MARY A MASTERPIECE – ‘Madonna and Child’ by Filippo Lippi, Uffizi Gallery; c 1450 – 1465

‘Mary, full of grace; first conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb’ – St. Augustine

We are in the Uffizi Gallery of Art History collections. Having traversed through the medieval depictions of the Madonna and the Child, we now stop to gaze at the 15th-century masterpieces. Undoubtedly the finest among these is the ‘Madonna and Child’ by the Italian Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi. Considered one of the most lyrical expressions of Lippi’s art, the painting is commonly called ‘The Uffizi Madonna’.

The artist, Filippo Lippi, was born in 1406 in Florence in a poor family. At a tender age, he was sent to the Carmelite friary. However temperamentally he was not suited to be a friar. He is said to have led a colorful life full of lawsuits and scandals. Chaffing against his presumed vocation, in 1456 Lippi abducted a nun, Lucrezia Buti, and married her later. Despite his antics, he won the favor of the Medici’s who patronized his brilliance at work. His terrible vices were often overshadowed by the virtues of his paintings.

The painting into consideration, titled ‘The Madonna and Child’ spells love at every sight. The Blessed Virgin is seated on a throne, of which only the soft embroidered cushion and the carved arm is visible. She gently gazes downwards, her hands clasped in prayer. Her humble appearance emphasizes her humanity as the young girl of Nazareth chosen to be the Mother of God.

However, Lippi presents the Blessed Mother not as a Jew but unequivocally as a late 15th century Florentine. The Virgin is dressed is an elegant coiffure with a delicate veil and pearls. Further, as esteemed in the Renaissance ideals, the Madonna’s hair is pulled backward to reveal the broad forehead to highlight special beauty and serenity. Note that the delicate swirls of the transparent fabric and the barely hinted halo serve to herald the naturalism of the High Renaissance period.

Notice the chubby Christ Child covered in swaddling. He looks at His mother and lifts His little arms out to her. Doesn’t this depiction bring to mind every new-born craving to simply cling to their mother and peacefully rest in her arms? Lippi courageously dares to make no exception here.

Christ Child is lifted on the shoulders of the two angels. Fascinating is the figure of the angel in the foreground. He looks at us with a roguish smile, far from seraphic perfection. He appears as a playful Florentine kid who has forgotten his pose. On the other hand, the second angel can hardly be seen. We can only notice the lower half of his face peeking out below Christ’s arm. Lippi is unapologetically twisting the long-established nuances of medieval art here.

Indeed significant is the perspective of the painting. The Madonna sits beside a window that opens out to a vast landscape of mountains, plains, cities, and a bay. Notice that the frame of the window coincides with the frame of the painting itself. Thus the window places the figures into the foreground enhancing the intimacy of our experience.

As we admire the timeless grace of the Blessed Virgin, we are led to contemplate upon her virtues. Although Mother of the Most High, the Madonna simply leans forward, her hands humbly clasped in prayer. The artist presents Mary as ‘the handmaid of the Lord’ who willed the will of God and kept it her heart. She is His perfect disciple. As St Augustine declared ‘Mary, full of grace; first conceived Jesus in her heart before she conceived Him in her womb’. Not only did she share a natural motherly relation with Christ but also a deep spiritual union with Him. Mother Mary invites us to partake in this union with her Son.

© – Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

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