The present composition, richly decorated, of the Madonna and Child is executed by a follower of Joos van Cleve (Cleves, c. 1485/90 - Antwerp, 1540/41). Van Cleve founded an important and influential workshop in Antwerp at the beginning of the sixteenth century, where he painted for local and international clientele. Over 300 works are currently attributed to Van Cleve and his workshop, a remarkably large oeuvre that far exceeds that of any other contemporary Antwerp artist.
His tender depictions of the Virgin and Child, the so-called Madonna of the Cherries, formed the basis for the present composition. These proved enormously popular in his day and were repeated in numerous workshop versions, and contemporary and later copies (see: exh. cat. Joos van Cleve, Leonardo des Nordens, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen 2011, pp. 117-118, figs. 90-92, nos. 33-36). The Madonna of the Cherries was one of Van Cleve’s most celebrated compositions. The figures of the Virgin and Child probably derive from a lost design by Leonardo da Vinci, whose original composition was probably copied by Giovanni Pedrini, known as Giampietrino (now in Dallas, Robert M. Edsel Collection, see: J.O. Hand, Joos van Cleve, The Complete Paintings, New Haven/ London 2004, p. 96, fig. 102).
Ten depictions of the Madonna of the Cherries are known to be by Joos van Cleve and his studio. Although Friedländer, Von Baldass and Hand believe none of the extant versions are completely autograph, Micha Leeflang considers the paintings in Aachen (Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum) and in the Hester Diamond Collection in New York as autograph works by Joos van Cleve (see for the known versions: J.O. Hand, Joos van Cleve, The Complete Paintings, New Haven/ London 2004, nos. 112-112.9, pp. 185-187). The other eight depictions could be considered as workshop pieces. There are also copies made after Joos van Cleve’s version of the Madonna of the Cherries, but these paintings form a distict group. They are executed around 1550 and are clearly of a lesser quality (the modelling of the flesh tones is for instance hard and the compositions lack the finely painted details, that are so typical of Joos van Cleve and his studio).
The present composition is however of a remarkably good quality and is painted shortly after Joos van Cleve’s death in 1540-41.
The Virgin is shown sitting serenely in a richly decorated interior with the Christ Child seated in her lap on a fine executed, green silk and golden brocaded cushion (in Joos van Cleve’s versions of the Madonna of the Cherries it is a plain green silk cushion). Christ holds a rosary (in stead of some cherries as can be seen in Joos van Cleve’s versions of the composition) and is depicted in a strong contrapposto movement. He twists his head around to face the Virgin who is looking down to her Child. Through the window on the left a landscape can be seen with a village, rolling hills, a castle surrounded by water, a church and bridge. On the bridge the Holy Family is shown, during their Flight into Egypt. Joseph is walking in front of the donkey with the Virgin Mary and her Child. This element is absent in Joos van Cleve’s depiction of the Madonna of the Cherries, where a prominently placed cornfield with peasants and soldiers refers to the ‘Miracle of the Corn’ (Matthew 13:25), whereby the Holy Family was protected during their flight into Egypt.
The beautifully executed still life elements like the loaf of bread with a knife and a glass in the foreground of the present composition is also a unique addition to Van Cleve’s Madonna of the Cherries-pattern. The tin plate and spoon with the red berries refer to the bitterness of Christ’s suffering, the flesh of the walnut to his divine origin and its shell to the wooden cross on which he would die. The tin plate is marked with a stamp in the form of a rose. This mark derives from England, where the rose was the symbol of the Tudor family. In 1524 it was allowed in Antwerp as a mark for fine tin work. From 1535-40 onwards it was also used in the rest of The Netherlands.
The painter of the present work has included additional decorative motifs to the more sober composition of the Madonna of the Cherries by Joos van Cleve and his studio assistants. The Virgin’s clothing is decorated on the borders by gold thread and pearls. The medaillon at the neckless is an element that exists in Italian versions of the Madonna of the Cherries, but is absent in the work by Joos van Cleve and his workshop. This anonymous Antwerp painter combined elements that derive from both Italian and Antwerp models to create this highly attractive composition of the Virgin and Child.
We are grateful to Dr. Micha Leeflang of the Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, for her attribution and dating of the present painting, and for cataloguing this lot.