Madonna and Child
About this piece
Marco Basaiti (Venetian, ca. 1480–ca. 1530)
Madonna and Child, ca. 1510–12
Tempera on wood
24 5/8 x 19 1/2 inches
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; The Samuel H. Kress Study Collection
by Perri Lee Roberts
Madonna and Child
The most popular image in Italian medieval and Renaissance painting for both public altarpieces and personal devotional works was that of the maternal Virgin or Madonna (a word that translates as “Our Lady”). She was generally represented either seated on a throne or on the ground, dressed in her traditional blue robe and red cloak and holding the Christ Child in her lap or arms. (The color blue alludes to her status as Queen of Heaven and the red to her love for her son.) The Catholic Church’s veneration of the Virgin Mary arose from the belief that she was the primary intermediary with God and supreme protector of mankind; therefore, her entreaties on behalf of the worshipper were particularly effective.
The size and subject of Basaiti’s Madonna and Child suggest that it probably was painted for a private patron to be displayed in a domestic setting. The composition derives from the work of one of the leading Venetian artists of the time, Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1429–1507), who in the last two decades of the fifteenth century created numerous representations of the Madonna and Child featuring an expansive landscape background rather than the flat gold ground found in earlier painting. Characteristic of High Renaissance style, the Virgin is a monumental figure who dominates the picture plane. She stands behind a marble parapet that extends the length of the bottom edge of the composition and in front of a wall inscribed with the artist’s name, “MARCHVS BAXAITI.” Besides creating the illusion of space and defining the precise location of the Virgin within the setting, this stone perimeter calls to mind the tomb where Christ will be buried. While celebrating the infancy of the Savior, this tender scene intentionally reminds the worshipper of his sacrifice for the sake of mankind. Adding to this secondary layer of meaning is the bird in Christ’s hand, considered a symbol of the soul that flies away at death. It is probably a goldfinch, which, according to legend, acquired the red spot on its head when it plucked a thorn from Christ’s brow on the road to Calvary and was stained by a drop of his blood.
Marco Basaiti was of Albanian origins but spent his entire career in Venice. He probably received his artistic training in the workshop of the Venetian painter Alvise Vivarini (1442/53–1503/5), and also may have assisted Cima da Conegliano (ca. 1459–1517) and Bellini. Basaiti’s style reflects the influence of all three masters. His volumetric figures and bold chiaroscuro recall the work of Alvise; his atmospheric landscape settings, Cima; and his deeply saturated palette and compositional designs, Bellini.