Lot 75
  • 75

A Highly Important Gilt and Painted Terracotta Relief of the Virgin and Child, by Donato di Betto Bardi, called Donatello (circa 1386-1466), circa 1450-1460

2,000,000 - 4,000,000 USD
bidding is closed


modeled in high-relief, the Virgin embracing the Christ Child wrapped in a white and gold embroidered swaddling cloth over a red cloth, the Child wearing a coral necklace and wristband, the Virgin with centrally parted hair covered by red and blue striped cambric, her blue scapula adorned with raised seraphim and enveloping both her and the Child, her eyes slightly down-cast in a melancholic expression, her golden dress embroidered with stylized pomegranate pattern, the group flanked by two laughing seraphim and set against a blue sky with golden rays emanating from clouds, with painted wood tabernacle frame.


Church of San Felice in Piazza, Florence, circa 1457, by repute

Alfred Emilien, Comte de Nieuwerkerke, 1873

Stefano Bardini, Florence

Christie's London, The Bardini Collection, May 30th, 1902, lot no. 558

Sold, American Art Association, New York, April 23-27, 1928, lot no. 351 (purchased by W.W. Seaman, Agent)

William Boyce Thompson, (1869-1930), Yonkers, New York

Monsignor Edward J. Ferger, Buffalo, New York

Collection of Virginia and Frank Cryan, Boca Raton, Florida, Sotheby's, New York, March 2-3, 1984, lot no. 15


Darr, A., "Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello," Detroit Institute of Arts, 1985, pl. 5 p. 52, pp. 113-115



G. Richa, Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine, 10 vols, 1754-62, X, p. 210 

W. von Bode, Denkmaler der Renaissance-Sculptur Toscanas, 11 vols, Munich, 1892-1905, p. 53, pl. 178b

P. Schubring, Donatello, Des Meister's Werke, Stuttgart/Leipzig 1907, fig. 23, there, erroneously described as stucco.

C. Avery, "Three Marble Reliefs by Luca della Robbia", in  Studies in European Sculpture, London 1981, fig. 11, p. 8 

J. Pope-Hennessy,  "A terracotta 'Madonna' by Donatello" in The Burlington Magazine, February 1983, pp. 83 and 84, figs. 1, 23 and 24

A. Darr and G. Bonsanti,  Donatello e i suoi : scultura fiorentina del primo Rinascimento (exh.cat.), Detroit and Milan, 1986, pp. 150-151, pl. XV  

B. Boucher, "Detroit and Fort Worth. Sculpture in the Time of Donatello" (exhibition review), in The Burlington Magazine, 128, 1986, pp. 65-68

J. Pope-Hennessy, Donatello Sculptor, New York 1993, p. 272, fig. 270

A. Rosenauer, Donatello, Milan,1993, no. 72, pp. 302-303, no.72

A. Jolly, Madonnas by Donatello and his circle, Frankfurt, New York, 1998, fig. 24.1, p. 39



Catalogue Note

Related Literature:

S. Gaynor, "Comte de Niewerkerke. A Prominent Official of the Second Empire and his Collection" in Apollo Magazine, 122, 1985, pp. 376-79

H. Hagedorn, The Magnate. William Boyce Thompson and His Time [1869-1930], New York, 1935

C. Avery: 'Donatello's Madonnas Reconsidered', Apollo, cxxiv,1986, pp. 174-82

C. Avery: 'Donatello's Madonnas Revisted', Donatello-Studien, Italienische Forschungen, Munich, 1989, pp. 219-34; reprod. In C. Avery, Studies in Italian Sculpture, London, 2001, pp.20-60

This powerful high relief  is the only known terracotta by Donatello in the United States in private hands. The incredible depth and sensitivity of the modeling, the intense and thoughtful gaze of the Madonna, who seemingly hides behind the strength of the Child, all combine to create an extraordinary image. The most important sculptor of the Quattrocento and a profoundly influential figure in the Renaissance period, Donatello designed and modelled this sculpture in around 1450 after his return to Florence from his years in Padua working on, among other sculptures, the altar for the Santo. 

The astonishing condition of the work along with the extent of remaining polychromy makes it an exceptional and rare sculpture belonging to a small number of autograph Madonna and Child groups. The only other pigmented terracotta Madonna and Child groups by Donatello are the comparable high reliefs of the Madonna and Child with Four Cherubim in the Bode-Museum, Berlin (nearly destroyed in WWII) (fig.1) and the Madonna and Child Against a Curtain in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (fig.2).

According to Darr in the 1985 exhibition catalogue, Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello, the present terracotta sculpture was reputedly acquired by its first owner, Count Nieuwekerke, from the nuns of the Church of San Felice in Piazza in Florence in 1873. Two venerated tabernacles, opened only on feast days, were recorded in this church in 1762, described by Richa  (op.cit.) ; "in uno di essi adorasi Maria col Babino in collo di terra cotta, ma riccio di voti" (within one is a Madonna and Child of terracotta covered with ex-votos).  A highly venerated, votive Madonna would have been adorned with silver crowns and halos (on this sculpture there are traces of nail holes from what would have been silver embellishment on the head of the Christ Child) . Furthermore, the depiction of  luxurious fabrics underscores the significance of the sculpture.

This relief may have been incorporated into San Felice in Piazza when it was remodeled after 1457 by the Camaldolite monks from Santa Maria degli Angeli. Laurence B. Kanter, noted in a recent discussion about the present relief, that Neri di Bicci was commissioned to paint or gild four works for the church in 1455; it is not clear whether Donatello's relief was part of this campaign or whether it was brought to the church in 1557 when possession of San Felice was ceded to the Dominican nuns of San Pietro Martire. Most of the early furnishings of the church were dispersed  when the order was suppressed in 1808. Another of the church's principal ornaments, in addition to Donatello's San Felice Madonna, eventually found its way to America, the great votive panel with Saint Paul of 1333 attributed to Bernardo Daddi, now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Pope-Hennessy, in his 1983 Burlington Magazine article "A Terracotta 'Madonna' by Donatello", related the San Felice Madonna closely to the Berlin and Paris groups.  Because of the sumptuous reproduction of rich fabric and Donatello's interest in polychromed sculpture, it is likely, according to Pope-Hennessy, that Donatello oversaw the pigmentation of his own polychromed reliefs and that all three Madonna and Child reliefs were produced during the sculptor's years in Padua (1443-1454). Both the Berlin and the San Felice Madonna have Florentine provenances which may, however, allow us to conclude that these reliefs were made in Florence shortly after the artist's return from Padua.

These three sculptures are clearly associated by numerous details including: the pyramidal composition, the Madonna's parted, wavy hair visible beneath her veil, her distinctive long neck and full cheeks, the Child's face with high forehead, chubby cheeks and slight frown, the swaddling material and the polychromy. The thick, embroidered border of her mantle falling over her shoulder as well as the slight turn of the Madonna's head toward the viewer are characteristics of both the Berlin and the San Felice Madonnas. The long and elegant fingers of the Virgin and the placement of her hands in the San Felice Madonna unquestionably parallels those of the Louvre Madonna. Both sculptures also evoke the Calvacanti Annunciate Virgin in Santa Croce (fig.3) in the hands, facial types and similar decorative motifs of the garments, such as the fine work on the cuffs of her garment. One can further compare the hands of the present sculpture (although a mirror image) with those of the marble Madonna of the Clouds in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Pope-Hennessy also discussed a stylized marble version of the same design as the present terracotta, once installed in a niche in the Chiostrino dei Voti, and now in the courtyard, of Santissima Annunziata in Florence. He argued convincingly that this marble was made in the 19th century, which seems apparent from close examination, as a replica of the present terracotta Madonna and Child relief, indicating this terracotta's importance well after the Renaissance.

The present relief by Donatello has all of the hallmarks of an original model as noted by Darr (op.cit.) and by Anthony Radcliffe during recent in-depth discussions about the San Felice Madonna.  One can clearly see on the reverse the impression of the grain of the wood board upon which the piece was modeled along with that of irregularly sized sheets of paper upon which the wet clay was laid down.  Furthermore, the sculpture is solid and because of the lack of thermal fractures, notes Darr (1985, op.cit.), a sophisticated technique of firing must have been employed.

The present sculpture is a masterpiece of Renaissance art. The powerful composition, depth and detail of modelling in high relief coupled with the variety and richness of polychromy present us with a magnificent object of veneration. The authority of its original purpose is communicated here through the inspired creation of this Florentine master.

This relief is sold with a thermoluminescence test from Oxford Authentication indicating that sample no N106s85 was last fired between 400 and 700 years ago.