Sandro Botticelli, ‘The Madonna and Child with a pomegranate’, Christie's Old Masters

The Madonna and child with a pomegranate is an important rediscovery and a significant addition to Botticelli's corpus. It is an early work, perhaps painted while Sandro was in the workshop of Filippo Lippi, to whom this painting was formerly attributed. The Madonna and child with a pomegranate presents an intriguing view into Botticelli's early career and working practice. It was clearly prized by the artist, who preserved its cartoon for re-use in at least two other pictures (see below).

The first recorded owner of this little-known work, Baron Carmichael of Skirling, was a politician and colonial administrator. Born in Edinburgh and educated at St. John's College, Cambridge, he served successive Secretaries for Scotland before becoming the Liberal M.P. for Midlothian, succeeding W.E. Gladstone, who had resigned as Prime Minister the year before. According to the memoir of Lord Carmichael's wife, née The Hon. Mary Helen Elizabeth Nugent (Lord Carmichael of Skirling, London, n.d. [1929], passim), he had formed his considerable art collection with the help of the international firm of Duveen Brothers, as well as that of Stefano Bardini, the leading art dealer in Italy at the time.

In Lord Carmichael's time the painting was regarded as a work by Fra Filippo Lippi (circa 1406-1469). It was first associated with Botticelli by Herbert Horne (op. cit.), the author of the best monograph ever published on Botticelli, who believed it was made in Botticelli's workshop. Andrew Blume, in his essay on Dante and the San Barnaba altarpiece (op. cit.), called it a Botticelli school picture. Horne proposed it was painted by an assistant of Botticelli's -- some painter who was Botticelli's disciple at that time --and that it dated from shortly after the San Barnaba altarpiece, which is to say in the early 1480s, soon after Botticelli executed murals in the Sistine Chapel. Horne wrote that it was reminiscent of the central group in the altar-piece formerly in S. Barnaba. But the figures in the altarpiece are couched in Botticelli's robust, mature style, which emphasizes their three-dimensional character. All they have in common is the same subject: the Madonna Eleusa, also known as the Glykophilousa iconographic type. A motif frequently repeated in Byzantine icons and in Italian art from the 14th to the 18th century, it depicts the Virgin steadying the Christ child who stands in her lap and nestles his head affectionately against her cheek.

In style the Carmichael painting is earlier than the San Barnaba altarpiece, earlier by as much as a decade. Vasari's statement that the young Botticelli was trained by Fra Filippo Lippi is born out by pictures such as the Madonna with Two Angels in the Kress Collection of the National Gallery of Art, which are based on his work. Lippi's influence, however, soon gave way to the impact of Verrocchio's eloquent manner, seen in Botticelli's first documented commission, the figure of Temperance, painted in 1470 to complete the allegorical figures created by the Pollaiuolo brothers for the Tribunale della Mercanzia. The present author has suggested (verbally, 2012) that the Carmichael Madonna might predate these phases of Botticelli's early development. It exhibits the loose, blousy handling of Botticelli's Corsini Madonna in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, a very early painting by Botticelli sometimes ascribed to the young Filippino Lippi when he worked in Botticelli's studio (Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century, edited by Miklós Boskovits and David Alan Brown, Washington, 2003, pp. 152-156).

At least two other versions of the composition exist: one in the Louvre (R.F. 1961-9; see Dominique Thiébaut in J. Habert, S. Loire, C. Scailliérez and D. Thiébaut, musée du Louvre, Département des peintures. Catalogue des peintures italiennes du Musée du Louvre, Catalogue sommaire, Paris, 2007, p. 22, as 'Botticelli [atelier de]' and a painting that the present author has suggested might be a work of Botticelli's youth) and a homeless picture with Colnaghi's in 1925. The version in the Louvre is almost exactly the same size and almost certainly was based on the same cartoon. To judge from photographs, the Louvre version is more elaborate than the Carmichael Madonna, with garlands of golden leaves hanging down on either side of the richly carved stone of the niche-like throne.

Blume says the Carmichael Madonna is one of three known instances of 15th-century paintings with the same quotation from Dante inscribed on them, the other two being Botticelli's San Barnaba altarpiece -- the inscription appears on a riser of the steps beneath the Virgin's throne -- and a painting attributed to the Master of San Miniato (a.k.a., Lorenzo di Giovanni) in the Pinacoteca at Livorno. The words, from the first line of the last canto of the Paradiso (XXXIII, 1), are the beginning of a long prayer addressed to the Virgin by Saint Bernard, the patron saint of the church for which Botticelli painted the altarpiece.

Everett Fahy

We are also grateful to Professor Laurence Kanter for confirming the attribution to Botticelli based on firsthand inspection.

Signature: Inscribed 'VERGINE MADRE FIGLIA DEL TUO FIGLIO VMILE [ED] ALTA PIV CHE CRIAT..[URA]' (lower center, on the base of the throne).

H.P. Horne, Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, London, 1908, p. 118, as Botticelli's school, 'freely imitated' from the San Barnaba altarpiece.

Y. Yashiro, Sandro Botticelli, London and Boston, 1925, I, p. 235, as a contemporary version after the San Barnaba altarpiece.

R. Lightbown, Sandro Botticelli, London, 1978, II, p. 123, under no. C15, as Botticelli's workshop.

H.P. Horne, 'Catalogue of the Works of Sandro Botticelli, and of His Disciples and the Public and Private Collections of Europe and America', in Alessandro Filipepi, Commonly Called Sandro Botticelli, Painter of Florence, Appendix III, Florence, 1987, pp. 58-59, as by an assistant of Botticelli and datable to after the San Barnaba altarpiece.

A.C. Blume, 'A Close Reading of Dante and Botticelli's San Barnaba Altarpiece,' Arte Cristiana, LXXXVII, no. 792, May-June 1999, p. 204, 208, note 20, as Botticelli's school.

Sir Thomas David Gibson-Carmichael, 11th Baronet (1859-1926), created, in 1912, 1st Baron Carmichael of Skirling, Castle Craig, N.B.; Christie's, London, 12-13 May 1902, lot 262, as 'Filippo Lippi' (50 gns. to Fitzhenry).

J.H. Fitzhenry, London; (†+), Christie's, London, 21 November 1913, lot 49, as 'Filippo Lippi' (215 gns. to Wallis).

with Wallis & Sons, London.

Baron von B., The Hague; sale, Frederick Muller & Cie, Amsterdam, 30 November 1926, lot 1.

About 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, based in Florence, Italy