Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
This small panel, which measures less than 30cm high, depicts the Virgin holding the Christ Child in her arms while breastfeeding him. The anonymous artist was inspired by works by Robert Campin such as The Virgin and Child in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, although in the present work the Christ Child is shown nude and is thus more Italianate in style. Mary looks tenderly at her son, wrapping him in her mantle, the folds of which fall down in the traditional Flemish manner. Both the Child and his Mother are shown without their haloes and are set in an architectural space that is again of Renaissance inspiration and which adds a marked sense of space to the composition. It is thought that this panel was executed for private devotional purposes due to its small size.
This Virgin and Child entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection in 1975. The painting was acquired as a work by Bernaert van Orley from the Cramer gallery in The Hague where it was to be found in 1974. It had previously been in the collection of Andreas Becker in Dortmund at which point it was first included in an exhibition held in that city. The most complete study of the painting, following its acquisition for the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, was by Colin Eisler.
The small-format panel, possibly painted for the purposes of private devotion, depicts a traditional image of the Virgin, giving her bare breast to the Christ Child. The artist set the two figures in an architectural setting that creates a sense of recession into the pictorial depth. The standing Virgin looks tenderly at the Child, clothed in her traditional blue mantle that swathes her body and falls in ample folds on either side in pronounced, crisp folds typical of the Flemish school. Mary carefully holds the Infant Christ in a white cloth, gazing at him with a sweet, gentle expression. The artist updated this popular iconography by omitting the use of haloes that refer to the figures’ divine status and through the use of the architectural setting of an Italian Renaissance type. The Virgin, whose body marks the central axis of the composition, stands beneath a semi-circular arch with medallions of reliefs of riders in the soffits, surrounded by grotesque decoration. This archway, with its pilasters on high bases, leads into a small area decorated with a scallop-shell arch, coffering and other geometrical elements that form the walls of a space suggestive of a chapel.
As Colin Eisler noted, the source of the composition is to be found in the work of Campin, for example that artist’s Virgin and Child in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt. In that work the standing Virgin is dressed in pale tones, breastfeeding the child who wears a blue tunic. In contrast, in the present work the artist presents the Christ Child as nude, following Italian tradition. The Virgin lactans is one of the oldest iconographic models within Marian imagery.