Madonna and Christ Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist and Three Angels, Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio, about 1485/1500
The Italian word tondo (plural tondi) describes a painting or relief sculpture in a round format. The circular shape – with its connotations of harmony and completeness – may have evolved from desco da parto, a painted tray used to present gifts or to serve sweets to a woman who had just given birth. One of the most popular formats for 15th-century painting in Florence, tondi were mainly produced for private prayer and commonly depicted themes of the Virgin and Child or the Adoration of the Magi.
Among the paintings on view in the BMA’s Kress Galleries, Madonna and Christ Child with Infant Saint John the Baptist and Three Angels is the only one in the tondo format. In the middle, a seated Mary supports the infant Jesus on her knee with one hand, and gently lifts the future John the Baptist’s head with the other. Jesus raises his right hand to bless John, while in his left he holds a pomegranate, a symbol of his resurrection. The interplay among the three figures creates a quiet ambiance, further enhanced by the three angels watching over the group from behind.
For artists, it is harder to achieve balanced compositions in round paintings than in rectangular ones. To do so, Domenico Ghirlandaio echoes the circular frame through Mary’s posture, the heads of John and the angel on the far right, and the arched windows in the background. The pyramid formed by the three figures also stabilizes the overall composition. Students and later artists produced several variations of Ghirlandaio’s prototype, including this one, which demonstrates the success and popularity of the composition.
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Artworks affect our emotions and perceptions through their subject matter, color, texture, and shape. If the artist had painted this work in another format – such as rectangular, square, triangle, or oval – do think it would have a different effect? Why or why not?
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