Text by Geoffrey Smith
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A porcelain Madonna, clad in a sumptuous cope of blue and gold brocade, stands behind a parapet steadying her infant with unfeasibly elegant hands. The child is clutching a goldfinch (perhaps a mite too tightly) and is sitting on a soft cushion. The Virgin is shown against a backcloth held aloft by uncertain means and she is flanked by some outsized fruit which may have been trained to grow on the same indeterminate structure from which the cloth hangs. Her halo and that of the Christ child are encrusted with jewels and are given the charmingly corporeal reality of expensive dinner plates rather than the more ethereal quality favoured by many of Crivelli’s contemporaries. In the middle distance we can see an exquisitely rendered forest landscape, the equal of those produced by the Netherlandish masters of such peripheral settings.
To the left of the gold cloth upon which the holy child’s cushion sits, Crivelli has painted a trompe-I’oeil fly complete with tiny shadow – it looks as if has just alighted on the parapet, or maybe the painting. No doubt the artist has included this in order to impress us with the extent of his talent but it is also there as a symbol of torment (because of its irritating buzzing) and destruction (connected as it is with putrefaction) and was therefore associated with Christ’s Passion. This stark message, reminding us of the nature of Christ’s final earthly days at the same time as presenting us with the innocent child, is reinforced by the melancholy demeanour of his mother as well as the presence of the goldfinch whose bright red head was thought to remind the faithful of the blood which issued from Christ’s head when crowned with thorns; it also fed on thistles – a plant that was associated with those same spiny thorns.
The prominently displayed fruit (the depiction of which was a Crivelli specialty) also carries a symbolic charge. The apple refers of course to the Fall of Man after Eve picked the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge. The cucumber, much coarser than modern varieties, also symbolised sin (as a result of its ability to reproduce with speed) but through some theological contortions stemming from a passage in the book of Isaiah (‘And the daughter of Zion is … like a lodge in a cucumber field’) became associated with the Virgin as a paragon of virtue surrounded by iniquity.
Venetian by birth but influenced by the hard-edged, wiry style of Mantegna and by the Paduan school, Crivelli was one of a kind. After being arraigned in Venice for having committed adultery with the wife of a sailor, leading to a short spell in prison, he spent most of his life in the cultural backwaters of Venetian Dalmatia and the Italian territories on the opposite shore of the Adriatic collectively known as the Marches.
In his love of ornamentation and detail he perhaps looks back to earlier masters such as Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello. Like them he employed such outdated but wonderfully decorative techniques as the creation of raised areas of gesso beneath the paint surface to enhance three dimensional effects, sometimes embedding coloured glass to represent jewels. Another stylistic trademark can be seen here in Crivelli’s representation of the hair of the infant Jesus – beautifully arranged in linear locks – and the deeply creased cloth falling from the Virgin’s headgear. All this contributes to a delightful personal canon which includes some of the most distinctive paintings of the Italian Renaissance.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
c1480 Sandro Botticelli: Allegory of Spring (Primavera), Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
c1480 Hugo van der Goes: Dormition of the Virgin, Bruges, Groeningemuseum
1482 Pietro Perugino: The Delivery of the Keys, Vatican, Sistine Chapel