Probably conceived in the early 1470s, this composition is among the great inventions of the young Sandro Botticelli. Designed around the time Botticelli first established an independent studio, the facial types evoke the work of the artist’s slightly older contemporary, the great Andrea del Verrocchio, whose pupils included Pietro Perugino, Lorenzo di Credi, and Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, Verrocchio’s lovely drawing of a female head at Christ Church may well have inspired the head of the Madonna here, while the face of the angel at left recalls that of the archangel in Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Archangel at the National Gallery, London (NG781).
The prime version of the present composition, now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, is also known as the Chigi Madonna for the illustrious Roman family that owned it until the late 19th-century. The image depicts a chubby Christ Child nestled protectively in his mother's arm; toes spread and kicking gently, he is the embodiment of childlike innocence. With his left hand he clutches his mother, further evoking a real, human baby, but his right hand is raised in a gesture of benediction over the basket of wheat and grapes on which he has trained his eyes, signifying his divine nature. The Madonna, serene and monumental, also casts her gaze upon the fruit before her, fingering a stalk of wheat as if lost in thought. The bearer of this basket of questionable gifts is a youthful angel, his soft, golden locks wreathed in flowers and myrtle but set off by a chiseled visage. He, too, ponders his offering, the three pairs of downcast eyes affirming the contemplative nature of the scene. Grapes and wheat allude to the wine and bread of Eucharistic ceremonies, symbolizing the blood and body of Christ and the suffering he endured to redeem the sins of mankind. The Madonna's meditative expression indicates that her son's future sacrifice is not lost upon her, and her deliberate plucking of the wheat suggests she has perhaps already accepted his fate. In the background a river landscape winds into the distance, drawing the viewer's eye into a world which seems unaware of its holy inhabitants.
Always recognized as a period version of the Chigi Madonna, the present Madonna of the Eucharist was described by Horne (1987) as an “antique...free” adaptation of the Gardner picture. Though their basic details are the same, the present work features a number of motifs not present in the Boston painting, such as the gilded bowl of carnations on the ledge at upper left and the carved designs in the marble pilaster at right. It is also slightly wider at left and at right than the Gardner painting, showing more of the Madonna’s sleeve and revealing the tops of the angel’s wings. As such, the present panel is indeed a unique, “free” version of the composition, as Horne suggests, probably painted not long after the Gardner picture. Most recently Everett Fahy, to whom we are grateful, has compared this and the Gardner painting side-by-side and has determined that the present work was undoubtedly made in close proximity to Botticelli by one of his earliest assistants.
Although the patron who commissioned this elegant altarpiece remains unknown. The picture, eventually, passed into the collection of the prestigious Panciatichi family, wealthy art patrons who had been settled in Florence since the late 13th century (fig. 1). In the mid-16th century, Lucrezia and Bartolomeo Panciatichi sat for Bronzino, whose depictions of the sophisticated couple are among the treasures of Mannerist portraiture in the Uffizi Museum. In more modern times, the present work belonged to Joseph Widener of Philadelphia, a founding benefactor of the National Gallery of Art. The painting eventually made its way into the hands of the great dealer Joseph Duveen and subsequently into a private French collection, in which it remained until 2013.