The Virgin and Child with infant Saint John the Baptist sleeping

Although this panel has long been considered a refined late work of Lucas Cranach the Elder (see Friedländer and Rosenberg, op. cit.), Werner Schade and Dieter Kopplin have recently, on the basis of photographs, recognized the hand of the artist's son in the distinctive treatment of key elements, such as the bold silhouettes and masterful rendering of Christ's face (private communication, 2012). As such, this tender depiction of the Virgin and Christ child with the sleeping infant Saint John the Baptist can now be recognized as one of Lucas Cranach the Younger's most powerful private devotional panels. It is simultaneously a poignant celebration of familial love between a mother, her son and young cousin, and a dramatic image designed to stimulate religious devotion in the viewer through the contemplation of the mystery of the Eucharist. The compositional arrangement owes much to the High Renaissance innovations of Raphael and other masters from the Italian peninsula, particularly the triangular structuring of the group, and the manner in which the Christ child is shown standing in his mother's embrace, rather than recumbent in her lap or on a cushion, as he appears in Cranach the Elder's earlier, well-known treatment of this theme, the so-called Madonna under the firs, of circa 1510 (Muzeum Archidiecezjalne Wroclaw, no. FR029).

Set against a dark background free from distracting landscape elements, the three figures in the present painting are set close to the picture plane, fostering a more direct engagement with the viewer. This pictorial immediacy is underscored by the illusionistic treatment of the grapes that the Christ child offers with his left hand. With a deliberate control beyond the capability of a mere infant, Jesus has plucked a single grape from the bunch and brought it to his lips. As he begins to consume the fruit, he directs a wise yet imploring gaze toward the viewer, calling to mind Christ's words 'this is my blood', which he spoke at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:28). The allusion to the Eucharist is underscored by the second equilateral triangle of the composition, evoking the Holy Trinity through the shape formed by the grapes, Christ's right elbow, and the top of his head. Christ thus instructs the viewer that the path to heaven lies through faith and the celebration of this sacrament: two fundamental issues of Church doctrine that were fiercely debated in Reformation Europe.

At the same time, this image is made more meaningful through overtones of tender compassion. The monumental figure of the Virgin Mary - whose long, flowing hair, full face, and delicately-shaped lips conform to the Germanic ideal of beauty of the time -- envelops the Christ child in a protective embrace. She supports his body with her left hand, her fingers pressing into his flesh, thereby drawing attention to his corporeality, that is, his human nature. Their familial connection is emphasized by the Holy Mother's transparent veil, which sweeps across the composition with its subtle whispers of white highlights, linking all three figures. Presented in her role as intercessor -- or Mediatrix -- Mary tilts her head to her right, resting her cheek on Jesus's head while meeting the viewer's gaze. The Virgin's serene, beatific expression offers reassurance that the observer will be similarly protected by her compassionate intervention. In perhaps the composition's most compelling passage, Mary embraces the slumbering infant Saint John the Baptist, resting her hand on his back. No direct biblical source is to be found for this imagery. In fact, it is likely that the conceit comes from Cranach's own observation: children often fall asleep, and in this vulnerable state, require a guardian's protection.

As the serpent device with folded wings suggests, this painting was created after 1537, at a time when Lucas Cranach the Younger was dramatically affected by the death of his elder brother Hans. Two years earlier, around 1535, their father appears to have given control of his workshop to his firstborn son. Yet this leading role was to be short-lived, as Hans soon departed for Italy and died unexpectedly while studying in Bologna. It was in these tragic circumstances that Lucas Cranach the Younger seems to have assumed control of the workshop. Bearing in mind that this work was painted just after this transformative event in his life, the moving vignette of the sleeping child becomes all the more meaningful.

The success of this composition is evinced by several extant variations, all of which appear to have been painted after 1537 (Friedländer and Rosenthal, nos. 387-389). Yet of this group, the present painting is distinguished by its exceptional quality and warmth of feeling.

Signature: Signed with the artist's device of a serpent with wings folded (center left).

M. J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach, Berlin, 1932, no. 311, as Lucas Cranach I.

M. J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, Ithaca, 1978, no. 386, pp. 146-147, as Lucas Cranach I.

PROPERTY FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE COLLECTION

Art market, Paris, 1926.

Nikodem Caro (1871-1935), Berlin in 1932 and by descent to the present owner.

About Lucas Cranach the Younger