Virgin and Child with the infant St. John

Oil on panel
66 by 54 cm.
Valencia, 1500-1515

Provenance: Genoa, private collection.

This panel presents a depiction of the Virgin and Child with the Infant St. John, an extremely popular subject in 16th-century Hispanic painting. In all probability the work was intended for private worship, and was therefore not part of any altarpiece, standing alone. Mary is depicted half-length dressed in a red robe with a bluish cloak, supporting Jesus’ back and positioning her other hand protectively behind the Infant St. John. The Child is portrayed full-length and nude, sat on a cushion which in turn rests on a mottled ledge in the foreground, on which we see a number of pears and cherries that undoubtedly allude to some allegorical symbolism relating to Christ or the Virgin. The Child is caught in the act of handing his cousin a little golden cross, while the Infant St. John, dressed in camel skin, looks upwards and gestures with his left arm. Seen together, the three figures make up a triangular composition, standing out against a series of bushes and a background landscape featuring ruined buildings, a little stream and leafy trees.

The work’s colours are intense and contrasting, with the interplay between the blue of Mary’s cloak and red of her robe being a prominent feature. The ochre tones of the front ledge and St. John’s camel skin link up with the greens and browns of the background landscape. The horizon is elevated, leaving little space for the sky, which is pictured with skilfully graduated tones and an intense combination of light, with storm clouds towards the top, lending the scene atmospheric connotations.

This is undoubtedly the work of Paolo de San Leocadio, a painter of Italian origin who settled in Valencia in 1472. This is a subject he depicted on a number of occasions, which helps in terms of making suggestive comparisons with the work we are dealing with here. We should first mention a panel preserved at Valencia’s Museo de Bellas Artes[1], where the Child and Infant St. John’s positions have been reversed. All the same, Jesus’s body language is similar, stretching his legs and leaning forward. The most notable similarities are to be found in the figure of Mary, who is pictured in exactly the same pose, her head tilted, gazing down, and with the same round-necked red robe. Her hair is tucked behind her ears and falls over her chest in much the same way in both panels. We also observe the same delicate brushstrokes, applied using yellow pigment to bring out the reflections in Mary’s blond hair. The way the buildings and landscape are depicted is also the same, as is the gold nimbus crowning the two Virgins, both ethereal and delicate.

One signed panel with the same subject is preserved in a private collection in Madrid[2], although it presents marked compositional differences from the aforementioned two works. The figures have been similarly executed, in particular the Child, but the Virgin’s position has been reversed, and she is pictured sitting, full-length, the same as the Infant St. John, who is depicted here on his knees. In this case the scene takes place in a sort of loggia or space that is open to the outside. A fourth panel with the same subject should also be mentioned, part today of the Laia-Bosch collection (Bilbao), and unveiled some years ago by Company[3]. The composition includes St. Joseph, and pictures the children playing, which gives it a certain unique quality, but the general organisational model is much the same, with an architectural ledge in the foreground, bushes behind the figures and a second background plane including buildings and further landscape. A fifth work, also in private hands, returns to the subject with variations, the most important being the inclusion of a second infant St. John, this time the Evangelist[4]. We should also mention two other panels attributed to Felipe Pablo de San Leocadio, Paolo’s son, one of which also includes a second infant St. John[5].

The style of the work allows us to link it to other works by the painter. For instance, Mary is seen to tuck her hair behind her ear in much the same way, while clumps or ringlets of hair are once again pictured falling over her chestin the Sacra Conversazione from London’s National Gallery[6]. The Virgin’s face and the ethereal and delicate rendering of the nimbus are not far removed from what we observe in the Virgin of the Knight of Montesa (Museo del Prado), a work executed after 1482[7], or in a number of depictions of Mary in panels from the monastery of Santa Clara in Gandía, especially the one from the Adoration of the Magi[8]. Furthermore, the background landscape is reminiscent of what we find in the Dead Christ with two Angels from a private collection in Madrid[9]. The bushes are also similar to those found in the Prayer in the Garden from the Altarpiece of the Joys from the Collegiate Basilica of Gandía[10].





[1] Gómez 2002; Benito 2006a; Company 2009, p. 162, fig. 88.

[2] Benito 2006a, p. 172, fig. 57.1; Company 2009, p. 191, fig. 112.

[3] Company 2009, pp. 191-193, fig. 113.

[4] Company 2009, pp. 208-210, fig. 125.

[5] Company 2009, pp. 216-217, figs. 132-133.

[6] Company 2009, p. 142, fig. 77.

[7] Gómez-Ferrer 2012.

[8] Company 2009, pp. 184-186, figs. 105-109.

[9] Company 2009, p. 144, fig. 79.

[10] Company 2009, p. 174, fig. 94.