encloses the figures creates the effect of a private audience with the Virgin and Child and is probably meant to refer to the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden that symbolised Mary’s virginity.
The Virgin’s serene gaze anchors the viewer’s attention in this busy scene. Her plump oval face makes her look especially young but the crisp folds of her heavy blue cloak which ripple around her feet have a sculptural quality that lend her presence weight. She is seated under a red and gold canopy, supported at its four corners by angels, holding the Christ Child in her arms. Looking in on the scene, two more angels hold their hands in prayer while another pair face each other, perhaps in conversation.
Gozzoli is the most likely author of an illuminated manuscript, now in the British Library (Harley 1340) made for a member of the papal court in the 1440s. Its similarity to this panel is one of the reasons that this picture is thought to have been painted by him. We know Gozzoli was in Rome in this decade as he was working with Fra Angelico on now-destroyed frescoes for the Vatican. This panel’s small scale, intricate details and vibrant colours are similar to manuscript illuminations. Floral borders were popular in manuscripts; the holy figures in this scene are framed by a fringed floral tapestry beneath their feet and the top of a hedgerow in bloom. The hedgerow tightly encloses the canopy and the figures, giving the effect of a private audience with the Virgin and Christ Child. The setting is probably supposed to recall the hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden, that symbolised Mary’s virginity.
The symmetrical arrangement of the majority of the angels is broken only by the central angel who, leaning over the Virgin’s shoulder, offers the naked infant Christ a small bird. Christ reveals his dual human and divine nature by reaching for the bird with one hand and blessing the viewer with the other. The painting’s lively mood is reinforced by the use of bright colours. The angels' robes alternate between pink, red, and blue, which singles them out as individuals rather than a uniform group. Some of the robes change colour as they hit the light – an effect known as cangiante, meaning changing.
Much of the panel’s gilded decoration has been repainted. The canopy’s red ceiling has been repainted but the sgraffito decoration is largely original. The edge is decorated with nine shields surrounded by wreaths which have been created by scoring the gold leaf with a sharp tool. It is unclear whether they once contained coats of arms. The central shield contains a cross design which may point to a clerical patron.
The image of the Virgin under a canopy appears in Sienese but not Florentine painting, suggesting the artist may at least have had an interest in Sienese painting. The Sienese artist Simone Martini’s fresco painted in 1315 for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, which depicts the Virgin and Child seated under a magnificent canopy surrounded by saints and angels, may have served as a model.
Small panels of the Virgin and Child are also rare throughout Italy in this period but some survive, usually paired with a Crucifixion scene in a diptych. The edges of this panel were trimmed before it was placed in this frame in the nineteenth century, meaning that any evidence of a hinge that would have connected it to another panel is now missing.
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