With its round format called tondo, the clear lineation of each character, the softness of expression and the luminosity of the flesh, this work is entirely indebted to the oeuvre of the Florentine Renaissance Master, Sandro Botticelli.
The Uffizi Gallery has a drawing by Botticelli, the composition of which is strongly inspired by St. Joseph, the Infant Jesus, and the Virgin Mary who are depicted in exactly the same positions as in our painting. Botticelli displayed a highly skilled linear style, yet very few drawings by his hand have endured to this day. His drawings served as a basis for compositions which his collaborators realized in the studio, with the demand for this form of artwork increasing during the 1480s-90s. A composition similar to our painting is in the collections of the Prato Cathedral Museum in Italy.
In works by the Florentine Master, the personality of the figures and their emotions are mainly represented by their pose and gestures. The faces, for their part, are always filled with a sense of gentleness. In the foreground, the Christ Child extends his arms and legs in a somewhat disorderly manner towards his mother, as any infant would do. This motion, so natural and spontaneous, contrasts with his mother's prayerful attitude, her face replete with tenderness and concern. The artist faithfully followed the Botticellian Madonna type: light-colored hair, tall, always attired in a red dress and blue mantle. To the left of the composition, St. Joseph leans against a wall, elbows on a ledge, holding his head in his left hand, as if crushed by grief or fatigue. Perhaps he senses the tragic fate that will disrupt his family. Set slightly apart on the other side of the composition, St. John the Baptist discreetly kneels with his hands crossed on his chest as a sign of adoration. The Holy Family is depicted within rudimental architecture, the haphazard use of perspective rendering these compositions as standard for the time. The artist furthermore places the scene within a landscape, in staggered planes where one can see a small village between verdant hills populated by large bushes, with a mountainous outcrop in the background, which the atmospheric perspective renders blue. The arrangement of the figures are subjected to the shape of the support, with these round panels, or tondo a typical Florentine format.
It was suggested to us by Professor Nicoletta Pons that the creator of this Holy Family could be the Master of Gothic Buildings, a hypothetical artist who was possibly one of the rare Botticelli collaborators with his own corpus of paintings. It was Osvald Sirén who gave this nickname to Botticelli’s artistic partner (O. Sirén, Early Italian Pictures at Cambridge, in The Burlington Magazine XXXVII 1920 pp. 290-299). Sirén notes, among other elements, the excessively dream-like expression of the Virgin Mary and schematic handling of the landscapes as being typical of the artist. However, his particularity lies with the insertion of sloping rooftops and pointed pediments found in compositions by Memling and other Dutch artists.
The Master of the Gothic Buildings is often confused with the Master of the Fiesole Epiphany, as explained by Dr. Everett Fahy in his article Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, vol. 1: dipinti dal medioevo alla metà del Cinquecento, (Milan 2005, pp. 177-181), and it is under this latter attribution that our painting was acquired by the current owner. The scattered body of work by the Master of Gothic Buildings and the regrouping of various works very close to Botticelli has, however, recently been somewhat neglected by art historians. Perhaps some of the works that were once attributed to this anonymous Master were not homogeneous enough to be regarded as being by a single artist. Today, many of the artworks that were attempted to be allocated under this Master’s tutelage were given to Botticelli's studio, which decidedly formed an impressive assembly of talented artists during the Renaissance, with each artist differing from Sandro Botticelli in their own way, but in such varied formats that it is now difficult for curators to state definitively.
This Holy Family will nevertheless retain the beautiful testimony of Botticelli’s creative energy, which through his many emulators, influenced the Florentine formula for a long time.