In the first edition of Masterpiece of the Month, art historian Anna Tietze considers a Renaissance work of 1506, The Virgin Adoring the Infant Saviour, with St John and St Joseph.
In the build-up to the 150th anniversary exhibition of Iziko’s Art Collections, which will open on 24 September this year, distinguished UCT art historian Anna Tietze will be presenting an essay each month shining some light on an artwork of her choice from the gallery’s historical collection.
Anna Tietze is the author of A History of the Iziko South African National Gallery: Reflections on Art and National Identity (UCT Press, 2017).
In the early years of the twentieth century, today’s Iziko South African National Gallery was housed in a cramped two-room annexe of the South African Museum where it had been since the 1870s. There seemed to be little government interest in funding a custom-built home for it. Briefly, in 1914, the situation changed, with the government pledging funds towards a new gallery building. The declaration of war in Europe later that year froze these plans yet again. But hearing of the government pledge, Richard Stuttaford, son of the founder of South Africa’s first major department store, wrote to the gallery trustees, promising he would donate up to £1000 for the purchase of a ‘modern work of art worthy of the city’ now that the government was proceeding with the new building. 1 This was a substantial donation and, in line with the policy of the time, London-based buyers – the artists Charles Shannon and George Clausen – were tasked with finding a work to do it justice. 2 Strangely, although Stuttaford had specified a modern work, the painting that was finally chosen was this Renaissance work of 1506, The Virgin Adoring the Infant Saviour, with St John and St Joseph.
Analysis of the work
The Virgin Adoring the Infant Saviour is thought to be by Cesare da Sesto (1477-1523), a pupil-assistant of Leonardo da Vinci. It is a tondo, or circular image, approximately 79 cm in diameter, painted in oils on a flat panel, or panels, of wood – in this case probably cedarwood3.
Mary and Jesus dominate this image, forming a monumental column in its centre, the baby lying on the ground, sprinkled around with flowers. They are accompanied by the infant John the Baptist at the left, and Joseph (followed by an ox and a donkey) in the background to the right. On the left, in the distance, we glimpse a landscape of winding paths, trees and low hills.
Images like this, of the Virgin worshipping her child, were produced as aids to devotional prayer in public churches, convents and monasteries or private chapels. They encouraged the viewer to remember the sacredness of Christ and of His life, and give thanks, as His mother does. John the Baptist was often included in these images since he was regarded in the scriptures as a forerunner of Christ who serves to link the stories of the Old and the New Testaments.
The Renaissance, or ‘re-birth’, was a period of artistic activity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that saw a revival of interest in the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome. What was particularly admired about these early cultures was their curiosity and respect for human life and the human figure, and their interest in visualising gods and goddesses in human form, a strategy which brought the gods down to earth and made spiritual feeling concrete and real. Renaissance artists copied this tendency, visualising religious stories in terms that were as human and relatable as possible. So where religious imagery of the intervening medieval period had been highly formal, religious imagery of the Renaissance aimed for naturalism. Gone were the stiff hieratic poses and the dazzling but largely undifferentiated gold backgrounds of religious icons; now the Virgin and child were depicted as actors in a sacred drama that we could thoroughly identify with, set in picturesque nature.
One way of encouraging viewers to relate to the religious story was to present the baby Jesus naked – as he is here – or minimally clothed. This marked a major shift from the tradition of the icon where the Christ child is heavily draped. The baby’s unclothed figure was intended to emphasise his humanity. No longer an awe-inspiring sight, He was now very visibly a small and defenceless baby. This physical vulnerability reminded worshippers of the adult Christ’s physical sacrifice and linked that to the tragedies of ordinary people’s lives.
And yet, while the emphasis was on naturalism, there is also a subtle symbolism at work in pictures like this. Hand gestures, bodily poses, costumes and their colours draw on cultural ideas and practices that are sometimes lost to us with the passage of time. The body of the baby Jesus, while convincingly soft and flesh-like, nevertheless strikes an oddly unbabylike pose, face towards the viewer, right leg bent and arms upraised. As so often in these images, He is both baby and adult, a baby whose demeanour prefigures his adult self. His arms are lifted towards His mother, to acknowledge her worship of Him, while His face, turned towards the viewer, draws the viewer into the scene. The flowers that surround him are both a nod to naturalism but also a symbol of life and rebirth.
The mother’s hands, meanwhile, with finger-tips creating a spire, form a gesture which would have been familiar to sixteenth-century spectators as one of submission; it has persisted into the modern era as the familiar accompaniment of prayer. So too has kneeling, which the Virgin does here, although the artist’s desire to make height fill the picture space causes him to lengthen her body beyond the bounds of anatomical accuracy. But perhaps the most symbolic rather than naturalistic feature of this picture are the haloes. This pictorial device of light around the head symbolising divinity had an ancient history and entered Christian imagery around about the 5thc, persisting up until the Renaissance, after which it began to die out.
Attribution and ownership of the work
Attribution of art of the past – knowing which artist produced a work – is often notoriously difficult to determine with certainty. The 2017 Christie’s sale of the supposed Leonardo da Vinci work, Salvator Mundi, and the huge public controversy that followed it, was a case in point. That work was at one time attributed to Bernardino Luini and then to Boltraffio, a follower and a pupil of Leonardo respectively. It has only been attributed to Leonardo himself since 2011. This has been a gigantic ‘promotion’ of the work in terms of value, and many doubts remain about the new claims of authorship.
This Cesare da Sesto work has also undergone reattribution in the course of its life, but in this case the reattribution has been a demotion since the work was once thought to be by the much more famous artist Raphael 4. The confusion is unsurprising since Cesare da Sesto was a pupil-assistant of Leonardo (working in his studio at the same time as Boltraffio), but later in his career worked closely with Raphael too, and was influenced by him. Differentiating the hallmark style of a Leonardo or a Raphael from that of a skilful admirer-imitator like da Sesto is a fraught business.
A work’s provenance, the history of who has owned it, is often an indicator of its importance. 5 This tondo is recorded as having been painted for Gerolamo Melzi, head of a high-ranking Milanese family and father of yet another of Leonardo’s pupils. At some point, it left the Melzi collection. It was in England by the mid-19th century; a work matching its description was recorded at the sale of Lord Northwick’s Thirlestaine House collection in 1859. It was then part of the art collection of Queen Victoria’s daughter, the Marquess of Lorne. 6 Shannon and Clausen, buyers for South Africa’s gallery, saw the work when it appeared for sale at the London commercial gallery, Barbizon House. 7 Shipped to its new home in Cape Town, the tondo became one of the very few old master works in the gallery’s collection and its most valuable to date.
1. Letter from Stuttaford to the trustees, quoted in minutes of Gallery Board meeting, 5/6/14. Iziko SANG archives.
2. The acquisition budgets in these early days were very modest but what was bought was often sourced from London, by specially-appointed London buyers who were usually established (and fairly conventional) artists.
3. The work is made up of panels of wood tightly clamped together. This means that the painting is very heavy, not least because it is supported by a substantial wooden ‘cradle’ at its back.
4. Even at the time of its sale to South Africa, a very old inscription on the back of the work said, in French, “this painting has passed through several hands as the work of Raphael, and without doubt the baby Christ is by the brush of that Great Master – but it was painted…by C. Sesto in 1506” (italics added). Barbizon House, 1920, An Illustrated Record, catalogue of Barbizon House Gallery, London, entry no. 34 (Iziko SANG library). This inscription is no longer attached to the work and the attribution of any part of the work to Raphael has been lost sight of, but collaborative working practices in Renaissance workshops make it quite possible that two artists painted this work.
5. Discerning collectors are obviously thought to make discerning choices in what they buy.
6. Provenance details from an article on the work in The Times, 11/10/20, quoted in Barbizon House, 1920, An Illustrated Record under the heading ‘Old Master for the Cape: Early Italian Virgin and Child’.
7. Barbizon House in London (1918-24) was established by art collector and dealer David Croal-Thomson (1855-1930) who named his gallery after the French nineteenth-century Barbizon school whose works he admired and frequently dealt in. It is not recorded why Croal-Thomson had the da Sesto work in his collection on this occasion.