Ambrogio BERGOGNONE | Madonna lactans [Our Lady nursing, Madonna del latte]

Piedmont 1433 /1473 – Milan 1523

Madonna lactans [Our Lady nursing, Madonna del latte] c.1485
oil and gold on wood panel
61.6 (h) x 44.6 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

Madonna lactans refers to an image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ Child. This is a popular type of Madonna image for private devotion, produced especially by Tuscan and Lombard artists, characterised by a high level of informality and naturalism. Many examples depict gestures and incidents which are familiar to a nursing mother: the quiet concentration and full cheeks of a suckling child, a small arm reaching into a bodice, the pull of the mouth on the nipple, a squeezed breast, even the dripping milk. Ambrogio Bergognone’s Madonna combines a level of intimacy with glorious, almost topographical detail of a Lombard rural setting. Minutiae such as the ducks on the water in the foreground and, in the distance, the chickens pecking outside the gate, the dog and figures under the arch, are beautifully observed. The trellised roses form a curtain behind the figure, the autumnal colours of the vegetation merging with the gold highlights of her hair.

Bergognone’s realism and use of detail is often cited as an example of the influence of Northern art.[1] Certainly the Madonna’s enamel-like skin and the draping of her robe are reminiscent of Flemish or French painting, as is the rather strangely-shaped Child. But in this instance the impact of Bergognone’s contemporary, Bernardino Zenale, [2]with whom he worked in the mid 1480s, is more pertinent. The painting has been previously attributed to the other artist—the lettering at right on the low wall, ‘Bernale Zenala’, was evidently applied in the 1800s—and in many ways pays homage to Zenale.[3] The muted, grey palette and broad treatment also evokes Vincenzo Foppa.[4] At times Bergognone’s rather dry brushstrokes have the effect of oil on canvas rather than on panel, and the thin ‘scraped’ effect of the paint and sketchy immediacy of his vignettes appear very modern.[5]

 Madonna lactans also incorporates specific devotional iconography. The Christ Child’s coral necklace with tiny cross is a sign of his fate; but because coral was held to be charmed, it was evoked for good health and, especially, for the protection of children.[6] The roses refer to Mary, known as the ‘Mystic Rose’, and her pure status is suggested by her long hair worn loose over her shoulders. In case we miss any of these subtle references, the artist has scored an inscription into the halo: ‘BEATUS VENTER QUI TE PORTAVIT & UBERA’, an abbreviated version of the words spoken to Jesus by a woman in the crowd: ‘Beatus venter qui te portavit, et ubera quæ suxisti’ [Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps which thou hast sucked].[7]

Lucina Ward

 [1]Later, in Pavia between 1488 and 1494, Bergognone worked and mixed in an environment of ‘transalpine cultural exchanges’, a result of the University of Pavia and the links to the North of the Carthusian Certosa of Pavia. See Ingrid Alexander-Skipnes, ‘Northern realism and Carthusian devotion: Bergognone’s Christ carrying the cross for the Certosa of Pavia, in Cultural exchange between the low countries and Italy, 1400–1600, Turnhout: Brepols, 2007, pp. 145–59.

[2]Bernardino Zenale (c.1460–1526).

[3]The panel is now firmly reassigned toAmbrogio Bergognone.

[4]Vincenzo Foppa (1427/1430–1515/1516); see cat 16.

[5]Indeed, if the English Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) had painted a Madonna lactans, it may have looked like this.

[6]See also cat. 71: the coral bracelet worn by the girl in Giovan Battista Moroni’s Portrait of a child of the house of Redetti c.1570.

[7]Gospel of Saint Luke, 11:27.