Bernardino Butinone, a painter of the Lombard School, is documented from 1484 in Milan, the city where a number of his works have survived. His first known paintings date from the 1480s and reveal the influence of Andrea Mantegna, Francesco del Cossa, Cosmè Tura and Vincenzo Foppa. In 1485 Butinone began to collaborate with the painter Bernardo Zenale, and together they produced a series of frescoes for civil and religious buildings as well as altars for monasteries and churches.
The present panel was acquired in 1977 on the Italian art market. Prior to that it was in a private collection in Italy. Before its acquisition in May 1977 it was shown on request to Rodolfo Pallucchini who considered it to be of great interest to Lombard art and a reference point for an individual study of the works of Bernardo Zenale and Bernardino Butinone. Pallucchini considered this panel close to the work of the two painters for the church of San Martino in Treviglio.
Butinone set the Holy Family against a dark, rocky mass against which the figures stand out brightly for their intense colouring and bright illumination. The naked Christ Child, who is seated in an unstable pose on a rocky bed has a kneeling angel on one side, richly dressed in clothes that provide a visual counterpoint. The landscape, divided by the central motif, is given great emphasis in this work. On the left we see the Annunciation to the Shepherds, which takes place against mountains on the edge of a tree-lined path. On the right the view changes and the path and mountains are transformed into a city with buildings. Pallucchini detected Butinone’s interest in Leonardo da Vinci in the tonal landscape, the angel and the innovations introduced by Leonardo into The Virgin of the Rocks (Musée du Louvre, Paris) of 1483.
This panel has been dated to the 1490s, the decade in which Butinone was working with Zenale on the frescoes of the life of Saint Ambrose for the Griffi chapel in San Pietro in Gessate, Milan. Also from this period is the triptych in the Borromeo collection in which the Virgin and Child with angels are framed by two saints. Also from this productive decade is a series of panels on the life and passion of Christ, which were formerly part of altarpieces and are now divided between various museums and collections. The landscape format of the present panel has led to the suggestion that it was part of a predella of a polyptych whose other panels remain to be identified.