In each rendition of virgin and child by Gentile da Fabriano (1420), Francesco Francia (1495), and Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (1510), mother and infant make unique physical contact with one another in ways that can articulate the relationship between them. By focusing on the posture of the infant and how the maternal figures make contact, primarily through their hands, I attempt to offer an interpretation of the "relatedness" between our protagonists.

In both the Francia and Cima works, we observe the child reaching out, his gaze away from the painting's viewers. In Gentile's painting the child is instead facing the viewer. His posture erect, with three limbs in contact with the virgin. The fourth is flexed and pronated so that the palm faces us. The first two digits remain straight whereas the thumb and remaining digits bend to form what appears to be the "pope's benediction." The suggestion of a slight forward lean is conveyed by the right leg and foot, which sink into a radiant orange-red cushion. The transmission of weight (and compression of the pillow) is accentuated, albeit subtly, with an obtuse, light colored V-shaped stroke.

The virgin's hand presses into the paunch of the infant, which may be seen as fastening him physically and also subduing his martyristic eagerness. For his preachings, the child will be crucified, yes, but it is as if mother negotiates with son, "it is too soon." To the forward posturing of the child, Gentile adds curiously adult features of face.1 Unlike the virgin's slender and pointed nose, the savior-child carries a nose that is wide, almost bulbous. The prominent nasolabial folds would suggest the plush cheeks of a newborn if the lips were upturned into even the slightest smile, but the mouth remains an almost straight line. The jutting chin, narrowed eyes, and darkened lower eyelids, almost giving the appearing of "bags," contrast with the delicate, almost effaced, jawline of the virgin—all of this conspiring in ways to disclose the precocity of the child and ultimate martyrdom of the King of Kings.

The worldly end of the adult Christ is furthermore suggested by the elongated, adult-like habitus of the child. The arms, especially, are not plump so much as they are segmented into shoulder, shaft, and forearm. Note too the concavity of the trapezius muscle—leading up to and forming a visible neck—and the length of the torso. Features of the adult rather than infantile body. Taken together, the painting leaves the impression that the child is first the world's savior and then his mother's son.2 In this regard, Gentile's work can be seen as mainly offering a narrative reading of Christ, tying the beginning of his life to its end.

In Francesco Francia's Virgin and Child (Gambaro Madonna) most immediately striking, perhaps, is the emerald interior of the virgin's cloak. The folds, bends, shadows, and reflections formed by the generous cloth contrast with the bare and unblemished cream-colored complexion of the figures. Unlike the Gentile child, Francia's averts his gaze, not addressing us but what appears to be a small, wood-colored ball (or perhaps it is an exposed breast or nipple?). The child steadies himself—though, perhaps, just barely—on the mother's smallest finger. As the child reaches out, the virgin's right hand makes only the lightest contact with the first three fingertips and thumb. Given the forward posturing of the child (and the peculiar length of the torso, too elongated to appear proportional, which adds to the "towering and tumbling ahead" of the infant), the mother's hold appears too listless, too catatonic, and incommensurate with the child's forward motion. This is the first of two "disharmonies" noted in the painting that suggest a kind of detachment, an emotional "unrelatedness" between the figures.

Whereas the first disharmony is one of explicit postural or "gestural" incongruity, the other is slightly more subtle and only reveals itself while considering perspective and the figures relation in space. Note the infant's feet. The left is placed above the mother's knee, but where does the right find ground? The deep shadowing and curvature of the ruby gown near the pelvis create the absence of mass, and yet the child's foot appears to press against something. This right leg also appears more foreshortened, suggesting that it faces the viewer, but the left leg ends in a foot which appears in the most proximal foreground. (It is the virgin's left knee that appears closest to viewers.)

The location of the right foot, just above the deeply shaded inner thigh, might have suggested recession but this foot is painted as large as the left. Neither does it exhibit the shading we might expect for a foot so recessed. Moreover, there is a kind of indiscriminate dark aura or shadowing that circumscribes the child around the lower torso and legs, making it difficult to exactly place him in space. Instead the child appears to hover above the right half of the virgin's body.

Taken together, these "incongruities" or disharmonies—one of gesture, the other of space—impart a "separateness" between mother and child that is literal in space but also emotional in content.

Like the Gambaro Madonna, in Cima's work we find the child gazing away from the viewer. Indeed, of the four figures only the virgin settles her eyes upon the viewer. If from the virgins of Gentile and Francia we receive more or less equanimous tilts of head, notice how the virgin of Cima tilts away from us, her eyes having to peer downward, her lips without a pleasant curve. The child, meanwhile, twists away from the virgin's breasts. Unlike Gentile's two figures (whose bodies lean toward us in unison, almost creating a duo of parallel lines) and Francia's figures (whose postures slightly bend toward each other), the figures here motion in opposing directions. But notice how the lean of the child and the retraction of the virgin create a vertex at which the child's left leg intersects with the mother's arm. The leg, the arm, and the virgin's cord thus form the borders of a distinct triangle that draws the eye toward the secure "pinching in" of that single leg. So secure is it that even as the infant contorts to grasp Saint Catherine's wheat, the virgin requires little more of her hands than a few delicate fingertips and an offering of her thumb as a balance point.3

Additionally, of the three works, the shadowing of Cima's painting is rendered most realistically, with the primary light source coming from above, behind, and to the left of the artist. The shadow of the child falls onto the mother's gown, with the head producing the largest area of shade, just over the underarm. The child's shadow narrows and darkens as it follows the contour of the left leg. The effect is precise and permits us to locate the child in realistic space4: the leg is closest to the mother's body whereas the head and shoulders lean away.

Moreover, compared to the Cima, the mother and child of the two other paintings appear relatively flat, almost layered. Despite this "conflation" of sorts—this coupling of figures or "planar proximity," we might call it—the effect it has upon the embrace between mother and child is quite the opposite. Instead of suggesting closeness and attachment, the planar figures appear "functionally" related, as in the Gentile, or "metaphorically" separate, as in the Francia, rather than emotionally bound. In the Cima, I tend to find the greatest sense of relatedness—and the strongest notion of whatever it is we know as maternal "care" and "protection". The head and chest of the child move out toward the wheat, the leg toward a recess not so far from the womb. Mother and infant as if still one flesh. Unlike the other paintings, the two figures here are not visually distinct bodies. The parts of one remain entwined with and obscured by parts of the other. In spite of the nimblest fingers, the absence of a clutch, it is Cima's virgin who delivers the most secure embrace.

  1. Though peculiar today, it should be noted that the "adult-like" rendering of children is common in medieval art. ↵ back to text
  2. We should note, too, the seeming absence of the virgin's lap. Is mother seated before us or standing with the infant martyr? The absence of a clearly visible throne suggests a more erect posture that parallels the "sacrifice" of the Christ-child even as the virgin's right hand presses back in a gestures of reluctance. ↵ back to text
  3. Compare this with the "not so secure" embrace offered by Francia's virgin. ↵ back to text
  4. Again, compare with the two other paintings which make distinct and dissimilar use of shadow. The Gentile painting employs relatively modest shadowing, where the figures appear more "layered" and flat. In the Francia painting, where we find the most shadowing (i.e., around the lower torso and limbs of the child) we also discover a kind of ambiguity in space which prevents a "perspectival coherence" more immediately available to viewers of the Cima work. ↵ back to text