The present composition, yet to be securely attributed, is without doubt the work of a sensitive and talented master with an awareness of the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Beneath an antique arch, partially in ruins to symbolize the destruction of the old order (according to Florentine precedents), the Virgin sits, gently lowering the Christ Child from her lap to where St. John kneels at her feet. She is dressed in a crimson gown and blue cloak, her head covered by a sheer veil, nearly invisible but for the pinpoints of gold that trace its borders. Behind her, and nearly consumed by shadows, St. Joseph stands leaning his chin thoughtfully on his hands. Through the archway beyond, a delicate landscape unfolds, with cascading waterfalls and feathery trees. The artist has also included a delightful small still life of flowering grasses and pebbles along the very bottom of the canvas, beneath the bare feet of the Virgin, possibly an allusion to the 'Madonna of Humility' trope. Small naturalistic details such as these support the theory that the artist was familiar with Leonardo, who includes similar floral elements in his Annunciation (Uffizi, Florence) and whose many life drawings from nature were widely disseminated. Also Leonardesque is the pose of the Virgin with the Child on her lap, which can be compared to the cartoon for the Virgin, Child and Saint Anne with John the Baptist (fig. 1; National Gallery, London). With her downturned gaze, long, straight nose, and gentle smile, the face of the Virgin is remarkably close to Leonardo's type, and the softly-modeled forms rendered with a shadowy sfumato technique further indicate a close study his work.
The author of the present work was also evidently familiar with a composition by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, called Il Sodoma, the Holy Family with the Infant Saint John (Società Esecutori Pie Disposizioni, Siena). Though more linear and less dramatically atmospheric than the present work, Sodoma's composition features a similar grouping, with Christ on the Virgin's lap reaching down to a kneeling St. John, and St. Joseph behind peering over the Virgin's shoulder.