16th Century
Madonna and Child

Oil on panel
Image size: 10 1/4 x 7 inches (26 x 18 cm)
Original frame

This work illustrates the Madonna and Child. Whilst Christ looks directly out at the viewer Mary’s attention is solely on her son as she gazes down at the infant with compassion and love. Here, Mary is represented as expressing the tenderness any ordinary mother might feel towards her beloved child.

The Madonna and Child type is very prevalent in Christian iconography. Whilst the earliest depictions of Mary date to Early Christian art the term ‘Madonna’ in the sense of a picture of statue of the Virgin Mary only enters the English usage in the 17th century, primarily in reference to works of the Italian Renaissance.

While the 15th and 16th centuries were a time when Italian painters expanded their repertoire to include historical events, independent portraits and mythological subject matter, Christianity retained a strong hold on their careers and most works of art from this era are sacred. While the range of religious subject matter included subjects from the Old Testament and images of saints, the Madonna remained a dominant subject in the iconography of the Renaissance. Some of the eminent 16th century painters to turn to this subject were Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian.

Here more specifically we see the Nursing Madonna, known as the ‘Virgo Lactans’, an iconography of the Madonna and Child in which the Virgin Mary is shown breastfeeding the infant Jesus. This was quite a common type of painting until the change in atmosphere after the Council of Trent (held between 1545 and 1563) after which it was rather discouraged by the church on grounds of propriety.