The Virgin Mary turns to look down at the kneeling man beside her and extends a protective arm around his shoulder. Saint John the Baptist points at the lively Christ Child, while Saint Joseph sleeps with his head on his arm. The diagonals in the composition draw the viewer’s eye to Christ’s gaze, which is directed back at the viewer.
The kneeling man is the donor of the painting, most likely Pierfrancesco Borgherini, a wealthy Florentine merchant. In 1517, Michelangelo was asked to send Sebastiano a drawing for a Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist from which to paint a picture for Pierfrancesco Borgherini. The National Gallery’s painting is dated 1517 on the arm of the Virgin’s seat. There is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of the Virgin and Child (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) in a similar pose to the one shown here, and it may be the drawing that Michelangelo supplied to Sebastiano.
The Virgin Mary turns to gaze down at a kneeling male donor and extends a protective arm around his shoulder. The infant Christ looks out directly at the viewer as he rises to his feet on his mother’s lap. Saint John the Baptist holds his attribute of a simple reed cross and points at the lively Christ Child, while Saint Joseph sleeps with his head on his arm.
The original composition did not include Saint Joseph. Technical examination of the panel has revealed that it was extended to the right by about 10–11 cm, changing it from a portrait format to a landscape one, which was a more common arrangement for Venetian paintings of the holy family with a donor. Sebastiano may have originally intended the painting only to include the Virgin, Christ Child and donor. The diagonals in the composition draw the viewer’s eye to Christ gaze, which is directed back at the viewer.
The donor is likely Pierfrancesco Borgherini, a wealthy Florentine merchant who was a friend to both Sebastiano del Piombo and Michelangelo. Sebastiano and Michelangelo were commissioned by Borgherini to decorate a chapel in the church of S. Pietro in Montorio in Rome in 1516. Executed partly to Michelangelo’s designs by Sebastiano, the scene of The Transfiguration in the half-dome above the altar includes an apostle, Saint James, who looks like the donor in the present picture. Another portrait by Sebastiano, today in the San Diego Museum of Art, appears to show the same man.
The present donor portrait was probably recorded from life rather than copied from a drawing, likely before the rest of the composition was painted. An infrared image of the painting reveals that Sebastiano brushed in dark paint around the profile to make it stand out better from the brown-grey priming on the canvas, before later painting over this area. The ends of the brushstrokes of this dark paint are free, tapering off randomly as if Sebastiano had no clear plan for the rest of the picture at that time. It is possible that Sebastiano had to fit in a sitting with the busy donor at a very early stage in the development of the composition and probably painted the portrait directly from life.
In 1517, Leonardo Sellaio (one of Michelangelo’s trusted friends) wrote to Michelangelo asking him to send Sebastiano a cartoon for a Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist. Pierfrancesco Borgherini had commissioned a painting of the subject from Andrea del Sarto, but he was not happy with it. Sebastiano offered to paint a replacement, and he was sure it would be good if he had a drawing by Michelangelo to work from. This may be that picture.
Infrared reflectography has revealed the date 1517 and the letter ‘S’ on the Virgin’s seat, below Christ’s foot, on the National Gallery’s painting, which suggests it may relate to this letter. There is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of the Virgin and Child (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) in which the infant Christ is in a similar pose to the one seen here; it may be the one that Michelangelo supplied to Sebastiano, although it is a quick sketch rather than the more finished cartoon requested. If Sebastiano originally only intended to include the Virgin, Child and donor, as technical examination of the painting suggests, then that brings its composition even closer in terms of format to Michelangelo’s drawing. The painting shows no sign of having been transferred from a cartoon. Instead, infrared reflectography reveals that the composition developed in an ad hoc manner more in keeping with Sebastiano’s Venetian manner of working than the more disciplined Florentine approach. This suggests that he did not receive a full-sized cartoon from Michelangelo as he had requested and had done for the earlier Pietà (Museo Civico, Viterbo). The small sketch in red chalk would almost certainly have been Michelangelo’s only contribution to this work.
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