This rare and superb polychromed wood Madonna and Child follows a composition known as the Verona Madonna. This famous model is thought to have been created by the celebrated Florentine Renaissance sculptor Donatello (c. 1386-1466), whilst he was working in Padua between 1443 and 1454. The composition has no surviving prototype and is known primarily through a version which remains in situ on the outside wall of a house on Vicolo dell Fogge in Verona. The influence of the Verona Madonna was such that it appears in a painting ascribed to the important Paduan 15th-century painter Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506) (Fry, op. cit. pp. 53-54).
It is believed that the model was designed with the intention that it should be reproduced, as there are more than twenty surviving 15th-century casts in stucco, cartapesta (papier-mâché) and terracotta. Note, in particular, the stucco example in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. A.1-1932), and the terracotta version in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. no. 1912 (12.78)).
The present relief is exceptionally well carved and is imbued with a sense of deep emotion. The Virgin clasps the Christ Child to her bosom enveloping him in her arms. She wraps her hand around the Child's head with her finger resting on his brow. The Child has a lively engaged expression looking out to the viewer. Of a similar size to the other known stucco and terracotta versions of the Verona Madonna, the present work, being carved in wood, is deeper and much more sculptural, with pronounced undercutting and strong folds in the drapery, along with beautifully rendered curls on the Christ Child's head. Like the cartapesta versions of the composition, the present relief would have been exhibited indoors, where its fine carving could be admired at close quarters.
R. Fry, 'Madonna and Child by Andrea Mantegna', The Burlington Magazine, 62, 1933, pp. 53-54; W. Valentiner (ed.), Catalogue of an exhibition of Italian Gothic and Early Renaissance Sculpture, exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit 1938; A. P. Darr (ed.), Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello, exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit 1985, pp. 110-11, no. 15; C. Avery, Donatello. Catalogo completo delle opera, Florence, 1991, p. 114, no. 64; P. Curtis (ed.), Depth of Field: the place of relief in the time of Donatello, exh. cat. Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Leeds, 2005, p. 95, no. 34