Hand modelled with extraordinary skill and subtlety, the present relief is a key work in understanding the transformations in Florentine art and sculpture in the early 15th century. The Madonna is portrayed in half-length, her torso slightly turned, and her left shoulder is raised, giving the appearance of natural and spontaneous motion (Ex. cat.: J. Grabski, Opus Sacrum, From the Collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson, 10 April - 23 September 1990, p. 286).
The relief is made of clay and was hand modelled. Toolmarks visible on the reverse must have been made whilst the clay was still wet, prior to it being fired. This differentiates it from the large number of copies and reproductions of similar devotional reliefs that were cast in Florentine workshops to satisfy an increasing demand for such images for private use (ibid). Layers of over-paint were removed subsequent to its sale at auction in 1987, revealing the remaining original polychromy. Although the sculptor would likely have been involved in deciding on the colour scheme, the relief was probably sent to a painter so that it was finished to the highest perfection.
The relief is not known in any other versions, which suggests it was an individual commission made for a particular patron, rather than as a model for workshop reproduction. The large scale suggests it may have been made for a public setting, perhaps a chapel. The relief compares closely to the Kress Madonna and Child (National Gallery of Art, Washington, inv. no. 1943.4.93) and a Madonna and Child in the Museo Bardini (Pope-Hennessy, loc. cit., fig. 95). The 1990 exhibition catalogue states that 'each of these three pieces is unique. Their features indicate an original artist who did not resort to popular schematic patterns’ (Grabski, loc. cit., p. 287).
In both the Kress and the present relief the protagonists share the same high foreheads, long, almond-shaped eyes, full cheeks and small mouths. The quality of the Kress relief has led to a lengthy debate over its authorship by leading scholars of the Renaissance. In 1921 W. von Bode, the eminent art historian and museum expert of his age, attributed it to Lorenzo Ghiberti. By 1420 Ghiberti was a senior figure in the artistic community in Florence, following his winning entry and subsequent execution of 'The Gates of Paradise’ for the Baptistery, and in his Commentarii had noted that he 'made numerous models in wax and clay’ (Paolozzi Strozzi,op. cit., p. 428). This attribution was supported by Seymour but rejected by Krautheimer, von Schlosser, Planiscig and Pope-Hennessy, who all offered their own suggestions (Grabski, loc. cit.), and it is currently catalogued as 'Florentine, circa 1425’ (Paolozzi Strozzi. VIII.8.).
The present relief once belonged to Oskar Huldschinsky (1846-1931), a German iron and coal mining industrialist who became a major art collector and patron. Huldschinsky was advised by Bode, and bought paintings by artists such as Botticelli, Tiepolo, Rembrandt, Rubens and Degas and was instrumental in the foundation of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum.
The relief was subject to study at the Voitek Sobczynski Conservation Studio, London, in 1988 which revealed that the polychromy was original.
When sold in 1987 it was accompanied by a Thermoluminescence Report dated 11 September 1987, stating that this relief was last fired between 410 and 620 years ago.