The Virgin Mary is seated behind a grey parapet on which the infant Christ stands. He grasps at her strangely high breast and she curls her right hand protectively around him. Saint Joseph, in a straw hat and glasses, reads at a lectern.
This is one of many similar paintings associated with Joos van Cleve, although in most of them Christ is perched on the Virgin’s knee rather than standing on the sill. Indeed that was how he was shown in the first version of our painting – his position was changed after the initial composition was painted.
The composition was clearly created in Joos' workshop using drawings to combine elements used in other paintings – the lilies, the knife and orange, and the stems of cherries recur in several pictures. The design of our painting is not very well balanced, however, and must be the work of an assistant.
The Virgin Mary is seated behind a grey parapet on which the infant Christ stands. He grasps at her strangely high breast and she curls her right hand protectively around him. She clasps a string of beads between her fingers – the other end is tied to her sash. Saint Joseph, wearing a straw hat and glasses, reads at a lectern.
This is one of many similar paintings associated with Joos van Cleve and his workshop; the scene must have been much in demand in the sixteenth century, and it continued to be copied in the seventeenth. Joos was a successful painter and ran a large workshop with many assistants, who helped him on large commissions and turned out versions of popular pictures such as this. Some of his assistants, including his own son, were highly skilled and good at imitating Joos‘ style, making it hard to tell the difference between his own work and theirs.
In most of Joos’ paintings of the holy family, Christ is perched on the Virgin’s knee rather than standing on the sill. Indeed that was how he was shown in the first version of our painting – his position was changed after the initial composition was painted, and an X-ray image shows the first, seated child. The underdrawing for the original composition was possibly transferred from a cartoon, possibly the pricked cartoon used for a version which is approximately the same size and very similar in iconography (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The artist also made changes during the course of painting the picture: the Virgin’s sash and the glass with its flowers and leaves are painted on top of the first layer of paint.
The composition was clearly created in Joos‘ workshop by combining elements used in other paintings, notably one now in the Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. The artist was presumably using workshop drawings: Christ lying in his mother’s arms, used in the initial composition, was taken from a frequently used drawing; other objects – the lilies, the knife and orange, the stems of cherries – recur in several pictures. The design of our painting is not very well balanced, however. The Virgin has a very small body compared to her head, and it is not clear where her right arm goes. We can’t tell if Saint Joseph is seated or standing, and the flat green background replaces the complex landscapes of other versions. It must be the work of an assistant – and one with a strange fondness for enlarging ears, as you can see in both the Virgin and Christ. Large ears appear in other paintings from Joos' workshop; they must be the hallmark of one collaborator among many.
The objects scattered on the sill are more than a kind of still life. Lilies occur frequently in images of the Virgin as a symbol of her purity. Violets stand for her humility, rosemary is for remembrance; cherries are sometimes called the fruits of paradise. The Seville orange was a costly, though sour, fruit; the knife lying across it points at Christ and may refer to the Passion. The string of beads looks like prayer beads, but is not regularly enough threaded to be a true rosary. The text of the book Joseph reads is not – and never was – legible, but in related paintings he is reading the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, and sometimes concentrates on the Magnificat (verses 46–55), in which Mary rejoices that she has given birth to the Messiah.
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