Circle of Andrea del Verrocchio ca. 1435 - 1488
Madonna and Child, ca. 1470-80
Stucco or plaster
33 1/4 x 23 7/8 x 1 7/8-3 7/8 in. (84.4 x 60.5 x 5-10 cm)
R. T. Miller, Jr., Fund, 1944
Reliefs depicting the Madonna and Child were enormously popular during the Renaissance; they hung everywhere, from private homes to such public sites as street corner tabernacles and civic assembly rooms. Produced in late fifteenth-century Florence, the Oberlin relief represents one of the most successful compositions of this kind.
The Oberlin relief is one of six extant, nearly identical sculptures from Renaissance Florence--three (including the Oberlin piece) in plaster or stucco, one in unglazed terracotta, and two in glazed terracotta.1 It is generally believed that the composition for all six was originally designed by Andrea del Verrocchio; this idea finds support in its resemblance to a marble relief of the Madonna and Child, which was apparently carved in Verrocchio's workshop around 1480.2
While this is the most plausible hypothesis regarding the authorship of the composition, at present it cannot be either confirmed or disproved. This highly popular composition was imitated in Florence repeatedly over a long period beginning around 1470-80, and the six surviving versions were clearly not all produced by the same shop. Nor is it possible to say whether the Oberlin relief was made in Verrocchio's shop or by another artist working in imitation of the sculptor. Of the works now extant, the authorship of only the two glazed terracotta versions can be specified; both are by Benedetto Buglione.3 The date of the composition is also conjectural and cannot be established more precisely than around 1470-80.4
The Oberlin relief was produced in a mold taken from another sculpture, probably made in terracotta and now lost. Based on the similarity of their mold marks, it has been suggested that the two other stucco reliefs, that is, the "Diblee" and Scarperia versions, were produced in the same mold.5 However, the validity of this hypothesis cannot be tested on the basis of existing published photographs.
In Florence during the Renaissance it was a common practice to use molds for the production of relief sculptures in multiples. Such reliefs were pigmented and the Oberlin sculpture is no exception. Traces of paint show that the Madonna's cloak was once painted blue and her gown red. In addition, there are traces of red pigment on the background of the relief. Since backgrounds were never painted red, it is likely that these traces come from a preparatory ground that was once covered in azurite, as typically found in Renaissance frescoes.
Reliefs of the Madonna and Child were ubiquitous in medieval and Renaissance Italy. They were closely tied to the highly popular prayers and devotions that centered on the maternal love of Mary for the child Jesus. Examples of these include prayers by Giovanni Domenici, and the meditations on the infancy of Christ in Pseudo-Bonaventura's Life of Christ.6 These texts ask the reader to imagine in the most concrete fashion possible what it would be like to actually see Mary and the infant Christ and even to hold the baby Jesus in one's arms.7 Such devotions were widely practiced in Renaissance Florence, especially by women. It is interesting to note that of the more than a dozen incunabula of the Pseudo-Bonaventura surviving in Florentine libraries, all the original owners (insofar as they can be identified) were women. Unfortunately, however, we do not know the original owners of the Oberlin relief, or of any of the variants, nor their original locations.
Collection Piero Tozzi, Florence
With Parish-Watson Galleries, New York (1935-1944), from whom purchased in 1944
New York, A. S. Drey Galleries, 1935. Exhibition of Sculpture of the Italian Renaissance. 2 - 20 March. Cat. no. 17 (as "loaned by Parish-Watson & Co").
New York, Parish-Watson Galleries, 1935. November. No cat.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1938. Italian Sculpture 1250-1500. 7 January - 20 February. Cat. no. 55.
New York World's Fair, 1939. Masterpieces of Art. May - October. Cat. no. 432.
General Literature on the Image (before publication of the Oberlin relief):
Cook, Theodore A. The Signa Madonna: An Essay in Comparisons. London, 1919.
Cook, Theodore A. Leonardo da Vinci Sculptor. London, 1923.
Venturi, Adolfo. "Leonardiana." L'arte 25 (1922), pp. 131-32; and L'arte 27 (1924), pp. 52-54.
On the Oberlin relief:
Valentiner, W. R. "Leonardo as Verrocchio's Co-worker." The Art Bulletin 12 (1930), pp. 85, note 67, fig. 37.
Bourgeois, S. "Italian Renaissance Sculpture." Parnassus 7 (1935), pp. 7-8.
Valentiner, W. R. Italian Gothic and Early Renaissance Sculptures. Exh. cat., The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1938, cat. no. 55.
Ragghianti, Carlo. "La Mostra di scultura italiana antica a Detroit." Critica d'arte 16-17 (1938), p. 181.
McCall, G. H., and W. R. Valentiner. Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300-1800. Exh. cat., New York World's Fair, 1939, cat. no. 432.
Hamilton, Chloe. "Catalogue of R. T. Miller, Jr. Fund Acquisitions." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 16, no. 2 (Winter 1959), cat. no. 192; no. 3 (Spring 1959), ill. p. 200.
Bongiorno, Laurine Mack. "A Fifteenth-Century Stucco and the Style of Verrocchio." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 3 (Spring 1962), pp. 115-38.
Buck, Richard. "Report on Technical Examination." Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 3 (Spring 1962), pp. 138-41.
Seymour, Charles, Jr. Sculpture in Italy 1400-1500. Harmondsworth, 1966, pp. 178, 247.
Pope-Hennessy, John. "Three Marble Reliefs in the Gambier-Parry Collection." The Burlington Magazine 109 (1967), pp. 117-21.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 216-17, fig. 239.
Passavant, Gunter. Verrocchio. London, 1969, p. 206.
Seymour, Charles, Jr. The Sculpture of Verrocchio. Greenwich, Conn., 1971, pp. 119-20, 166-67.
Rees-Jones, Stephen G. "A Fifteenth-Century Florentine Terracotta Relief." Studies in Conservation 23 (1978), pp. 95-113.
Bellosi, Luciano. "Donatello's Early Works in Terracotta", in Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello. Exh cat., The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1985, fig. 70, pp. 206-7.
Kecks, Ronald G. Madonna und Kind: Das häusliche Andachtsbild im Florenz des 15. Jahrhunderts. Berlin, 1988, pp. 39, 107-8, 117, 145, ill. fig. 82a (as workshop, before 1470).
Butterfield, Andrew. The Sculptures of Andrea del Verrocchio. New Haven and London, 1997, pp. 91-92, fig. 112.
The sculpture was cast in a mold and the medium is either stucco or plaster.8 It has suffered a number of breaks: the right hand of the Child is missing most of the thumb and the first two fingers; some of the high points of the drapery over the proper left elbow of the Virgin have been broken, and the noses of both figures have a more granular appearance than the rest of the surface and seem to be old restorations. There are abrasions over the entire surface of the piece. The sculpture was originally extensively polychromed and traces of pigments remain, including blue paint in the recesses of the robe around the Virgin's proper left hand, traces of blue above the proper right shoulder of the Child, and traces of red on the proper right side of the halo above the head of the Child. The halos may originally have been gilded.
1. The other examples include: a stucco relief, 83.8 x 59.7 cm (formerly in the Diblee Collection, Oxford; sold at London [Christie's], 2 June 1964, lot 71); a stucco relief, approx. 85 x 60 cm (Scarperia, Palazzo Comunale); a glazed terracotta relief, dimensions unavailable (Florence, Museo di Santa Croce); a glazed terracotta relief, dimensions unavailable (Prato, Museo Civico); and a terracotta relief, 78 x 54.5 cm (Birmingham, England, City Museum and Art Gallery).
2. 86 x 66 cm, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
3. Giancarlo Gentilini, I Della Robbia (Florence, 1994), pp. 452-53.
4. Charles Seymour, Jr. (Sculpture in Italy 1400-1500 [Harmondsworth, 1966], pp. 178, 247; and idem, The Sculpture of Verrocchio [Greenwich, Conn., 1971], pp. 119-20, 166-67) has dated the relief to the 1460s; Laurine Mack Bongiorno ("A Fifteenth-Century Stucco and the Style of Verrocchio," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 3 [Spring 1962], p. 138) has dated it in the 1480s; Dorio Covi (in Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello [exh. cat., The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1985], p. 207), has assigned it to the 1460s.
5. Laurine Mack Bongiorno, "A Fifteenth-Century Stucco and the Style of Verrocchio," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 3 (Spring 1962), p. 118.
6. St. Bonaventure, Meditations on the Life of Christ, ed. I. Ragusu (Princeton, 1961).
7. The Oberlin Madonna's gesture of wrapping the naked baby in her mantle was a symbol of the Incarnation and is common in images of the infancy of Christ, as Caroline Walke Bynum discusses in "The Body of Christ in the Later Middle Ages," in idem, Fragmentation and Redemption (New York, 1994), pp. 79-117, esp. 101.
8. This sculpture has traditionally been called a stucco. However, in 1962 Richard S. Buck ("Report on Technical Examination," Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin 19, no. 3 [Spring 1962], pp. 138-39) wrote: "samples of the material taken from the front and back and from the walls of the holes noted above are similar. All may be described briefly as a gypsum plaster (plaster of Paris) with crystalline inclusion of calcium carbonate." Further sampling and analysis is required to identify the material.