This devotional painting makes us feel as if we are in the same room as the Virgin Mary, who appears almost life-size, praying in quiet devotion. The background is so plain and dark that nothing distracts us from her bowed head framed by a white headdress or her hands pressed gently together. Bright light draws attention to her dazzling blue drapery, giving life to the folds of the fabric. The blue is ultramarine, which was an extremely expensive pigment.
Sixteenth-century reformers of the Roman Catholic Church advocated a more personal approach to worship, placing great emphasis on individual contemplation. By the seventeenth century, the subject of the Virgin alone and at prayer had become very common. There are well over a dozen examples by Sassoferrato himself and numerous copies painted by his studio. Sassoferrato was strongly inspired by the work of earlier artists Raphael and Perugino.
This devotional painting makes us feel as if we are in the same room as the Virgin Mary, who appears almost life-size, praying in quiet devotion. The background is so plain and dark that nothing distracts us from her bowed head framed by a white headdress and her radiant, porcelain-like skin.
This picture is remarkable for its simplicity, making use of swathes of just three colours – red, white and blue – with no extraneous details to distract us from the praying figure. The Virgin is so strongly lit and her skin so flawless that she takes on an almost sculptural quality, and feels like a real presence in front of us. The bright lighting combined with the impenetrable dark background makes the blue of the her robes especially brilliant. Sassferrato has used ultramarine for these. Made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone mined in north-eastern Afghanistan, ultramarine was the most expensive of blue pigments, and highly prized for its intense colour.
Sassoferrato specialised in this kind of deeply felt devotional image and, despite also painting large-scale altarpieces, he is now known as a master of painting the Virgin at prayer. He produced at least four different designs on this theme, which exist in several versions both by his hand and by his studio assistants. Sometimes the Virgin has her hands pressed together and her head directed downward towards the left, as we see here; other designs show her facing frontally, turned to the right in a blue headdress or gazing upward. The subject of the Virgin alone and at prayer was developed in the fifteenth century, but it grew in popularity as sixteenth-century reformers of the Roman Catholic Church advocated a more personal approach to worship, placing greater emphasis on individual devotion and contemplation. Sassoferrato capitalised on this growing market, producing relatively small pictures that appealed to private collectors.
Despite his popularity, we know relatively little about Sassoferrato’s career and work. He was born in the Marches and baptised Giovanni Battista Salvi, taking his nickname from the town of his birth. He spent much of career in Rome, where he was influenced by contemporary painters like Guido Reni. His characteristic style, however, is indebted to artists such as Raphael and Perugino (both of whom had died around 120 years earlier). In this picture – and in The Virgin and Child Embracing, which places more emphasis on the Virgin’s connection with her son – the similarities to Raphael are striking in the elegantly coloured robes and sculpted facial features. The National Gallery acquired its two paintings by Sassoferrato in the mid-nineteenth century, when there was a renewed interest in his work, as well as that of Raphael.
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