During the Middle Ages, religious art was very different from the art that started emerging in the Renaissance. Medieval art was all about portraying God, Heaven, and other holy deity’s in a way that set them apart from the mortal world. This was achieved through the use of many different techniques, which include a hieratic scale to show importance according to scale, as well as halos, which set these figures apart as divine, from the mortal world. These paintings were also always set against flat gold backgrounds, which represented heaven. Fra Fillippo’s Madonna and Child is a painting from the early Renaissance that differs so much from the art of the middle ages because it is painted in a humanistic perspective in which we can finally relate to the subject matter as human beings rather than feeling a complete disconnection to the holy figures represented in these paintings.
In Fillippo’s Madonna and Child, our eye is immediately drawn to the center of the picture where we see the Virgin Mary with the baby Christ being held back in her hands. Upon inspection of the painting, it is quite clear how this painting differs from the paintings in the middle ages. There is no gold background to symbolize heaven as was customary in medieval paintings. Instead, the Virgin Mary is in her own little niche, which one can presume to be on earth, and she holds the baby Christ with one hand. The baby Christ appears to be sitting on a pillow that rests on what appears to be framing the room that they are in. The Virgin wears the traditional robes she is normally depicted in. She wears a red dress underneath, with a blue robe over the top that is trimmed with gold fabric. On her head, she is wearing a beautiful headdress, which drops down on either side of her face and really does a well job of framing it. There is the most faint hint of a halo that wraps around both Mary and Christ’s heads, and this is significant because it shows a point in painting, when holy figures are being pulled further and further away from heaven, and being brought down to earth, therefore making them more humanized. There is a great use of modeling with light and shadow that makes the picture look so three dimensional and real as opposed to the flat and cartoonlike paintings of the Middle Ages, which make both Mary and the Christ baby look so much more like real humans that humans on earth can actually relate to.
One of the first things noticeable about the Virgin Mary is the expression on her face, which comes across incredibly melancholic. There is something all knowing in her facial features, but not in a good all knowing way. It’s as if the viewer is looking at her, and she is looking at the them, and both of them knows what is going to happen, and so there is a real sense of pain in her eyes as a mother who knows what is going to happen to her only son. She looks so flushed that even her cheeks are a rosy tint, and her eyes seem to look as if they are glistening like the kind of glistening you eyes do when you are about to cry.
Looking down, you see the baby Christ sitting in front of her with his legs sprawled out to the left. He is not sitting on Mary’s lap; instead, he sits on a pillow of some sort. There is a feeling of how much she wants to protect him by the way she holds him back with her left hand almost as if saying, “no, not my son”. The fact that he is even sitting on pillow further supports the notion of her wanted to keep him safe. She won’t even risk letting him sit on a rough or a hard surface. The baby Christ is looking downward and something about his face as well, looks somber. In other words, there is no one depicted in this painting or looking at this painting that doesn’t know what lies ahead. In this painting, Christ is depicted more like an actual baby than the baby Christ’s depicted in medieval paintings. He is plump and chubby and this makes him somewhat charming in a sense, which just adds to the thoughts of “oh, something so terrible happens to that adorable creature”. Because of this, we relate to the subject on a personal, human level. There is something incredible relatable about the burden depicted in this painting. The Virgins burden as a mother who, like all mothers, faces the pain of loosing her only child, and the burden of the baby Christ who knows he will grow to suffer greatly in order to save humankind.
Fillippo’s Madonna and Child exemplifies perfectly the departure from the style of medieval religious paintings. The humanist approach taken in this painting is so indicative of 15th century Renaissance painting and it’s ability to make holy figures so humanized. Madonna and Child does a great job of taking the Virgin Mary and Christ, and pulling them right down to Earth so that we as humans have the ability to relate to them in an intimate and personal way. This ability to make us feel so connected to a painting on a personal level is brought about through Humanism and its emergence in paintings during the Renaissance.
List of Resources
Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, “Fra Filippo Lippi’s Madonna and Child,” Smarthistory Web Book, Khan Academy
Melissa Hall, “The Renaissance in Italy,” Art 109 Renaissance to Modern, Westchester Community College
“Humanism in the Renaissance,” The Renaissance Connection, Allentown Art Museum
Dr. Nancy Ross, “The Image in Early Medieval Art,” Smarthistory Web Book, Khan Academy