The Virgin Mary kneels, her hands clasped in prayer. Her downward gaze meets that of her infant son, Christ, who is lying on the edge of her blue cloak, leaning against a bundle of straw. Saint John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin, looks down at him from behind. The scroll he holds bears a Latin inscription that anticipates the words he will say before baptising Christ in the River Jordan (‘Behold the Lamb of God’), which may explain the prominent landscape setting.
Circular paintings like this one were known as tondi (from the Italian for ‘round’). They were much sought after in fifteenth-century Florence, and the workshop of Sandro Botticelli specialised in their production, as three further examples in the National Gallery’s collection demonstrate. The depiction of Saint John the Baptist would have also appealed to Florentines as he was their patron saint.
The Virgin Mary kneels, her hands joined in prayer as she bends forward. Her downward gaze meets that of her infant son, Christ. He is lying before her, on the edge of her cloak, resting on a bundle of straw. Saint John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin, looks down at the infant from behind. He holds a reed cross to his shoulder and clutches a scroll in his other hand, its Latin inscription anticipating the words he will say before baptising Christ in the River Jordan: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (John 1: 29).
A river in the unusually prominent landscape separates the grassy foreground from the walled city and the little monasteries dotted across the distant hills. The small bridge on the outer right-hand side, isolated from the rest of the scene by the remains of a wall, seems to offer the only way of crossing. The intact buildings in the background contrast with the ruinous structure under which the Virgin and Christ Child seem to have found refuge. The four pillars have Corinthian capitals and support a partly broken entablature, into which a thatched roof has been inserted. Its outlines have been incised with a ruler to guide the artist painting over it.
During the fifteenth century, artists frequently chose to include the ruins of ancient architecture in religious paintings to emphasise that Christianity overcame the pagan past. This is particularly obvious in the fragments of column bases placed beneath the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. The grass growing on top of the wall on the right and the fresh branches emerging from the rock formation on the left, exactly above Christ’s head, herald a new beginning. The four pillars are positioned so that the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist seem to extend or support them, creating the impression that they herald a new beginning.
The straight lines of the architectural elements almost seem to constrict the rounded shapes created by the holy figures, which echo the circular shape of the painting. Such circular paintings, known as tondi (from the Italian for ‘round’), were much sought after in fifteenth-century Florence. The workshop of Sandro Botticelli specialised in their production, as three further examples in the National Gallery’s collection demonstrate (such as, The Virgin and Child with Saint John and an Angel).
The inclusion of the young Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, would have added to the appeal of the painting for its original owner, who is likely to have displayed it at home. This composition was so popular that workshop assistants were encouraged to produce further versions, several of which survive; one of particularly high quality is in the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Gilding has been applied not only to the haloes, cross and hem of the Virgin’s robe but also to the grass, walls and rocks of this painting. This prominent use of gold – hardly any surface is left untouched – shows how much the original owner valued this picture.
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