The Bridwell Madonna

The Bridwell Madonna
Madonna and Child with John the Baptist
Artist unknown
Oil on wood panel

The artist of this three-quarter-length portrayal of Mary, mother of Jesus, drapes her in typical wardrobe—rose tunic and dark blue mantle. She pulls the mantel, held in place by a padded roundlet, perhaps intending to protect the bare infant in it as she restrains him. With little regard he reaches out, his cousin John displaying a small reed cross and a green ribbon which reads Ecce Agnus Dei, or “Behold the Lamb of God.” John’s unsettled expression as he points the way contrasts with the eagerness of Jesus. The camel’s hair loincloth, an attribute of John’s emergence as an ascetic in the wilderness and fulfillment of Elijah, is just visible beneath his crimson shirt.

Typically derivative as paintings created for parishes and residences in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European workshops might be, the Bridwell panel is indebted to works by the Florentine artist Andrea del Sarto (1486–1530). The arrangement of figures and Mary’s gesture tugging her mantel are nearly identical to Andrea’s colorful 1528 “Madonna and Child with John the Baptist” in the collection of The North Carolina Museum of Art. In an earlier painting from 1522 now in the Prado, “The Virgin and Child Between Saint Matthew and an Angel,” also known as “Madonna della Scala,” Andrea portrays Mary and Jesus in similar fashion, although other figures differ. John the Baptist, guided by his mother Elizabeth can be seen in the distance fleeing the Slaughter of the Innocents, while an angel and an anachronistic adult Matthew are seated before Mary and Jesus. The minimal background behind Bridwell’s Madonna becomes discernable in light of a sixteenth-century copy of Andrea’s 1520 fresco since ruined by exposure to weather. The oil on wood copy, “The Madonna and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist,” at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, United Kingdom, frames the figures within the corners of two buildings with space, perhaps a lane, between them. The Bridwell Madonna includes similar canted structures and a landscape of bare mountains beneath an ominous cloud.

Andrea’s student Jacopo Pontormo (1494—1556) became a major figure of the Florentine Mannerists. A drawing in red chalk by a follower of Pontormo in the Bridwell collection, records the composition of his fresco, “Christ Carrying the Cross on the Road to Calvary,” painted 1523–1525 in the Carthusian monastery of Galluzzo outside of Florence. It was once thought lost due to deterioration, but has been recently restored.

Andrea del Sarto’s Madonnas in the Prado

NC Museum of Art

University of Birmingham

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South Stairs
The Bridwell Madonna