While the Bible does not actually describe a meeting between the young Jesus and his cousin St. John the Baptist, the legend that the two met as infants, typically said to have happened during the Holy Family's flight into Egypt, became popular in the early modern period. For painters like Strozzi, visualizing the two babies interacting as the loving Virgin Mary watches over them provided a chance to humanize the divine subjects with naturalistic details like childish gestures and expressions. At the same time, the viewer is reminded of the eventual tragedy of Jesus's sacrifice, which his mother had already accepted. Mary's downcast eyes and slight smile convey her simultaneous joy and sorrow. John the Baptist appears here with his attribute, the sacrificial lamb symbolizing Christ who is the Lamb of God. The coexistence of the realistic, innocent young children and the symbolic reminder of Jesus's fate, here imagined as a pet, make for a poignant devotional picture. Strozzi's dramatic use of light and shadow heightens the emotional efficacy of the image.
Strozzi received permission to leave the monastery in 1610 to care for his ailing mother and unmarried sister, during which time he continued to paint. He never returned to the Capuchin order, instead relocating to Venice in 1630 where he became known as il prete Genovese (the Genoese priest). There, he must have headed a large workshop, as the many versions of some of his works suggest. The present work likely came from the intermediary period as he cared for his mother, as did several other compositions of the same subject. Occasionally Strozzi removed motifs like the lamb and added new ones like a basket of fruit referring to the fruit of Mary's womb (Jesus) and the fruits, or gifts, of the Holy Spirit. A small painting by Strozzi on copper, intended for private devotion, sold in These Rooms 28 January 2010; it features the two infants studying the inscription on the Baptist's cartiglio, which reads ECCE AGNUS DEI (BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD).1 As in the present painting, the children's innocence enhances the emotional effect of the solemn religious message.
1. New York, Sotheby's, 28 January 2010, lot 186.
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