Enthroned Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Bernard of Clairveaux and a donor
[Madonna con Gesù Bambino in trono con san Giovanni Battista, san Bernardo da Chiaravalle e un devoto] c.1485-90
tempera and gold on wood panel
34.3 (h) x 24.4 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866
The paintings of Ambrogio Bevilacqua were much inspired by the work of Vincenzo Foppa, imitations of whose popular altar panels were produced by Bevilacqua and his Milanese studio. The solemnity, simplicity of form and decoration of his Madonna and Child with saints is deeply indebted to the older artist. The small size of the panel indicates that it was made for private devotion. The painting was commissioned by the unknown donor shown with his cap in his hands kneeling at the feet of the Virgin. The Christ Child, held on his Mother’s lap, faces the donor and blesses him with his right hand. Saint John the Baptist who stands behind the donor is almost certainly his patron saint, as he intercedes between the donor and Christ.
A central image in the religious art of the Renaissance, here the Madonna is shown enthroned. This form of depiction, also known as Maestà [Majesty], was one of the most popular types for altarpieces. Unlike the tenderness of Nativity scenes, where the Virgin adores her newborn Son, or her grieving at his death shown in Lamentation images, the Madonna Enthroned is a solemn and noble depiction. Following the conventions of the earlier Medieval period she is depicted as the Queen of Heaven seated on a throne and holding the Christ Child. Her blue mantle symbolises heaven. Bevilacqua has increased her celestial elevation by incorporating marble steps into the architecture of the throne, ensuring that the head of the seated Madonna is higher than the standing saints.
The Madonna’s left hand is placed on an open book, one of her common attributes alluding to wisdom. The Child wears only a protective amulet around his neck. Saint John the Baptist is portrayed as the hermit preacher, forerunner and herald of Christ, his emaciated chest showing beneath his animal skin vest. He holds a cross around which a spiralling scroll is inscribed in Latin, ‘ECCE AGNUS DEI’ [Behold the Lamb of God]. On the Virgin’s left is Saint Bernard, founder of the Cistercian Order, wearing his white habit and holding a crozier or pastoral staff. Both saints and the Madonna typically have haloes, although interestingly the Christ Child does not. His hair, however, is burnished gold.
Typically the throne of the Madonna is set within intricate architecture, flanked on either side by Classical columns, topped with a delicate scalloped niche. The face of God, the Eternal Father, appears atop the throne in the tympanum bordered with Renaissance scrolls. The dominant gold background is a convention surviving from the Gothic era, which artists were gradually replacing during the fifteenth century in favour of new ideas of architectural settings implementing perspective and light. Here the combination of architectural detail and a large expanse of gold ground demonstrates how Bevilacqua retained aspects of the earlier opulent style, still popular with more conservative donors.
Vincenzo Foppa (1427/1430–1515/1516).
The Italian title ‘san Bernardo da Chiaravalle’ relates to the Cistercian abbey
of Chiaravalle, four miles southeast of Milan, which was founded after a visit
by Bernard in 1135. This is the daughter-house of Clairveaux Abbey (1115).