Icon: Virgin and Child with Apple C-2
- Veneto-Cretan, early 16th century
- Tempera on panel, 41.4 x 33.3 cm
- Provenance: Private Collection, Italy
- ALR Ref. No: S00141146
The Madonna, depicted half-length against a gold-ground, enchants the viewer with her direct gaze. The pose of Mary holding the Christ Child resembles the traditional Madre della Consolazione type in which the Virgin carries her Child on her right arm. However, this traditional composition differs from our panel in which the Virgin presents a piece of fruit in her hand, while Christ is seated on the right side of her lap.(1) The painter stressed the human character of Christ who lovingly stares at his mother, while carefully placing his hand on the apple. Mary holds the fruit upside down between her thumb and index finger. She covers her son’s shoulders with part of her purple mantle (maphorion), thereby enhancing the intimate relationship between mother and child.(2)
Many pictorial elements point towards Western influences. Firstly, the soft modelling of the figures’ carnation greatly differs from the traditional icon technique in which faces are modelled with highlights. The naturalistic rendering of the heavy drapery and lightly creased diaphanous veil show strong Western influences as well.(3) Furthermore, the different elaborate golden motifs embellishing the Madonna’s maphorion, her blue tunic and the Christ Child’s vermilion coloured robe, also occurred in Byzantine tradition, but much more modest with three stars embroidered on the Virgin’s mantle symbolizing her chastity.(4) All garments depicted are lined with pseudo-Kufic inscriptions in gold, matching the rest of the embroidery. Byzantine representations of the Mother of God with Child usually show the Virgin and Christ carrying no other attributes except for a scroll. In Western art, the scroll transformed into a (closed) book. Since Christ in this Virgin and Child with Apple carries a scroll, the painter was familiar with orthodox icon painting.
The apple in our panel probably evolved from the imperial orb. Christ carrying the orb appears often in icons of the Madonna della Consolazione.(5) However, the orb is unknown in orthodox icon tradition.(6) In Early Christian Western art, either the Christ Child or the Mother of God sometimes appear with an imperial orb in their hand as a sign of dominion.(7) On our panel, the apple seems interchanged with the orb, though they convey different meanings.(8) The apple could refer to the carnation of God as the fruit coming from the loins of the Virgin.(9) The fruit held by the Madonna can also be interpreted as a juxtaposed allusion to the Fall of Man and Redemption.(10) The former commenced when Eve handed the apple from the Tree of Knowledge to Adam that led to their Expulsion from Paradise. Mary giving the fruit to Christ can thereby be paralleled to Eve giving the apple to Adam.(11) The Birth of Christ made amends for Original Sin and therefore Christ can be interpreted as the New Adam: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (I Cor., 15:22).(12) Even though the Bible does not identify the type of fruit, the Latin word for evil resembles the Latin word for apple: malum.(13)
Artists from Northern Italy and the Veneto like Giovanni Bellini, Carlo Crivelli and Bramantino executed comparable Madonna scenes from circa 1500 in which the Virgin, depicted half-length, carries an apple or a book while the Christ Child tries to grab the fruit or clenches on to it.(14) A much earlier fourteenth century panel from the same region by Lorenzo Veneziano shows a Madonna and Child very similar to our panel. Lorenzo’s crowned Virgin holds an apple with her left hand while the Christ Child, resting on her right arm gently places his hand on the piece of fruit.(15) Not only the composition of the Madonna and Child reminds us of our Amsterdam panel: the intimate relationship between the two figures, enhanced by Mary’s caressing gaze at her child, also resembles the personal touch of our Virgin and Child. In conclusion we can say that our rather unique Veneto-Cretan version of the Virgin and Child with Apple comes close to the iconography of the popular type of the Madre della Consolazione. The addition of the apple is a clear Italian, or more specifically Venetian, element that points towards a western-oriented viewer.
Lara Fernández Piqueras