The Madonna of the Cherries is one of the most attractive inventions of Quentin Massys’s maturity. Depicting the sweet embrace between a youthful Virgin and her infant son, Massys, a key figure of the Antwerp Renaissance, offers a composition of remarkable intimacy: the emotional connection between the protagonists is stronger than in any other picture by the master. The lavish setting that the figures occupy betrays their regal status: the throne of the Virgin is made of marble, bejewelled and decorated with gilt tracery, while Christ sits on a precious velvet cushion with gold tassels.
This composition reflects the influence exerted by Leonardo da Vinci on the Northern Renaissance. Massys had previously appropriated Leonardesque types in his Ugly Duchess (London, National Gallery) and his Madonna and Child (Poznan, Muzeum Narodowe; a variation on Leonardo’s Saint Anne in the Louvre). The Madonna of the Cherries is believed to be a lost work by Leonardo, known through copies made by his followers (for instance by Giampietrino, Dallas, private collection) and which Massys would have come into contact with through its adaptation by Joos van Cleve (Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig Museum), thus participating in weaving an intricate pattern of artistic influence and dissemination throughout Renaissance Europe. Yet by retaining the motif of the Virgin softly kissing her son, Massys also references his native Netherlandish tradition, especially the work of his predecessors Dirck Bouts and Gerard David.
The still-life in the foreground, painted with precision and verisimilitude, is an occasion for the artist to show off his skills as much as to incorporate symbolic motifs. While the apple evokes original sin, the bunch of grapes alludes to the wine at the Last Supper, the symbol of Christ’s sacrificial blood meant to wash away this primordial sin. The cherries held by the Virgin bore multiple meanings in late medieval theology: they are the fruits of paradise, emphasising the Virgin and Child’s purity, while their bright colour also calls to mind the holy blood shed during Christ’s sacrifice.
This picture derives from a lost original composition by Quentin Massys, a prototype which was famously in the collection of the renowned Antwerp collector Cornelis van der Gheest. It is recorded in a picture by Willem van Haecht depicting the visit paid by Archduke Albert of Austria and Infante Isabella Clara of Spain to van der Gheest’s gallery in 1615 (Antwerp, Rubenshuis). The Massys Madonna of the Cherries is shown in pride of place in the very foreground, being admired by the archduke who reputedly offered van der Gheest a considerable sum to acquire it, a proposition he politely declined. Peter van den Brink records thirteen versions (possibly including duplicates), a testament to the composition’s success in Massys’s lifetime. Of these, two he considers autograph works by the master (The Hague, Mauritshuis; and Sotheby’s, New York, 29 January 2015, lot 6). However these two works differ from the van der Gheest picture, and notably present a different palette and a more elaborate throne. Of all the versions that relate directly to the van der Gheest picture, the present work is, according to van den Brink, undoubtedly the finest and bears the same colour scheme, composition and dimensions. It was certainly produced in Massys’s studio, under his close supervision.
We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.