In his early career Beccafumi almost certainly traveled to Rome, where he saw the works of Michelangelo and Raphael, with the latter having a lasting influence on his work, particularly discernible here in the Christ Child's contrapposto and the Madonna's classicizing pose. Beccafumi was also inspired by the work of the Florentine painter Fra Bartolommeo, to whom a number of his own paintings were formerly attributed.
On the basis of style this impressive work should be dated to the mid-1520s. Other paintings from this period in Beccafumi's career include his tondo depicting The Holy Family with Saint John and Donors (fig. 1) in the Museo Horne, Florence, and the rectangular panel of The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist (fig. 2) in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, which was replicated by the artist in circular format a number of times (Folchi, in Torriti [ed.], Beccafumi, Milan, 1998, p. 137, cat. no. P54 and pp. 134-36, cat. no. P57, both illustrated in color). Each of these works betrays a comparable interest in the effects of light and the use of shadows to provide volume and depth.
The figures here are pushed to the edges of the foreground, as the Madonna glances down at a small bird cradled in her hand. With her right arm she holds the Christ Child, who in turn twists to his right to embrace John the Baptist, creating a singular, complementary unit. To the right of the Madonna is Saint Catherine of Siena, who bends her neck, following the line of the curved panel. Both she and Christ fix their eyes on the Madonna, their upward glances, glazed eyes and oval faces rendered in the characteristically Sienese Mannerist style. The dark background serves to intensify the bright coloration and tight composition.
Whether painting in a tondo or within a circular paint surface in a square panel, such as in the present work, this format clearly informed Beccafumi's stylistic decisions. He employed the circular format throughout his career, as at least sixteen examples by him are known, all of roughly the same standard dimension of 70 to 90 cm. It gained popularity in Florence throughout the latter part of the 15th century, spreading throughout central Italy, before its use declined by circa 1520. The tradition flourished in Siena, however, through the 1540s (Plazzotta, in Syson et al. [eds], Renaissance Siena: Art for a City, exhibition catalogue, London, 2007, p. 314). The use of such a non-traditional format suited Beccafumi as it fostered a creative interplay between composition and the restrictions of physical borders: the curved body of the Christ Child echoes the movement of the border, thus enhancing the overall effect of movement and drama.
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