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The Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist

Attributed to Leonardo da Vinci (Anchiano, 1452-Amboise, 1519) and circle
Late 15th / Early 16th century
72.5 x 51 cm (panel); 93 x 71 cm (framed)
Oil and tempera on panel
  • Private collection of an unidentified nobleman, Italy
  • Anonymous sale by auction, Sotheby’s, London, 23 July 1952, lot 127, as ‘Leonardo da Vinci’
  • Private collection, Europe
  • Sale by auction, Christie’s, New York, 29 January 2014, lot 141, as ‘Circle of Leonardo da Vinci’
  • Private sale, Christie’s, London, March 2014
  • Private collection, Europe

Taking centre-stage, the kneeling Madonna looks endearingly at the Christ Child as he playfully seeks to catch the attention of the young St John the Baptist. The immediate foreground these figures occupy is set against an uninhabited rocky landscape dotted with dense shrubbery, patches of lake and staggered tall trees that aid the sense of perspective. The vast distance to which this area of idyllic countryside stretches is implied by the diluted tones of pale blue that form the far-off mountains. Only the grey tower, domed structure and church on the extreme right in the middle ground are evidence of human industry.

The Madonna’s signature dark blue mantle over her deep red garment forms part of her iconography: blue symbolically referring to her purity and royal status, red to her motherhood, love and the blood and Passion of Christ, the latter implied also by the goldfinch in Baby Jesus’ grasp and the lamb held by the young Baptist. Besides feeding on thistles and thorns, also reminders of Christ’s suffering, the goldfinch is attached to the legend narrating how it was stained by blood as it drew a thorn out of the brow of Christ on his road to Calvary.

Aside from the innocence, meekness and purity of the Christ Child, the lamb bears a powerful meaning as it prefigured Jesus Christ in the Old Testament as the Lamb of God that, in the New Testament, died on the Cross for the salvation of sinful humanity. In the painting, the docile lamb held tightly by the Baptist becomes a symbolic prophecy of the ultimate sacrifice Jesus is fated to embrace. Bearing in mind the significance of the goldfinch and lamb, the seemingly light-hearted interaction between the Infant Baptist and Christ takes on a new interpretation. It subtly discloses an implicit interplay of tension between the Baptist eventually adopting the role of precursor to Christ and Jesus as the Good Shepherd destined to die for mankind. Another almost imperceptible symbol of the Passion is the solitary poppy flower that rises amidst the thick foliage right behind the Baptist. This panel painting is truly a product of the High Renaissance. From the 15th century onwards, a renewed interest in the natural world caught up on artists whose curiosity about this field was expressed in their work. Several 15th- and 16th-century artists embellished the backdrops to their religious narratives with lush landscapes embellished by floral, plant and geological elements captured at times with granular precision. In this painting, the intricacy of detail dedicated to the depiction of the bucolic landscape testifies precisely to this fascination for nature, which had reached levels of obsession in the case of Leonardo da Vinci, possibly, the Old Master who directly or indirectly was behind the invenzione of the ‘Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist’.

An international multidisciplinary team of specialists carried out thorough scientific examinations and conducted an art historical programme between 2014 and 2016. They were carried out in the context of select paintings by Da Vinci and others emerging from the hand of his studio assistants and followers, indeed throwing light on his stylistic and technical choices and methods. For this intensive comparative study, some of the paintings, including very close copies and adaptations to the panel painting under discussion, were those at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Circle of Da Vinci), Palazzo Pitti, Florence (attributed to Spanish painters, Hernando de los Llanos (1480-1510) or Fernando Yànez de la Almedina (1459-1536)) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (attributed to Marco d’Oggiono (c.1470-c.1549) or Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1466/7-1516)). Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ (1483-1486, Louvre) also formed part of this study. Key examples from his extensive graphic output contributed enormously to these research campaigns. Thematically-related sketches and drawings from the Metropolitan Museum (MET), New York; Accademia, Venice; British Museum, London; Royal Library, Windsor; The J. Paul Getty, Los Angeles and Royal Collection, London yielded quite a few eye-opening insights.

The cross-comparison of the results of all the investigations of the select paintings, as well as with those emerging from the in-depth perusal of the drawings, informed much about the materialization of the panel painting. Besides revealing Da Vinci’s tireless experimental approach towards the development of subjects and complex figural and postural arrangements, such as the pyramidal composition he persistently returned to, they show that the painting’s completion was in intermittent stages, stretching over a number of years. By means of the silver point technique, the figures were drawn and painted first. The execution of the distant and immediate landscape followed second. The third and fourth phases are quite intriguing as they were dictated by the iconography identifying the Christ Child and the young Baptist. Underdrawings of the Baptist’s attributes, i.e. the cross and Ecce Agnus Dei scroll, have been brought to light with the aid of infrared investigations. What spurred the concealment of these iconographical features connected with the Baptist can only be conjectured on the basis of Da Vinci’s characteristic rejection of text in painting (hence the decision to discard the scroll to be inscribed by the words: Ecce Agnus Dei). So, the third and final phases towards the completion of the ‘Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist’, comprised the slight adaptations to the infants’ attributes and the painting of the foreground floral ornamentation, incidentally of inferior quality to the rest of the painting.

Da Vinci’s well-known trait to procrastinate and delay the completion of his paintings, in some cases abandoning them to a permanently unfinished state, also bears relevance here. Pupils and assistants in his studio enjoyed the advantage of completing such works under Da Vinci’s guidance, of having access to his exploratory reconsiderations during his own work-in-protracted-progress and of scrutinizing closed projects at close quarters. Such an incredible visual resource allowed Da Vinci’s studio artists to assimilate much of their mentor’s sophisticated developments and integrate (or attempt to integrate) them in their own production. The presence of silverpoint drawing in the panel painting, a graphic technique mastered by Da Vinci, tempts championing the possibility that it could have started out as one of his unfinished works and left in the hands of his assistants to close off. Yet, concrete signs that ascertain Da Vinci’s direct involvement in the painting’s execution, be it at its initial drawing or modelling stage, remain unclear.

A number of drawings from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Venice Accademia and the MET approach some details in the painting so closely that they virtually suggest Da Vinci’s committed study specifically for its composition. A study of a hand at the Accademia, Venice, seems to have found its way ad verbatim into this particular painting as the Madonna’s left foreshortened hand, that blesses as well as protects. Yet, these and other drawings from other public collections mentioned above also reveal Da Vinci’s trying and testing out of such expressive hands that eventually materialized, in a small or large way, in other finished works.

Experts are at present divided about whether Da Vinci was actually behind the invenzione and disegno of the ‘Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist’, leaving its modelling and completion to his competent assistants, while under his supervision. This remains debatable and only further diagnostic research, structured on the tentative and confirmed conclusions reached at the end of the above-mentioned investigative campaign, can lead to tenable discussion. At this stage, and in the light of Da Vinci’s artistic context which guided the recent research programme, the importance of this painting lies primarily in its capacity to throw light on a specific phase in Da Vinci’s career which was dedicated to his relentless pursuit of that right posture, angle of limb, exchange of looks and figural arrangement that could best convey the emotional interaction between the Virgin, the Christ Child and the Baptist. This was crucial to Da Vinci since he was fervent about engaging the beholders of his paintings through the immediacy of his compositions. While questions prevail, there is one certainty: according to Professor Martin Kemp, a world-renowned expert on Leonardo da Vinci, this ‘Madonna and Child with the Infant St John the Baptist’ qualifies as among the most remarkable of the narrative Madonnas.


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WELLS, Dr Thereza, Art Historica, Conservation & Imaging Report, 2016

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Audio Guide – Maltese

Audio Guide – English

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