This painting depicts a common subject in seventeenth-century painting throughout Europe. Its meaning would have been interpreted in both a religious and secular way.
A woman in rustic dress comforts two golden haired children, one of whom watches us cautiously, while the other looks up at the woman as she helps him feed from her breast. The colours and folds of the drapery are extremely well portrayed. The scene is enlivened with the dark background and rich colours of the woman’s clothes.
In the 17th century, the common way to represent the concept of charity, the foremost of the Christian virtues faith, hope, and charity, was as a nursing mother with children.
The painting is stylistically close to Vanni’s works from the early 1640s; in particular the Saint Helena in the church of Santa Maria in Publicolis in Rome, painted in 1644 for Cardinal Marcello Santacroce. The use of colour to shape the soft drapery is notable, as is the red robe of Saint Helena with delicate folds that also recurs in our painting. Also apparent is the same soft delicacy of the milky complexions.
The present composition is energetic both in terms of the dynamism of the group and the charged poetics of the affections, elements which anticipate the later Baroque style of painting.
Raffaello Vanni was the son of the Sienese painter Francesco Vanni (1563–1610). According to an early biographer, Raffaello first studied with his father, and was apprenticed in Rome from about 1610 to both Guido Reni and Antono Carracci, the son of Agostino. Raffaello was active in Siena for most of his life, but made regular sojourns to the Papal city, where he was particularly patronised during the papacy of Alexander VII (1655–67). Raffaello’s major achievement is, indeed, the frescoing of the crossing dome and pendentives of the church for which Alexander VII felt particular affection because of family ties, Saint Maria del Popolo, executed 1656–58.
Raffaello’s merits were recognised by the Accademia di San Luca in Rome around this period, where he was elected Principe in 1658. In Siena he painted frescoes in the Oratoria di San Bernardio in the Piazza San Francesco; Ventura Salimbeni and Rutilio Manetti also executed commissions for the same project. His rich Baroque colours and his glowing figures, half in sunlight, half in shadow, show the influence of Pietro da Cortona. Gallery and easel pictures by the artist are rare. He was bestowed the honour of a knighthood by the Pope, and is thus also called Cavaliere Vanni.