This painting was described by Ridolfi when he saw it in the Reynst collection as ‘one of Titian’s exceptional works’ (una delle singolari fatiche di Titiano).The Virgin and Christ Child sit on the bank of a stream set in a landscape in the Dolomites. The Virgin picks a campanula, while Christ selects a rose, symbol of his Passion. It is one of a group of four closely related compositions by Titian and his workshop representing the Virgin and Child in a landscape. They provide interesting evidence of the way in which Titian and his studio replicated compositions and developed a theme by introducing changes. The group shows Titian’s own involvement in the production of variants.
The first (and probably prime) version is on canvas, the 'Virgin and Child with the Infant St John and a Female Saint' of c.1532 (National Gallery, London) which shows a female saint, possibly St Catherine, kneeling in adoration of the Christ Child. He raises his hand to his mother, perhaps to receive the fruit and the flower, which the Virgin Mary reaches to take from St John the Baptist, seated to the left. In the background is an Annunciation to the Shepherds. Another version is the panel, dated either to the 1530s or 1550s (Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth), showing the Virgin picking a flower. A third version is the canvas in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence and shows the Virgin picking a flower more logically from a plant rather than a bush. The Christ Child holds the apple in his upraised hand and St John kneels with his lamb on the right. Recent x-radiography of this painting reveals that St John was originally placed to the left of the Virgin, as in the National Gallery version, and two hares touching noses were fully worked up in the right foreground a motif copied from paintings by Giovanni Bellini and his workshop. In both these later variants the background contains a simple scene of shepherds with their flocks. The dress of the saint in the Pitti painting, now clearly identified as St Catherine with a wheel, recalls the National Gallery painting.
It is difficult to establish the order of these three versions of the composition or where this panel, which can be dated to c.1535-40, fits into the sequence. It is slightly smaller than the others, omitting St Catherine and St John and evolving into a simple Virgin and Child in a landscape, with a possible allusion to a Rest on the Flight into Egypt (though without Joseph). While Titian’s depiction of the Virgin and Child in a landscape looks back at Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione’s poetic visions of nature, it is also dramatically set within the artist’s own mountain landscape of the Dolomites. Unlike the other versions, the Virgin and Child sit on a sandy bank in front of a little stream which gathers in a small waterfall lower right, reminding the viewer of ‘a spring of running water’ from the Song of Songs, associated with the Virgin. Flowers are emphasised here, with a spread of meticulously painted roses, towards which the Virgin turns. She, however, picks a single campanula, while Christ selects a red rose from the bunch of flowers gathered between their other hands. The flowers, like the stream and the rose garden, recall the ‘enclosed garden’ (Hortus Conclusus), a symbol of Mary’s virginity that was popular in Medieval and Renaissance imagery. The red rose chosen by Christ alluded to the Virgin’s purity and sorrow, as well as to Christ’s own Passion.
Instead of the shepherds, the background now contains Tobias and the Angel, very freely painted and contrasting markedly with the careful painting of the foreground. The journey of Tobias with his guardian, the Archangel Raphael, and his dog is told in the Book of Tobit from the Apocrypha. Tobias carries the fish, the entrails of which exorcise his future wife and heal his father’s blindness. The theme of Tobias was popular in mercantile towns and was associated with prayers for a safe and prosperous voyage.
Analysis of the group of works reveals that a cartoon of the National Gallery painting must have been used for all three variants. The Virgin here matches that of the National Gallery version closely but differences elsewhere suggest that the tracing was adopted in a piecemeal fashion. The underdrawing, shows careful, unimaginative traced lines for the Virgin’s head and torso. However, in the blue drapery the lines are loose and abrupt. The Virgin’s chest is delineated with two rough concentric lines and the Child’s position marked out in a similar fashion, showing Titian’s intervention in the design. Recent cleaning has revealed the rich ultramarine used for the Virgin’s mantle and the beauty of the detailed and precisely painted foliage and flowers. The freely painted, lively Christ Child on the crisp white cloth contrasts with the more prosaic head of the Virgin. The sketchy underdrawing and bravura painting of the Christ Child himself suggest that this passage at least was Titian’s work.
The prominent coat of arms in the centre foreground appears to show a red and green brazier or beacon between two ornate fountains on a golden yellow background. This is painted over the original arms which showed a red tower with crossed swords or sceptres. In about 1655 prints were commissioned from a number of engravers to record the Reynst collection and, at a later date, prints of the thirty-three paintings selected to be given to Charles II were gathered into a volume published in the latter part of the 1660s. The engraving and etching of the Titian painting is by Cornelis Visscher and in his print the coat of arms on the painting is a tower with what seems to be crossed sceptres. This has been identified as that of the Dalla Torre, an important family in Venice known to Titian. The same coat of arms also appears on one of several copies of the painting sold at Sotheby’s. The present coat of arms is yet to be identified, but must have been added after 1660, either before the painting was shipped to this country or, once here, but before 1842 when the coat of arms was recorded
Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
Presented to Charles II by the States of Holland and West Friesland, 1660