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Madonna with Child and Saint John

Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint John

Bernardino Luini (1460-1532). Pinacoteca Ambrosiana – Milan. Ca. 1520.

The ‘Holy Family with Saint Anne and Saint John’ is a typical theme of religious paintings. These scenes were the occasion to depict a family of several figures in intimate life. Together with the ‘Madonna and Child’ pictures the ‘Holy Families’ are among the most popular representations of gentleness and affection in the pictorial arts.

The painting we present is as much of Leonardo da Vinci as of Bernardino Luini. The subject and the composition are entirely of Leonardo. Da Vinci made a large sketch on paper for a painting he never executed. This drawing or ‘cartoon’ is now one of the most prized pieces of the National Gallery of London, but it seems to have been in the possession of Aurelio Luini, Bernardino Luini’s son in the beginning of the seventeenth century when cardinal Federico Borromeo bought Bernardino’s painting. So, Bernardino Luini probably had the cartoon of Leonardo and copied it I8 .

The scene has indeed all the intimate and affectionate delicacy we would expect of Leonardo da Vinci. The Virgin’s Child and the young John who would become the Baptist are gently playing together. John is somewhat older, standing on his own, but Jesus still needs to be cuddled by his mother. Jesus is a little turbulent, so Mary gently keeps him in her arms while he is turning his body, trying to escape and extend his small arms to John. The baby Jesus steals the show in the picture, which generates such feelings of sympathy that this picture has immediate success till today with any viewer.

Mary and Anne’s faces are very close, as a daughter and mother that are close should be. Anne points to the heavens to indicate the high destination of Jesus. This gesture remains natural. Because it is joined by a movement of Jesus that emphasises it and transforms it into a quite natural direction. This movement continues to the face of the father figure, here Saint Joseph, but the allusion to the heavenly father, God, is easily taken. This gesture is more often associated with John the Baptist than with Anne and Leonardo used it for John in some of his paintings.

All faces are happy and smiling so that with these kind of pictures Bernardino Luini can be mentioned together with Raphael and Giovanni Bellini as one of the greatest masters of kind, gentle pictures. This was probably the reason why the Milanese Cardinal Federico Borromeo bought the canvas. He admired Leonardo da Vinci and his tastes went out to the style of Bernardino Luini in Luini’s delicate representations of religious themes and his soft colours.

Anne is seen outright happy with the prospect of the high destination of Jesus and she is proud of what she thinks may be the future royal accomplishments of her grandson. But Mary remains more impassible. She does not seem so much to share Anne’s enthusiasm. Mary savours the mysterious fulfilment of motherhood. The prospects of her child are not so important for now, Mary’s attention is on the child’s well-being alone and she still wonders at the mystery of birth and at the treasure of the new life she has given. With this, Luini followed the traditional Hodegetria views of the Madonna.

The structure of the painting is strong and based on the diagonals of the frame. One diagonal is the line going through Jesus, his hand, Anne’s hand and Joseph’s face. The other diagonal contains the direction going from John over Jesus’s face to Mary. Finally, the traditional pyramid from can be discerned in the composition of Mary with the two children and even Anne, though Anne remains the odd figure somewhat apart.

Bernardino Luini was a follower of Leonardo da Vinci. He certainly made pictures in Leonardo’s soft colours as the great master himself would have used and Bernardino applied Leonardo’s sfumato way of making the hard lines and contrasting areas disappear and gently flow into each other. Luini however ennobled the faces of Mary and of Anne and he added Joseph. He altered in minor ways Leonardo’s original, but altogether in an even more successful manner.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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