Fifteenth-century Sienese art is often notable for its archaism. Artists picked up on representations by famous local artists of the previous centuries, sometimes making almost exact copies of their works. But apart from her traditional red dress and blue mantle, this Madonna is very much of her time. The blue and green landscape behind Mary, the Christ Child and the young John the Baptist reflects Flemish prototypes that Italian artists began to emulate from the 1460s and 70s. In this case, the gentle hills and soft clouds seem to echo the tenderness of the three figures: the mother, the child and his young cousin.
Paintings of Mary with the Christ Child and the young John the Baptist became popular in the fifteenth century in part because such images were recommended by theologians as models to teach proper devotion and behaviour to children. Cardinal Giovanni Dominici (1356–1419) suggested that little boys should mirror themselves on pictures of Baptist and the Christ Child placed around the home. Here the little Baptist shows his faith as Christ blesses him. He has already forsaken civilisation and donned a hair shirt; anachronistically, he holds a small banderole with the words ‘Ecce agnus [dei]’ (John 1:36), which he will speak before baptising the adult Christ in the river Jordan.
The panel is attributed to the artist Matteo di Giovanni. Born in San Sepolcro, Matteo was the son of a painter, and one of the most successful artists in Siena in the decades after the mid-century. At least two other painters, Guidoccio Cozzarelli (1450–1517) and Pietro Orioli (1458–96) trained in his workshop. Cozzarelli in particular would closely follow Matteo’s style.
The painting’s recorded provenance begins with the 1923–24 Winter Exhibition organised by the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. A terse entry in the typescript catalogue lists a ‘Madonna & Child with the infant St.John’, done by Matteo di Giovanni and lent by ‘The Lord Faringdon’. Alexander Henderson (1850–1934), 1st Baronet Faringdon, was a financier and notable public figure who served as a member of the House of Commons and as High Sheriff of Berkshire among other roles. He was also a notable collector, with a taste for Italian and Spanish Old Masters and for the Pre-Raphaelite painters of his own time, who drew their inspiration from what they saw as the innocence and purity of fifteenth-century Italian models, such as this panel. Faringdon’s taste is clear from the sale of his collection at his death, held at Sotheby’s on 13 June 1934, when the painting was listed with an attribution to Guidoccio Cozzarelli. A hand-written note in a catalogue now with Sotheby’s lists the buyer as ‘Collings’. From there the painting drops from view until it was acquired at a Munich auction in 2017; the catalogue placed it previously in a private collection. Further research may uncover more of the history of this touching work.