In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Venice witnessed a remarkable period of cultural development that saw artists north and south of the Alps engaged in the exchange of ideas and techniques. At the very heart of these ‘crosscurrents’ in the lagoon city was Jacopo Bellini, the father of Giovanni and Gentile, a ‘great and acknowledged genius’ of signal importance to the Venetian Renaissance (R. Fry, Giovanni Bellini, London, 1900, p. 1). This picture, the first by the artist to come to auction in over two decades and one of only a handful of works still in private hands, exemplifies the connections that Bellini fostered at this time of flourishing creativity, his innovation paving the way for the glories of Venetian painting to come in subsequent generations.
Born in around 1400, Jacopo trained with Gentile da Fabriano, an artist who had a profound influence on other leading figures of the time, including Pisanello, Michele Giambono and Jacobello dal Fiore. On at least two occasions Jacopo inscribed works, which are both now lost, to celebrate his master and commemorate the fact that he was his pupil, once when signing the Saint Michael in San Michele Arcangelo, Padua, of circa 1430, ‘jacobus de venetiis discipulus gentile da fabriano pinxit’, and again on the fresco made for the Chapel of San Niccolò in Verona in 1436. Over the course of his career, Jacopo is known to have worked in Ferrara and Padua, as well as Venice and Verona, lauded by contemporaries for his talent and virtuosity. When he won a contest ahead of Pisanello to paint a likeness of Lionello d’Este in Ferrara in 1441, the poet Ulisse degli Aleotti sung his praise in two sonnets, marveling at his skill as a portraitist. That portrait, like many of Jacopo’s works, is lost, and our understanding of his exceptional breadth of interest and range of influences comes in great part from the two drawing books, one conserved in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, and the other in the British Museum, London. These extraordinary survivals provide a singular insight into Renaissance Venice and to one of the artists at its epicenter. The books include studies of antiquity, observations of nature, architectural designs, religious compositions and city scenes that show glimpses of life at street level in the Renaissance city. The evident integration of both Tuscan and northern traditions that comes across through these pages confirms Jacopo’s mastery of new and progressive forms.
Indeed, the question of the influence of artists from both north and south is of special interest with this Madonna. As Colin Eisler notes, Jacopo’s decision to show the nursing Madonna, or Virgo Lactans, was in itself innovative, a subject that was far more common north of the Alps in the fifteenth century (loc. cit.). More specifically, the particular pose that the Madonna adopts here, with her hands crossed, is striking. In an article from 1959, Marcel Röthlisberger (loc. cit.) highlighted this unusual iconography, a motif that also appears in Jacopo’s drawing, Mater omnium, kept in the Louvre (fig. 1), and in his Annunciation in Brescia (fig. 2). Whilst it is possible that Bellini was inspired by French and Netherlandish sources for this particular design, and he more than likely contributed to the wider uptake of similar iconography in subsequent years, the Madonna with crossed hands was also to be found in earlier representations closer to home, notably in the fresco of the 1340s showing the Nativity in the Basilica of Santa Chiara, Assisi. The curiosity of this iconography is matched by the bold tonality of the composition, with its hues of vermilion and orange red, displaying his ambition and understanding as a colorist. When Borenius published the panel in 1926, he spoke of the ‘varied and exquisitely harmonized reds’, going on to place the picture amongst the series of representations of the Madonna and Child that point to Jacopo as ‘the real originator of Venetian painting’ (loc. cit.), capable of exploring this image in particular in such an intimate manner. It can be no coincidence that his son, Giovanni, displayed such sensitivity in his oeuvre, absorbing his father’s lesson as he refined the subject in an extraordinary way in the latter part of the fifteenth century. This picture can be placed together with a group of other representations of the Madonna and Child, dating to the 1440s and ‘50s, perhaps painted shortly after the Legnano Madonna (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice), where the Virgin is shown with a red mantle, a further indication of northern inspiration, it being a trope popularized by Dieric Bouts and others. The present panel, however, finds its clearest counterpart in another picture in the Gallerie dell’Accademia (fig. 3), framed in a similar manner, which shows the Madonna with the Christ Child blessing. The background of both pictures is filled with cherubs holding symbols of the Passion, foreshadowing the destiny of Christ; a comparable grouping of angels can be seen in the drawing of the Crucifixion in the Louvre.
The panel was for many decades in the collection at North Mymms Park, a house purchased in 1893 by Walter Burns and Mary Lyman Morgan, who was the sister of John Pierpoint Morgan. Their son, Walter S.M. Burns, added a significant number of pictures to the collection in the early twentieth century, including Luca Signorelli’s Coronation of the Virgin (San Diego Museum of Art) and Canaletto’s A View of Greenwich from the River (on loan at Tate Britain, London).