This charming picture shows the Virgin and Child seated outdoors on a parapet decorated with a gilded relief. Facing to the left, the Virgin holds the nude Christ child who bends forward toward his cousin, the young Saint John the Baptist. The latter -- the patron saint of the city of Florence -- kneels on bended knee and clasps his hands in adoration; his mantle is the same reddish purple as the Virgin's dress and his belt echoes the color of her blue cloak. Beyond the parapet is a sunny landscape with jagged rocks in the middle ground and a winding river in the distance. The dimensions of the panel suggest that it was intended for private devotional use. The depiction of maternal and filial love made it eminently suitable for the domestic market.
Some early writers such as Herbert Horne (1908), Wilhelm von Bode (1921), Adolfo Venturi (1925), and Jacques Mesnil (1938) believed the painting involved some studio participation. More recently Miklós Boskovits (2004) was uncertain of the picture's status, but the attribution is generally accepted by other scholars including Herman Ulmann (1893), Yukio Yashiro (1925), Raimond van Marle (1931), Bernard Berenson (1932), and Carlo Gamba (1936). After some initial doubts, Richard Lightbown (1989) confirmed the attribution in the second edition of his monograph, and in the new catalogue of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the present author (2005) concluded that it is "a late autograph work." Keith Christiansen (verbally, 2009) and Laurence Kanter (verbally, 2009) agree.
For the dating there is a consensus favoring the early 1490s. The Virgin is comparable to the Virgin in the Cestello Annunciation (c. 1489-1491) in the Uffizi. Her drapery has a fluidity unlike the dry rigidity found in later works such as the Mystic Nativity (dated 1500/1501) in the National Gallery, London. Drawing attention to the relief panel, Kanter dates the painting to about 1493. Christiansen, who notes that the stylized rocky landscape is typical of Botticelli and not his studio, dates it a few years later. The diaphanous veil that holds back the Virgin's blonde tresses is a particularly Botticellian detail that accentuates the sinuous grace of the picture. The closest analogy for the figure type occurs in Botticelli's exquisite tondo in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the so-called Madonna del Padiglione, which most scholars date 1493 (fig. 1).
With regard to the relief, Lightbown (1989) wrote, "This is one of the few direct quotations from the antique in Botticelli's work, and its vigorous rendering of the densely moving forms shows that Botticelli was as sensitive as any of his contemporaries to the character and style of classical sculpture". The nude horsemen and other details in the relief are picked out with gold highlights, a technique he first used in his monumental murals in the Sistine Chapel, especially for the reliefs on the large triumphal arch in the Punishment of the Rebels (1481-1482). The artist used the same gold for the striated haloes, the folds of the Baptist's mantle, and the pattern on the Virgin's mantle (a motif associated with the picture's first owner?). The relief has been seen as a symbol of the world ante and extra Revelationem (Cornini, 2004). Such an erudite interpretation may be valid; but the relief may simply reflect late 15th-century interest in antiquity, represented at exactly the same time by the Battle of the Centaurs, carved by the sixteen-year-old Michelangelo during the brief period from around 1491 to 1492 which he spent with Lorenzo the Magnificent.