The Virgin looks away as the infant Christ leans forward to touch his cousin Saint John the Baptist under the chin. The presence of the infant Saint John suggests the influence of Florentine art, as he is rare in Venetian art before this date. There are several versions of this design which may date from around 1506, when Catena was in partnership with Giorgione.
An X-ray image of a painting believed to be a self portrait by Giorgione in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig, has revealed another earlier picture beneath the paint layers. It is a Virgin and Child similar in design to the National Gallery’s painting, which also includes the Christ Child’s very unusual pose and gesture. It may be that Christ’s pose was Giorgione’s idea.
The painting is very damaged, particularly down the centre of the panel. The Virgin’s blue mantle, which is painted over red underpaint, and Saint John the Baptist’s green tunic are the only parts still in reasonably good condition.
The Virgin Mary looks away, seemingly deep in thought, as the infant Christ leans forward from her lap to touch his cousin Saint John the Baptist beneath the chin. Christ’s pose and gesture are extremely unusual in Italian art of this time. He supports himself by holding on to his mother’s neck with his left hand, while turning his head to look down at his cousin. The scene is set against a cloudy sky, the bright daylight accentuating the complex creases of the Virgin’s headdress and robes. Saint John crosses his arms against his chest in a gesture of humility and reverence and does not meet Christ’s gaze. Christ may be gently lifting his cousin’s face to make him look up at him to reassure him. The presence of the infant Saint John suggests the influence of Florentine art, as he is rare in Venetian art before this date.
The picture has an intriguing connection to a painting believed to be a self portrait by Giorgione, which is now in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari describes a self portrait of Giorgione in the guise of David, the biblical slayer of the giant Goliath. At some time in the past, the Braunschweig self portrait was cropped, possibly to remove the gory head of Goliath. An engraving by Wenceslaus Holler of 1650 (British Museum, London) shows the self portrait with the giant’s severed head held by David on a ledge along the lower edge of the picture. The portrait, however, does not include the part of Goliath’s head one would expect still to be visible, judging from the engraving, which has raised doubts as to it being its model.
In 1957, an X-ray image of the self portrait was published, which clearly showed another earlier picture beneath the paint layers, which had also been cropped. It is a Virgin and Child very similar in design to the National Gallery’s painting, which also includes the Christ Child’s very unusual pose and gesture. It may be that the idea for Christ’s pose in the National Gallery’s picture originally came from Giorgione. There are several versions of this design which may date from around 1506, the period when Catena and Giorgione were in partnership.
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