This wonderfully intimate sculpture offers the viewer a relaxed and humanistic vision of the Virgin and Child. The sculpture is carved in high relief, and conceived almost completely in the round in a sweeping circular compositional structure. The Madonna, seated on a red cushion in an attitude of humility, is clothed in a dark red dress, blue shawl and blue scarf. Bare-headed and serenely fresh-faced, she adoringly clasps her naked child to her breast.
The gentle naturalness of the sculptural group's conception, and the tender ease with which the two figures interact, indicates a possible relation to the early paintings of Cosimo Tura (1430?–1495), a leading figure in the Ferrarese School, and a dating to the time of Duke Borso d'Este's rule (1451–1471). However, it is difficult to ascribe precisely this Madonna of Humility to the workshop of Tura, or even directly to his environs. In fact, at times it has been argued that it belongs to provincial Southern German or even Burgundian origins. Identification of the wood used in the sculpture's fabrication as Italian poplar would seem to anchor the piece more firmly on Italian soil. As very few fifteenth-century wooden sculptures of this quality appear to have survived, specific attribution or accurate stylistic comparisons remain problematic.
The piece is full of life and character, emphasising the humanitas of the Christ Child as He looks up, laughing, into His mother's loving face. The Virgin's expression is at once open and unapproachable, and extremely complex. Upon reflection, the innocent affection of her gaze betrays a certain wistfulness, which seems to indicate her premonition of the future betrayal and crucifixion of her son. In this context, the manner in which she clasps the baby Jesus within a protective embrace, while seated humbly near to the ground, also prefigures traditional representations of the Pietà, in which the grieving Virgin tenderly cradles the body of her dead son after Christ's deposition from the cross. In a sense then, the Madonna of Humility can be read as subtly prefiguring the Easter passion cycle of Christ's death and resurrection.
Ted Gott, 'Two Madonnas in the Collection', National Gallery News, March-April 1994, p.2, revised version DW
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010