We do not know the origins of this mysterious painting. It has the wide rectangular shape typical of Venetian votive pictures made to thank the Virgin Mary or a patron saint.
The Virgin sits on a stone throne ornamented with sphinxes, symbolising wisdom, while Saint Joseph stands beside her. A warrior approaches the Virgin and Child on his knees, his right hand to his heart, his face in shadow. He wears European armour, but the silk of his headdress is from Islamic North Africa, the enamelled trappings of his horse from Islamic Spain, and his curved dagger and belt hanging on the wall are of Islamic style.
The image appears to be unique in showing a Muslim warrior kneeling in adoration before the Virgin and Child. The infant Christ raises his right hand in blessing while a page in Venetian costume stands behind the wall holding the warrior’s horse. The painting may commemorate the warrior’s conversion to Christianity or the hope for universal peace.
This is one of Catena’s greatest works and arguably the most mysterious. We know nothing of its origins. The painting, probably of the 1520s, has the wide rectangular shape typical of Venetian votive paintings – pictures given to thank the Virgin Mary or a patron saint.
The holy family are in a paved, open-air area separated from the partly wooded landscape by a low wall. The Virgin sits on a stone throne ornamented with sphinxes, known as a sedes sapientiae (Latin for ’seat of wisdom'), while Saint Joseph stands beside her resting his elbow on the parapet. A warrior partly clad in plate armour kneels on the green cloth on the floor before the Virgin’s throne and presses his right hand to his heart in reverence, his face in shadow. He gazes at the infant Christ, who sits on his mother’s knee and raises his right hand in blessing. He has removed his weapons in deference to the Virgin and Child, but not his turban. His shaded face may mean that he is not yet fully illuminated by the light of Christ. His dagger, attached to his elaborate belt, is hanging on the wall next to a small white lapdog. A similar dog is present beneath the table in Catena’s Supper at Emmaus (Uffizi, Florence) and his Sacred Family with Saint Anne (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) and may represent faithfulness. A page in Venetian clothing stands behind the wall holding the reins of the warrior’s horse.
The warrior wears European armour, but the silk of his headdress is from Islamic North Africa, the enamelled trappings of his horse from Islamic Spain, and the curved dagger and belt are also of Islamic style. The image appears to be unique in showing a Muslim warrior – possibly Turkish or Moorish – kneeling in adoration before the Virgin and Child. He may be a recent convert to Christianity. It is also possible that he is an Albanian mercenary commander come to fight alongside Venetian troops during the War of the League of Cambrai in 1510. The League of Cambrai was an anti-Venetian alliance of Western powers headed by the Pope that aimed to curb Venetian power on the Italian mainland.
Due to its position in the Adriatic and its trade links, Venice was at the meeting point of the West and East, the Christian and Islamic worlds. Venetian documents of the early sixteenth century record a desire for the conversion of Turks rather than their destruction, and a future of universal peace with a common leader – the two worlds united by the blessing of Christ and the grace of the Virgin, as is perhaps suggested by Catena’s painting.
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