T his beautiful Della Robbia relief, with the Madonna adoring the Infant Christ, features in Sothebys upcoming Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art sale on 3 December, appearing on the art market for the first time in over a century, having been in a private collection probably since it was last sold in the Maurice Kann sale in Paris in 1910.
The relief shows the Virgin kneeling in adoration over the Christ Child who raises His left hand in blessing. Above, the hands of an invisible cherub crown the Virgin as Queen of Heaven, and Her head is flanked by seraphim. Christ reclines on a mound of green hay, behind which springs a lily, its flowers bursting into bloom. The composition perfectly balances the celestial and the corporeal, with Christ connected to the earth but facing the heavens: the hypostatic embodiment of the human and the divine.
The model is attributed to Andrea della Robbia, nephew of Luca della Robbia, and is iconic, having been produced in numerous versions in the workshop of Andrea and possibly subsequently by his followers (ref. Gaborit and Bormand, op. cit., pp. 103-102, nos. 5 and 6). Gentilini has argued that the model derives from one of Andrea's most significant commissions, the Nativity altarpiece for the Chiesa Maggiore of the Franciscan convent at La Verna in Tuscany, completed in 1479. Andrea was responsible for a number of important altarpieces at La Verna, produced between circa 1477 and 1490; they hold a seminal place within his oeuvre. The Nativity is more complex than the present model, and shows the Madonna and Child below the half figure of God, who is crowned and is flanked by angels and seraphim, whilst the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove beats its wings beside the Virgin's face.
The model was evidently one of Andrea's most successful since it is known in a number of reduced versions. One of these, the most famous, is the version in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (inv. no. 71, see Marquand, op. cit., no. 140), which is set into an elaborate garlanded frame with a console underneath adorned with the arms of Branatio di Giovanni di Piero Campagno. Marquand records that it was in the monastery of San Marco in the Sala del lavabo in the 17th century (interestingly Andrea was an adherent of Savonarola, who had been prior of San Marco). Many of the other versions, however, were probably commissioned or acquired as altarpieces for private chapels, hence their smaller scale (this is probably also the case with the present relief). The Antinori appear to have commissioned two versions (one in the Palazzo Antinori, another in the Morgan Library, see Marquand, op. cit.). Another, once owned by Ruskin, is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington (inv. no. DSC08825), and bears the arms of the Girolami.
The Kann Adoration relief differs from the other known versions in showing the Christ Child clothed; it appears to be unique in this respect. Differences can also be seen in the Virgin's tassled collar, and the lack of colouration of the stems of the lillies and the cabochon jewels in the crown (these are left white). Marquand refers to the present relief as having been `from the Odiot sale'. This may be a reference to the 26-27 April 1889 Paris sale of the collection of Ernest Odiot. A Della Robbia relief was indeed included in that sale, attributed to Luca, but this is unlikely to be the same since the description is different, and the catalogue was written under the supervision of Charles Mannheim (1833-1910) who was also the expert for the Kann sale and so surely would have referenced the Odiot provenance in the latter catalogue.
The sale of the Kann Adoration relief marks a rare opportunity to acquire a beautiful version of one of Andrea della Robbia's most iconic models and with exemplary provenance.