'The Rockefeller Madonna': Madonna and Child with Young Saint John the Baptist

This charming picture shows the Virgin and Child seated outdoors on a parapet decorated with a gilded relief. Facing to the left, the Virgin holds the nude Christ child who bends forward toward his cousin, the young Saint John the Baptist. The latter -- the patron saint of the city of Florence -- kneels on bended knee and clasps his hands in adoration; his mantle is the same reddish purple as the Virgin's dress and his belt echoes the color of her blue cloak. Beyond the parapet is a sunny landscape with jagged rocks in the middle ground and a winding river in the distance. The dimensions of the panel suggest that it was intended for private devotional use. The depiction of maternal and filial love made it eminently suitable for the domestic market.

Some early writers such as Herbert Horne (1908), Wilhelm von Bode (1921), Adolfo Venturi (1925), and Jacques Mesnil (1938) believed the painting involved some studio participation. More recently Miklós Boskovits (2004) was uncertain of the picture's status, but the attribution is generally accepted by other scholars including Herman Ulmann (1893), Yukio Yashiro (1925), Raimond van Marle (1931), Bernard Berenson (1932), and Carlo Gamba (1936). After some initial doubts, Richard Lightbown (1989) confirmed the attribution in the second edition of his monograph, and in the new catalogue of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, the present author (2005) concluded that it is a late autograph work. Keith Christiansen (verbally, 2009) and Laurence Kanter (verbally, 2009) agree.

For the dating there is a consensus favoring the early 1490s. The Virgin is comparable to the Virgin in the Cestello Annunciation (c. 1489-1491) in the Uffizi. Her drapery has a fluidity unlike the dry rigidity found in later works such as the Mystic Nativity (dated 1500/1501) in the National Gallery, London. Drawing attention to the relief panel, Kanter dates the painting to about 1493. Christiansen, who notes that the stylized rocky landscape is typical of Botticelli and not his studio, dates it a few years later. The diaphanous veil that holds back the Virgin's blonde tresses is a particularly Botticellian detail that accentuates the sinuous grace of the picture. The closest analogy for the figure type occurs in Botticelli's exquisite tondo in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan, the so-called Madonna del Padiglione, which most scholars date 1493 (fig. 1).

With regard to the relief, Lightbown (1989) wrote, This is one of the few direct quotations from the antique in Botticelli's work, and its vigorous rendering of the densely moving forms shows that Botticelli was as sensitive as any of his contemporaries to the character and style of classical sculpture. The nude horsemen and other details in the relief are picked out with gold highlights, a technique he first used in his monumental murals in the Sistine Chapel, especially for the reliefs on the large triumphal arch in the Punishment of the Rebels (1481-1482). The artist used the same gold for the striated haloes, the folds of the Baptist's mantle, and the pattern on the Virgin's mantle (a motif associated with the picture's first owner?). The relief has been seen as a symbol of the world ante and extra Revelationem (Cornini, 2004). Such an erudite interpretation may be valid; but the relief may simply reflect late 15th-century interest in antiquity, represented at exactly the same time by the Battle of the Centaurs, carved by the sixteen-year-old Michelangelo during the brief period from around 1491 to 1492 which he spent with Lorenzo the Magnificent.

Everett Fahy

Edinburgh, Scottish Royal Academy, Loan Exhibition of Works by Old Masters and Scottish National Portraits, 1881, no. 511, as Botticelli.
London, Royal Academy, Exhibitions of Works by The Old Masters, 1894, no. 169, as Botticelli.
London, Royal Academy, Winter Exhibition, 1912, no. 40, as Botticelli.
Mexico City, Connoisseur Art Gallery, A Botticelli Masterpiece, May 1994, as Botticelli.
Santiago, Chile, Museo de Bellas Artes, Sandro Botticelli, May 1995, as Botticelli.
Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, Botticelli. De Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole, 1 October 2003-22 February 2004, pp. 130-133, no. 13, as Botticelli.
Florence, Palazzo Strozzi, Botticelli and Filippino, Passion and Grace in Fifteenth-Century Florentine Painting, 11 March-11 July 2004, pp. 206-209, no. 30, as Botticelli.

H. Ulmann, Sandro Botticelli, Munich, 1893, p. 127, as Botticelli.

H.P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi commonly called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, London, 1908 (reprinted and Italian translation with addenda edited by C. Caneva and G. Giusti) in H.P. Horne, Botticelli, Florence, 1986, p. 265, as Botticelli and workshop.

W. von Bode, Sandro Botticelli, Berlin, 1921, p. 135 (English translation, London, 1926), as Botticelli and workshop.

A. Venturi, Botticelli, Rome, 1925, p. 118, as Botticelli's workshop.

W. von Bode, Botticelli: des Meisters Werke in 155 Abbildungen, Klassiker der Kunst, Berlin-Leipzig, 1926, p. 124, repeats 1908 attribution.

Y. Yashiro, Sandro Botticelli and the Florentine Renaissance, revised ed., London, 1929, p. 224, as Botticelli.

R. van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, XII, The Hague, 1931, pp. 170-171, 222, as Botticelli.

B. Berenson, The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, London, 1932, p. 105, as Botticelli.

C. Gamba, Botticelli, Milan, 1936, p. 168, as Botticelli.

J. Mesnil, Botticelli, Paris, 1938, p. 225, as Botticelli and workshop.

R. Salvini, Tutta la pittura del Botticelli, 1485-1510, Milan, 1958, II, p. 75, as Botticelli and workshop.

B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School, 1963, I, p. 37, as Botticelli.

G. Mandel, L'opera completa di Botticelli, 1967, p. 103, no. 116, as Botticelli.

R. Olson, Studies in the Later Works of Sandro Botticelli, Ph.D dissertation, Princeton University, 1975, I, pp. 210-211; II, fig. 200, as Botticelli's school.

R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli, Berkeley, 1978, I, p. 155; II, pp. 84-85, no. B76, as Botticelli.

R. de Angelis, Todas las Pinturas de Botticelli, 1980, p. 72, fig. 127A, as Botticelli.

R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: life and work (English edition), Milan, 1989, pp. 223-224, pl. 90, as Botticelli.

R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: life and work (Italian edition), New York, 1989, pp. 223-224, pl. 90, as Botticelli.

R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli: life and work (French edition), Paris, 1990, I, pp. 223-24; II, pp. 90, 381-382, no. B76, as Botticelli.

B. Deimling, Sandro Botticelli 1444/45-1510, Cologne, 1994, p. 67, as Botticelli.

'Botticelli L'hymne à la Grace', Paris Match, official guide to the exhibition Botticelli. De Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole, Paris, September 2003, pp. 6-7, as Botticelli.

'Botticelli L'hymne à la Grace', Paris Match, September 2003, no. 2834, pp. 64-65, as Botticelli.

A. Yacob, 'La Vierge et L'Enfant adores par saint Jean', L'Oeil - hors-série, Botticelli. De Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole, April/June 2003, Paris, p. 40, as Botticelli.

I. Schmitz, 'Botticelli. De Florence à Paris. L'Automne du Quattrocento', Le Figaro, L'Oeil - hors série, Botticelli. De Laurent le Magnifique à Savonarole, 2003, p. 108, as Botticelli.

M. Lacas, 'Visions Sacrées, reves poétiques. Madone au pavillon', Connaissance des Arts, Paris, 2003, p. 58, as Botticelli.

'L'exposition à la lupe, étude de quelques tableaux: La Vierge et L'Enfant adores par saint Jean', Le Spectacle du Monde, from the Botticelli series, no. 14, Paris, 2003, pp. 50-51, as Botticelli.

C. Castandet, 'De Madone en Madone, les visages s'intensifient', Beaux Arts collection, hors-série Botticelli, Paris, p. 36, as Botticelli.

A. Elorza, 'Botticelli: armonía y turbación', El Pais, Madrid, 15 November 2003, p. 20, as Botticelli.

G. Cornini, 'Sandro Botticelli' in Botticelli e Filippino. L'inquietudine e la grazia nella pittura fiorentina del Quattrocento, eds. D. Arasse, P. De Vecchi, and J.K. Nelson, exhibition catalogue, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 11 March-11 July 2004, pp. 206-209, no. 30, as Botticelli.

M. Boskovits, 'Una mostra su Botticelli e Filippino' in Arte Cristiana, XCII, no. 825, November-December 2004, pp. 418-419.

I, p. 74, as Botticelli.

E. Fahy, 'Botticelli' in Pinacoteca Ambrosiana. Dipinti dal Medioevo alla metà del Cinquecento, Milan, 2005, I, p. 74, as Botticelli.

H. Körner, Botticelli, Köln, 2006, p. 160, fig. 205, p. 305, illustrated as Botticelli.


Charles Graham Somerwell, Baberton House, Juniper Green; Christie's, London, 23 April 1887, lot 149 (480 gns. to Noseda).

John Postle Heseltine, London.

with Lord Duveen, New York, 1925.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874-1960), by 1931, and by descent to

Winthrop Paul Rockefeller (1912-1973), Morrilton, Arkansas; Sotheby's, New York, 8 January 1981, lot 101.

Gerald P. Gutterman, Bedford, New York.

Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, New York, 15 January 1987, lot 11.

Ishizuka Collection, Tokyo, 1987.

Anonymous sale; Christie's, New York, 21 May 1992, lot 38, where acquired by the present owner.

Private collection, New York.

About Alessandro Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli

Born Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Sandro Botticelli (“botticello” meaning “little barrel”) created some of the most celebrated paintings of the early Italian Renaissance, including the Primavera (ca. 1478), Venus and Mars (1485) and The Birth of Venus (ca. 1486). Under the patronage of the Medici, the most powerful family in Florence, he became renowned for his graceful portraits of Florentine aristocracy and ecclesiastical and mythical figures dressed in filmy drapery, which seem to float weightlessly against their backgrounds. Diverging from many of his contemporaries’ interest in naturalistic depictions and anatomy, Botticelli often rendered his subjects with elongated limbs and hands delineated through subtle use of contour, thereby inventing a style that foregrounded Mannerism and influenced generations of artists from the Pre-Raphaelites to contemporary artists like John Currin.

Italian, 1444-1510, Florence, Italy

Group Shows on Artsy

Botticelli Reimagined, Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London
The Botticelli Renaissance, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Berlin
Renaissance, Christie's Old Masters, New York