Carlo CRIVELLI | Madonna and Child [Madonna col Bambino]

Venice 1430 /1435 – Ascoli 1475/1515

Madonna and Child [Madonna col Bambino] c.1482-83
tempera and gold on wood panel
45.9 (h) x 33.6 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

Carlo Crivelli’s Madonna and Child is astonishingly well preserved, with the characteristic look of bright enamel, the flesh tones polished and smooth as ivory, the Madonna’s crown worked in plaster and her cloak in relief to give the effect of embroidered fabric. The painting is signed ‘·OPVS·CAROLI·CRIVELLI·VENETI’ [The work of Carlo Crivelli of Venice].

The linear elegance of the contours that follow one another in a kind of sinuous musicality is typical of this painter. There are wonderfully flowing passages, like the strip of white cloth that winds around the body of the Child to emerge between the Madonna’s fingers, where the rhythm is followed through the curve of her wrist to the sleeve’s embroidered edge. The rich repertoire of natural elements is a decorative manner Crivelli had learnt while a student at Francesco Squarcione’s workshop in Padua, and never forgotten.[1] Symbolic fruit and flowers, certainly. The apple, held with some difficulty by the Child, represents original sin, redeemed through his Incarnation and future Passion. The cucumber is a sign of the Resurrection—after three days and nights in the belly of the whale, Jonah awoke beneath a bower of pumpkins or cucumbers. The cherry, symbol of sweetness, refers to the joy of Heaven; the red carnation, representing ardent love, refers to Mary, ‘the bride’ of Christ and personification of the Church. The landscape background, arid on the right and luxuriant on the left, could represent the world suffering before the Incarnation, then reborn; or the cycle of the seasons, hence the divine presence in all phases of human existence.

The painting elicits enthusiastic commentary in the literature, especially of the second half of the nineteenth century where we catch an echo of the English passion for this artist—which ensured that the most important Crivelli collection today is probably the one in London’s National Gallery. In 1897 Gustavo Frizzoni praised this painting as ‘one of the gems Count Guglielmo [Lochis] managed to acquire for his collection’; and there was this praise of Crivelli from Lochis:

[The] charming villages, rich accoutrements, and garments in relief with an abundance of gold and refined colours add to the richness of his figures, which he also managed to endow with much grace and gestures and expressions unique for those times.[2]

In the chronology of Crivelli’s works, not always clear and made more uncertain by the repetition of formulaic arrangements—marked not only by a great continuity of formal style, but also by his amazing, perfect drafting skill—this painting seems to belong to a rather late period. While a dating in the mid 1480s has been proposed at various times, the first half of the decade seems the most acceptable.[3] The same arrangement, more sumptuous and enamelled, appears as the central panel of a triptych of 1482 for the Cathedral of Camerino, predominantly a decorative work in its accumulation of plants. An example, very similar to the Bergamo panel and of the same size, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, signed but not dated and probably painted a short time later (around the mid 1480s) judging by its even more extreme finish, almost like a goldsmith’s work.[4]

Giovanni Valagussa

[1] Francesco Squarcione (c.1395–after 1468).

[2] Gustavo Frizzoni, Le galerie dell’Accademia Carrara in Bergamo: La Galleria Carrara; la Galleria Lochis; la Galleria Morelli, Bergamo: Istituto Italiano d’Arti Grafiche, 1897, p. 66; quoted in Giovanni Valagussa, I grandi veneti: Da Pisanello a Tiziano, da Tintoretto a Tiepolo. Capolavori dall’Accademia Carrara di Bergamo, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2010, p. 58.

[3] Pietro Zampetti, Carlo Crivelli, Milan: Martello, 1961, pp. 84–85, cat. 78E, dates the work to c.1475, while Ronald Lightbown, Carlo Crivelli, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, p. 261, dates it to 1478–1480.

[4] See Valagussa, p. 58.