The Virgin Mary stands with her infant son, Christ, in the corner of a large but sparsely decorated room. He is balanced on a small table, the only piece of furniture, but is dangerously close to its edge; a closed book further restricts the space available to him. The Virgin uses both hands to support his left leg as he leans forward. His translucent robe hardly provides protection.
Seeds of a pomegranate trickle out of Christ’s raised hand, evoking the beads of a rosary, the devotional aid often used for prayer. This resemblance may be intentional, as the painting is likely to have been made for private worship. The workshop of the Florentine painter Sandro Botticelli specialised in the production of such paintings, which frequently decorated people’s homes.
The grey colour of the walls evokes a sandstone known as pietra serena, a common building material in Renaissance Florence. Two large windows with moulded frames pierce through the walls, opening onto a mountainous landscape. The view from the left window is dominated by a slender tree, its crown silhouetted against the blue sky. Crenelated walls surround a small seaside town with several towered and fortified buildings placed around a church in its centre. In a busy workshop, like that of the Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli, such landscape backgrounds were frequently painted by specialised assistants.
Another assistant is likely to have taken care of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child. These figures form a pyramidal shape that dominates the picture plane and fills the empty room with life. The vibrant reds and blues of the Virgin’s garments, the fine gradations in the flesh tones and golden veils and haloes contrast with the reduced colour palette for the interior and landscape background, focusing attention on the central figures.
Seeds of a pomegranate trickle out of Christ’s raised hand, evoking the beads of a rosary. This resemblance may have been intentional, as the painting is likely to have been made for private worship. The existence of several versions of this painting suggests that the outlines of the central figures are based on a cartoon, now lost, that was available to assistants in Botticelli’s workshop. Such a working practice would have been necessary in order to meet the high demand for images intended for private devotion. Botticelli was widely acclaimed for his ability to produce such paintings, which frequently decorated Florentine households.
Of all the devotional paintings produced in Botticelli’s workshop, one of the most celebrated is the so-called Madonna della Melagrana (‘Virgin of the Pomegranate’), now in the Uffizi, Florence. Its name derives from the fruit Christ holds prominently, a traditional symbol of the Passion, as its red juice can be likened to Christ’s blood. Numerous fifteenth-century painters chose to include it in religious works, such as Bellini in The Virgin and Child and Lippi in The Virgin and Child with Saint John. Because of its many seeds the pomegranate has also been interpreted as a symbol of fertility, and occasionally accompanies depictions of Venus in mythological paintings (for example, An Allegory).
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