Small-scale images of the Virgin and Child made for private worship were a speciality of Bellini’s. This picture was thought to be by the artist’s assistants, but recent technical analysis showed that it was made by Bellini. The holy figures are separated from a landscape by a cloth of honour, and from us by a marble parapet; while they seem to be present in our space, their divinity places them just out of reach. Their tender gestures remind us of the humanity they share with us.
The pomegranate was probably added after Bellini had started painting, likely at the request of the patron. High-quality ultramarine – an expensive pigment made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone – was used for the Virgin’s blue mantle.
This is the largest of Bellini’s pictures of the Virgin and Child which were not part of a larger altarpiece structure, suggesting that it was probably made to sit upon a small altar. Perhaps the owner had a private chapel in his home.
Small-scale images of the Virgin and Child made for private worship were one of Bellini’s specialities, and demand for them was so high that his assistants produced a large number in his style. This picture was once thought to be by members of Bellini’s workshop, but infrared reflectography revealed that the underdrawing is a detailed and skilled design which could only have been made by Bellini.
In order to reflect the special intimacy of this kind of image, Bellini frequently set the holy figures in a landscape background, connecting them with the countryside familiar to his clients. Here, they are separated from this space by the green cloth of honour behind them – a feature of many of Bellini’s images of this type – and from us by the marble parapet in front of them; while they seem to be present in our space, their divinity places them just out of reach. Their tender gestures, on the other hand, remind us of the humanity they share with us.
Another clue as to who painted the picture can be found in the pomegranate – a symbol of Christ’s Passion – that the Virgin holds. Although the picture is often called ‘The Madonna of the Pomegranate’ after the fruit, infrared reflectography also revealed that the hands and arms of both figures were in different positions in the original design. The pomegranate was most likely a later addition. The change – which was probably made after painting had begun – affected other parts of the picture too: in order to make space for the hands and the pomegranate, the artist had to paint over some of the Virgin’s blue robe with red paint. Since the change was so extensive and made at such a late stage it was very likely requested by the patron; that Bellini went to such lengths to incorporate the request shows that the client was obviously important to him. It is therefore very likely that he, rather than members of his workshop, painted the picture.
The patron’s wealth is evident in the type of pigments used, which they would have paid for. Bellini has used very high quality ultramarine – the most expensive pigment, made from lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone – for the blue of the Virgin’s mantle. It is applied liberally here. This is the largest of Bellini’s pictures of the Virgin and Child which were not part of a larger altarpiece structure, which suggests that it was probably made to sit upon a small altar: perhaps this owner had his own private chapel in his home.
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