In the São Paolo, Indianapolis and present versions, the Virgin’s perfectly painted hands appear rather small in comparison to the rest of her body. In the Abernon model, meanwhile, they are correctly proportioned, suggesting that may have been the original intended concept for the Virgin. This discrepancy in proportion provides an insight into Botticelli’s methods in the transferral of his designs, combining elements of different models in a “patchwork” effect. Such eccentricities typify the artist’s later works; he seems less interested in compositional perfection and more careful of details and the effect of the image overall. The asymmetry of the present composition is a perfect example of Botticelli’s idiosyncrasy. The Madonna is not centrally placed, so much so that the pearl-trimming of the baldachin above her reaches the edge of the panel at the right side, but is suspended lower at the left. Similarly, the angel at left leans forward, accommodating the curve of the tondo, while Saint John leans outward, contrary to what we expect from a traditionally harmonious Renaissance composition. Yet exceptional care has been taken in the reproduction of specific details, such as pleated linen beneath the drawstrings on the Virgin’s cuff, the beautiful transition of color in the yellow drapery of the angel and the perfect understanding of foreshortening in the nails of the figures’ hands
In an expertise accompanying the painting at its sale in 2014 (see Provenance), Prof. Gaudenz Freuler suggested the figure of John the Baptist was executed by a separate hand, perhaps one trained in Ghirlandaio’s workshop.2 He proposed that of Agnolo di Donnino del Mazziere, comparing the saint in the present painting to Agnolo’s Pax, in a private collection, and the angel in his Madonna and Child with an Angel, in the Courtauld Institute Galleries, London (inv. no. P.1947.LF.21). While there are indeed stylistic parallels between these examples, to date no documentary evidence has been found linking Agnolo di Donnino del Mazziere to Botticelli’s workshop that can confirm the hypothesis.
While the figure of Saint John appears to be unique to this painting, the angel at left appears again in the Abernon and Bob Jones University compositions. In both cases, however, the angel is placed in front of the stone ledge rather than behind as in the present variant. The angel here is painted with particular sensitivity. Infrared images (fig. 3) show freehand changes to the position of the hands, the eyebrows and the fluttering pages of the book and there are similar shifts in the placement of the stone ledge. These changes show that the design was not mechanically transferred from a cartoon but that the artist was thinking throughout this process and modifying his drawing as he laid out his design.
This painting has been requested for exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.
1. For the Lord Abernon tondo (current location unknown) see R. Lightbown under Literature, p. 401, cat. no. c50, reproduced.
2. A copy of Prof. Gaudenz Freuler’s expertise, dated July 2013, is available from the department upon request.
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