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Artist unknown

Italy (Ferrara?) born 1400 /1600

Madonna dell'Umilità [Madonna of Humility] c.1470 Place made: Ferrara, Emilia-Romagna, Ferrara province, Italy
Creation Notes: c.15th century Ferrarese
Materials & Technique: sculptures, painted wood (Italian poplar)

Primary Insc: No inscriptions
Dimensions: 65.5 h x 47.5 w x 21.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1983
Accession No: NGA 83.12
  • reportedly sighted by Georg Swarzenski (1876-1957) while Director of the Städelschen Kunstinstitut and the Städtische Galerie in Frankfurt am Main 1906-37, advisor to Robert von Hirsch, possibly at Cassirer, Rome;
  • collection of Robert von Hirsch (1883-1977), Basel, at his death in 1977 (documented 1946);
  • sold at auction, Hirsch Sale, Sotheby's London, 22 June 1978, lot 382;
  • when bought by a private collector;
  • Cyril Humphris, London;
  • from whom bought by the Australian National Gallery, February 1986

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


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Charles Seymour Jr and Hanns Swarzenski, 'A Madonna of Humility and Quercia's early style', Gazette des Beaux Arts, September 1946, pp.129-152, illus. b&w figs. 26, 27, p.149;

Eberhard Ruhmer, 'Zur Plastischen Tätigkeit des Cosimo Tura', Pantheon May 1960, vol.IIII no.xvii, pp.149-153 illus. with details, as "School of Ferrara, about 1460, Madonna of humility";

The Robert von Hirsch Collection, vol.II, London, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 22 June 1978, lot 382, pp.208-209 illus., as "polychromed walnut";

Art at Auction: The Year at Sotheby Parke Bernet 1977-78, illus. p.235, as "A Ferrarese walnut polychrome group of the Virgin and Child, circa 1470";

An Introduction to the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 1992, illus. pl.83, p.46;

Ted Gott, 'Two Madonnas in the Collection', National Gallery News, March-April 1994, p.2, illus. cover;

Joseph Manca, Cosmè Tura: The Life and Art of a Painter in Estense Ferrara, Oxford University Press 2000, see 'list of other attributions', no.5, p.168

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra