The Virgin is seated simply on the ground in the pose known as ‘the Madonna of Humility’, with the Christ Child on her lap and the infant Saint John the Baptist to her side, forming a broad-based pyramid. The motif of the two holy children embracing derives from a design by Leonardo.
Saint John the Baptist has gathered up red fruit – perhaps cherries (known as the Fruit of Paradise) – in the blue cloth over his lap. He holds his traditional attribute of a simple reed cross, and his baptismal bowl hangs at his side.
The painting is very worn and it is hard to tell how much of it was painted by Fra Bartolommeo and how much by his workshop. There are numerous versions of this composition and two of them, in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome and Kenwood House, London, are signed by him and dated 1516.
According to the sixteenth-century art biographer Giorgio Vasari, Fra Bartolommeo earned his living when young by painting Madonnas. During the 1490s, when the preacher Savonarola was at the head of the Florentine Republic, Fra Bartolommeo came under his spiritual influence and ran a large workshop producing important altarpieces. However, after Savonarola’s execution and the return of the Medici to Florence, his name was so associated with Savonarola that almost no one dared risk commissioning altarpieces from him again. It is likely to have been for this reason that Fra Bartolomeo returned to painting images of the Madonna for private devotion, such as this one.
The Virgin is seated simply on the ground in a popular pose known as the Madonna of Humility, with the Christ Child on her lap and the infant Saint John the Baptist to her side. The Virgin and Child with the young Saint John was a common subject in Florence as the city’s cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin and John the Baptist is the city’s patron saint. The figure group forms a compact broad-based pyramid in the centre foreground of the composition with an expansive landscape in the background. The strong pyramidal composition harks back to the works of Leonardo and Raphael in his Florentine period. Fra Bartolommeo’s first idea for the composition came from the mother and child group at the bottom right of his own Madonna della Misericordia of 1515 (Pinacoteca di Villa Guinigi, Lucca).
The Christ Child tips forwards in a dynamic pose to embrace his older cousin, Saint John, his mouth open ready to kiss him on the lips. The motif of the two holy children embracing derives from a design by Leonardo. The Virgin rests her hand on the back of the infant Baptist’s head and holds her son round his chest to prevent him from over-balancing.
Saint John the Baptist carries red fruit – perhaps cherries – gathered up in the blue cloth over his lap and what appear to be olive branches. Cherries are traditionally the Fruit of Paradise in Christian art. He holds his traditional attribute of a simple reed cross and his baptismal bowl hangs at his side. These allude to his Baptism of Christ in the river Jordan and Christ’s future Crucifixion. The town in the left background is repeated in Fra Bartolommeo’s Vision of Saint Bernard (Accademia, Florence). It was common practice to repeat landscape compositions not only in the workshop of Fra Bartolommeo but also in those of his Florentine contemporaries.
The painting is very worn and it is hard to tell how much of it was painted by Fra Bartolommeo and how much by his workshop. There are numerous versions of this composition and two of them, in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome and Kenwood House, London (probably both from the same cartoon reversed), are signed by him and dated 1516. The fact that the Virgin’s hand was changed on the National Gallery’s panel may suggest that Fra Bartolommeo himself painted it, but it is hard to be certain.
There is a studio sketch of this design in the Royal Collection, Windsor, and two drawings related to this composition – though not necessarily by Fra Bartolommeo – are in the Uffizi, Florence.
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