Giovanni BELLINI | Madonna and Child [Madonna col Bambino]

Giovanni BELLINI
Venice? 1433 /1436 – Venice 1516

Madonna and Child [Madonna col Bambino] c.1475-76
tempera on wood panel
47.4 (h) x 33.8 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

Known as the Lochis Madonna, this painting was acquired in March 1843 by Count Guglielmo Lochis from Maddalena Sodani for 675 Lire, a price that unbelievably also included a work by Bartolomeo Vivarini. Lochis believed that he was buying the painted cover to a window, ‘davanzale d’una finestra’,[1] interpreting rather literally the composition in which the Christ Child is struggling in his Mother’s arms on the pink marble parapet of a window frame.

The seated Madonna holding the Christ Child has always been considered Byzantine in origin, especially in the isolation of the Virgin against a plain background and the positioning of her drapery across her shoulder. The background consists of green-grey cloth with regular folds that suggest it has just been taken from a cassone (marriage chest). Against this the architecture of the Madonna’s blue cloak, of lapis lazuli infused with myriad lines of gold, defines her pensive presence. The strong underdrawing, visible in part, enhances the dynamic composition, especially in the form of the Child. While her Son struggles, the Virgin dreams in a pose and with the sad expression that is predictive of his future Passion.

We know little of Giovanni Bellini’s biography; his wife Ginevra Bocheta died young, as did his son. This painting has been of central importance to many theories about his personality, including speculations about his illegitimate birth and his relationship to his mother and father. In her provocative essay, ‘Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini’,[2] Julia Kristeva analyses Bellini’s Madonna paintings in the light of his supposed illegitimacy and argues that it is the spectre of the absent mother that haunts these images. Kristeva explores the way in which Bellini’s Madonnas from the 1450s to 1460s appear coldly distant and impassive, the Virgin’s gaze drawn away from the Child. For Kristeva the climax of this development is the Lochis Madonna. She writes of the frightened baby who ‘alone of all his peers, frees himself violently taking his mother’s hands along with him’ in a ‘brutal biographical separation’.[3] The Lochis Madonna is again a key example in Leo Steinberg’s challenging thesis about the Incarnation, in which he argues that Christ is unveiled by his Mother to expose his humanity, and that this makes explicit the paradox of the Christian god–man.[4]

In front of the extremely powerful image of the Lochis Madonna, Albrecht Dürer’s assessment of Giovanni Bellini in 1506 comes to mind: in a much quoted letter to his friend, the patrician humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, he states that he knew Bellini ‘as very old, but certainly he is the best painter of all’.[5]

Jaynie Anderson

[1] Archive of the Lochis Bequest, Accademia Carrara.

[2] Julia Kristeva, ‘Motherhood according to Giovanni Bellini’ (first published in 1975), in Leon S. Roudiez (ed.), Desire in language: A semiotic approach to literature and art, New York: Columbia University Press, 1980, pp. 237–70.

[3] Kristeva, p. 254.

[4] Leo Steinberg, The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and in modern oblivion, London: Faber and Faber, 1983, pp. 40–41.

[5] Hans Rupprich, Dürer: Schriftlicher Nachlass, Berlin: Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft, 1956–59, vol. 1, pp. 43–45.