If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Do you speak Renaissance? Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480, tempera and gold on wood, 37.8 x 25.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

(light jazzy music) - [Steven] We're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at this tiny, little painting, but there's such a level of detail here, you could be lost in this painting for hours. - [Lauren] We're looking at a painting of the Madonna and Child by the artist Carlo Crivelli from around the year 1480, and the painting has beautiful details, such a richness to the landscape that we're seeing, and to the fabrics that we see throughout this painting. - [Steven] We're seeing a really common theme. We're seeing The Virgin Mary holding the young Christ Child. He sits on a pillow, and is balanced on a ledge. And, this is a scene that we see over and over again, especially in Venice, and it's worth noting that Crivelli is Venetian, although he spent most of his career south of Venice in The Marches. - [Lauren] Mary and Jesus are set before a parapet that is draped with this beautiful piece of yellow silk. And then, behind The Virgin Mary, we see another piece of silk in a lavender color, and it's being held up by red laces, that then are winding around branches from which are growing apples, and a cucumber. - [Steven] Almost everything in this painting is symbolic. We're treated to this lavish, beautiful detailed scene, but it's a painting that actually offers much more to people who speak the language of art in the 15th Century. - [Lauren] The apples are symbols of the fall, for instance, or the sin of humankind if you think about Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden by the serpent with the Tree of Knowledge with the apple. - [Steven] Those red laces that hold up that beautiful pink, lavender Cloth of Honor almost looks serpentlike, as they reach over almost as if the ends of those laces are the heads of the serpent. - [Lauren] And then, another common symbol we see is the goldfinch, this little bird that the Baby Jesus is grasping to his chest, and the goldfinch is a symbol of redemption. - [Steven] And that plays in direct opposition to the apple. If Adam and Eve caused the fall of man, in this Christian iconography, Jesus is The Redeemer. - [Lauren] One of my favorite details in this painting is the fly on the lower-left, and it is actually another symbol of sin in this painting. The fly is actually painted in trompe l'oeil, or this trick of the eye, where it's proportionate to us, the viewers, and not proportionate to The Virgin Mary and Child. - [Steve] It's actually terrifyingly large in relationship to the Christ Child. In fact, it's as large as Jesus' feet! - [Lauren] It's supposed to look like the fly has just landed on the surface of the painting. But, it's another common symbol of sin in The Renaissance. By this point around 1480, you have the influence of northern, particularly Flemish painting, on parts of Italy, and we really get a sense of here in the background, in the landscape. - [Steven] The landscape, which we only see to the extreme left and right, just peeking out at the edges of the Cloth of Honor, goes into this beautiful, deep space, and we're given pathways for our eye to travel. And, in that landscape, we actually see figures. These are clearly not modern, Western European figures. - [Lauren] The figures that we see in the background are all wearing turbans. Now, at this point in The Renaissance, there is a trope of showing peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean wearing turbans because by 1480, the Holy Lands are controlled by Muslim powers. Using the turban was was a convention for locating people in the Holy Lands. It became a symbol of others, and so you not only see Muslims wearing turbans, but you also sometimes see Jews wearing turbans as well. - [Steven] Although this may not be historically accurate, it is still a way of locating The Virgin Mary in the Middle East. The artist uses another device to speak of antiquity, and we see that in the ledge that the Christ Child sits on. We can just make out that there some relief carving on our side of that ledge, and that's mimicking ancient Roman motifs. So, we have a geographic locating to the Middle East, and we have a temporal locating to the ancient world, although those symbols are separate. - [Lauren] And another way that Crivelli locates this scene in the Middle East is the mantle worn by Mary. She's wearing this very elaborate damask textile, and while it's not uncommon to see that, this type of textile, the motifs that we're seeing on it, speak to an aesthetic that you would find on Islamic textiles, even if by this point you have Italian textile makers replicating this type of pattern from the Eastern Mediterranean. - [Steven] This is such a complicated issue because we understand The Virgin Mary as having been very poor, but is shown here in the most elaborate garb, and that has to do, in part, with not only a way of symbolically representing The Virgin Mary's spiritual importance, but also because the east was associated with elaborate and very expensive textiles. - [Lauren] We see that accentuated even by the halos, which are both done in gold, and they're decorated with pearls and precious gems. - [Steven] And actually, those halos also remind me of northern painting, and the way that material wealth was used as a means of representing divinity. - [Lauren] One of the things that I'm always struck by when looking at this painting is the juxtaposition between the intense illusionism of things like the cucumber, and the apples, and even the textile that's hanging behind Mary, and their faces, or their bodies in general, where you have this flattening or this waxlike quality to the faces of both The Virgin Mary and Jesus. - [Steven] The hypernaturalism that we see in representation, for instance, of the cucumber, which is often used as a symbol of resurrection, has always seemed to me in the work of Crivelli as a means of representing the truth, the voracity of what we're seeing. But, there is a real distinction between forms like the cucumber, and the flesh of the primary figures, and I'm not sure that we fully understand what that contrast is meant to represent. But, perhaps it has to do with the apples and the cucumbers being of this Earth, and The Virgin Mary and The Christ Child as being spiritual figures. - [Lauren] This painting was likely used for private devotion. It's on a small scale, it could easily be held, or used on a private alter piece, say, in a elite home. And, this type of painting is really common in Crivelli's work overall. - [Steven] Look at the hands that Crivelli has painted. Look at the delicacy with which The Virgin Mary holds The Christ Child. Her fingers are holding him in place, but if you look at her right hand, there's a shadow between her hand and Jesus' hip. The turn from her thumb to her forefinger mimics a side and creates a volume, it creates this marvelous sense of space, but also of the preciousness of the child that she holds. - [Lauren] Crivelli has also signed this painting using a trompe l'oeil piece of paper at the bottom of the painting, and it says, "Opus Karoli Crivelli, Veneti", which is locating this is done by Carlo Crivelli from Venice. - [Steven] We can imagine somebody in a private home using this painting as a means of veneration. So, although the forms that we see here may be foreign to us, for the person who commissioned this in the 15th Century, each of these elements would have had meaning, and would've combined with this exemplary painting to produce a powerful, spiritual image. (light jazzy music)