Do you speak Renaissance? Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child


Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480, tempera and gold on wood, 37.8 x 25.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

A conversation between Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker.


Introduction

Carlo Crivelli was born in Venice, but spent much of his career painting in the Marches region of the Italian Peninsula. Today he is considered an innovative early Renaissance painter because of his interest in surface decoration, lavish use of gold, and strong contour lines that pick out forms. Also characteristic of Crivelli’s artistic mode is his pairing of hyper-realistic elements with flat, less naturalistic forms. Here, the Virgin Mary’s face seems flat, like wax or porcelain, but her halo and clothes suggest his interest in naturalistic details and textures.

Map of Italy with the Marches region indicated (underlying map © Google)

Map of Italy with the Marches region indicated (underlying map © Google)

The Madonna and Child was a popular Christian subject that Crivelli painted on many occasions, either for altarpieces or small devotional panels. Some of these smaller paintings were undoubtedly made for private devotion, such as this one (the frame is not original). Many of these Marian images also include a similar array of motifs: a fly, cucumbers, apples, a cracked marble ledge, and a cloth of honor. He typically includes a cloth of honor draped behind Mary to emphasize her importance. The fly, cucumbers, and apples had symbolic meaning, but also allowed Crivelli to show off his artistic skill by painting interesting textures. The cracked marble ledge was one way to add an all’antica (or “from the antique”) element to his painting.

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480, tempera and gold on wood, 37.8 x 25.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY SA-NC 2.0)

Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child, c. 1480, tempera and gold on wood, 37.8 x 25.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY SA-NC 2.0)

The use of gold in many of his paintings, including this Madonna and Child, also indicates the importance of the two holy figures. There is gold on their halos and clothes. The gold also speaks to the global flow of materials at this time, with much of the gold in Europe coming from sub-Saharan Africa. 

Mary’s elaborate brocade clothing also points to the textile trade at this time. The design on the painted brocade looks similar to designs found on textiles imported from the eastern or southern Mediterranean regions. In the 15th century, certain areas of Italy, including Florence, also became important centers of textile production, and often replicated designs of foreign textiles.

The detailed landscape on either side of Mary also includes turbaned figures who likely to represent Turks and/or Jews. At the time Crivelli was painting, the Ottomans had taken control of the Holy Land. Jews were also sometimes shown wearing turbans.Their presence here likely situated the painting geographically, helping viewers identify the scene as taking place in the Holy Land. 

Key points

  • Early renaissance art
  • Iconographic symbols (apple, cucumber, pearls, goldfinch, fly, turbans)
  • Trompe l’oeil
  • Islamic and Italian textiles 
  • Northern (Flemish) renaissance influences
  • Antique (all’antica) elements
  • Private devotion
  • Artist’s signature

 

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Additional resources:

Read more about this work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

See more of Crivelli’s art in the National Gallery of Art, London

Stephen John Campbell, ‎C. Jean Campbell, ‎Francesco De Carolis, Ornament and Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice (Paul Holberton Publishing, 2015)

Ronald Lightbown, Carlo Crivelli (Yale University Press; 1st edition, 2004)



For the classroom

Take notes while watching the video, using the Crivelli Active Video Note-Taking.

Discussion questions

  1. Compare Crivelli’s Madonna and Child with his Annunciation with Saint Emidius. What does this comparison tell us about Crivelli’s artistic output?
  2. Compare Crivelli’s painting with other iterations of the Madonna and Child, including Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna or Jan van Eyck’s Madonna in the Church. How do they all relate to early renaissance developments? In what ways do they differ?
  3. In what ways does Crivelli’s painting help us to think about stereotyping in the renaissance?
Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Do you speak Renaissance? Carlo Crivelli, Madonna and Child," in Smarthistory, December 29, 2019, accessed November 28, 2020, https://smarthistory.org/crivelli-madonna-met/.