Restored in 2018–19, this is one of the more significant paintings of the Virgin Mary to survive from the workshop of the Florentine Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. The exposed breast with which the Virgin Mary is nourishing her infant son, the Christ Child, is central to the design of the painting. The young Saint John the Baptist on the left and the angel on the right are slightly bent forward as if to fit into the circular format.
This tondo was among the very first early Italian paintings to enter the National Gallery’s collection, and its acquisition in 1855 coincided with the rise in popularity of Botticelli. Numerous artists came to see it, producing copies of it, and studying its tempera technique (tempera is paint made using egg yolk as a medium). At some point it was displayed next to works by Raphael. The painting survives with its original frame.
Restored in 2018–19, this is one of the more significant paintings of the Virgin Mary to survive from the workshop of the Florentine Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli. The circular format was very popular in the fifteenth century and particularly common for paintings decorating the bedchambers of Florentine households. Botticelli’s workshop responded to this demand, producing a great number of circular paintings (tondi) that vary in composition, dimension and artistic quality. A common feature of Botticelli’s tondi is the way in which individual figures react to the format of the painting, seen here in the young Saint John the Baptist on the left and the angel on the right, who bend slightly forward as if to fit within the border.
The Virgin Mary’s powerful frontal gaze makes this tondo stand out. Her exposed breast, with which she feeds Christ, is also central to its design. Images of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding added a human element to the representation of the mother of God. The Virgin’s exposed breast was uncovered only as part of the recent restoration. It had been overpainted to suit the preferences of an earlier owner.
Unfortunately, we don't know for whom this painting was originally made. An early inscription on the back suggests the Florentine architect and woodworker Giuliano da Sangallo. He is known to have had a sizeable art collection in his Florentine palace. Alternatively, the inscription may refer to Sangallo as the maker of the frame. The plethora of fruits that decorate the frame may hint at the idea of abundance, which is also underlined by the image of the breastfeeding Virgin.
This tondo was among the very first early Italian paintings (paintings made before 1500) to enter the National Gallery’s collection. Its acquisition in 1855 coincided with the rise in popularity of Botticelli. Many artists came to see it, producing copies and studying its tempera technique. Such was its appeal that at some point the tondo was displayed next to works by Raphael. But in the early twentieth century, scholars demoted it, arguing that it was a product of Botticelli’s workshop rather than by the artist himself. Workshop assistants were essential to artistic production during the Renaissance, but by this time it was believed that their involvement reduced a painting’s quality. Technical investigations have confirmed the use of partial cartoons, which were used to transfer a design to the surface of the painting – a practice common in a Renaissance workshop. Numerous changes were made at a much later stage, however, especially in the hands and hair of the angel on the right, some visible to the naked eye.
We know of several artists who were employed in Botticelli’s workshop, the most famous being Filippino Lippi, with whom Botticelli frequently collaborated (see Adoration of the Kings, for example). We do not know, however, which artists worked on this painting.
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