Altobello MELONE | Madonna and Child with the young Saint John the Baptist [Madonna col Bambino e san Giovannino]

Altobello MELONE
Lombardy 1470 /1510

Madonna and Child with the young Saint John the Baptist [Madonna col Bambino e san Giovannino] c.1508
oil on wood panel
66.4 (h) x 53.8 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Gift of Emilia Woyna Piazzoni in memory of her son Costanzo 1897

By placing his subjects of the Madonna and Child very close to the foreground Altobello Melone magnifies the impact of their presence. Mary holds Jesus, her right hand on his shoulder, her left holding his little foot. She gazes out at us, not at the Child. He is nursing and looks away from the breast he holds to regard us directly. His other hand grasps a goldfinch: because it eats thistles, this bird symbolises the Crown of Thorns, thus the foreknowledge that both Jesus and Mary have of his Crucifixion. Interestingly, the young Saint John the Baptist does not ‘establish his usual affectionate rapport with the Infant Christ’.[1] Instead, he looks down at the lamb he holds, symbol of Christ’s innocence, humility and gentleness: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, the adult John the Baptist exclaimed when he saw Jesus.[2] Like the earthly lamb, Jesus will be sacrificed.

Around the turn of the sixteenth century, artists experimented with modes of representation as they became accustomed to the more naturalistic medium of oil paint. Conventions such as haloes change: while rays of golden light emanate from Christ’s head, neither Mary nor Saint John has a halo. The Madonna is not shown at full length nor enthroned, but is in three-quarter view like a contemporary portrait. Giovanni Bellini in particular establishes new conventions such as the insertion of historical and religious events into the contemporary landscape of the Italian Renaissance.[3] Melone includes an idealised view at the side: two people and a dog meet on a rocky path that winds between a village and a fragment of Classical architecture, with a fortified castle atop the hill. A pale yellow silk curtain woven with angels is draped on the right. Melone renders the patterned folds correctly in perspective, his technical mastery worn very lightly.

Previously attributed to Martino Piazza,[4] the painting was recognised by Federico Zeri as an early work by Altobello Melone.[5] The artist unifies the figures of Mother and Child by his use of white paint: the circular rhythms of Mary’s headdress are echoed in the folds of the cloth beneath the Infant. White cloth associated with Christ often implies its future function as his winding sheet for burial after the Crucifixion. Another striking device is the zigzag cream of the lining of the Virgin’s cloak, which adds a dynamic element counterpointed by areas of rich red. Melone worked in Cremona as a fresco painter, but such assured handling of the medium of oil paint reveals his admiration for Venetian artists such as Bellini and Titian, as well as the German, Albrecht Dürer.[6] The large figures—the Child seems far too old to nurse—strike a note of the eclectic and exaggerated Mannerist style that would flourish in Italy in the following decades.

Christine Dixon

[1], Catalogo dei dipinti esposti, Accademia Carrara, viewed 3 May 2011: ‘... in presenza di San Giovannino che non stabilisce, tuttavia, il consueto rapporto affettuoso con Gesù’.

[2]Gospel of Saint John, 1:29.

[3]See cat 35, Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child (Alzano Madonna) c. 1488.

[4]Martino Piazza (c.1475–c.1530).

[5]Federico Zeri, ‘Altobello Melone: quattro tavole’, in Paragone, IV,
no. 39, March 1953, pp. 40–44 (p. 41). Giovanni Valagussa has noted
this attribution.

[6]Titian (1488/1490–1576); Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528).