The Child looks up at and raises his arm toward His Mother; a normal infant, his sweet expression betrays no cognizance of possible God-hood, nor is Mary’s countenance darkened by foreknowledge of what is destined. Aside from Joseph, who holds the Child, and the sweep of Mary’s cloak, no direct physical tie exists among the three. Yet an affectionate Mother/Child interplay is suggested - their gazes seem to meet, His left hand seems to reach for Her, and Her arms are crossed across her bosom, almost “cradlingly” - a classically “submissive” (per Baxandall) attitude, gentler and more intimate as She looks down upon Him, than if Her hands were clasped in prayer.
Although Joseph, the angel, and the Madonna suggest the definitive Renaissance pyramidal composition, the oval/circle combination draws it all together: The oval formed by the Christ child cradled in St. Joseph’s arms is caught up in the circle defined by Joseph, the angel, the Madonna, the Madonna’s cloak as it sweeps beneath the Child, and the basket which suggests a creche. Echoing this unity, and pulling the windowed “exterior” exchange between the shepherds and herald angel (fundamental to the Nativity story) into the “whole” are the figures of St. Philip and, opposite, the stooping shepherd - AND the two facing outer diagonals delineated by the long vertical of St. Philip’s cross on one side, and the heads of the farm animals and the basket-rack above them on the other. Other Renaissance traits: linearity, harmonious balance, atmospheric perspective (beyond the opening to the sky), and Leonardo’s sweet faces and naturalistic foliage at the foot of the painting and also seen through the window-like aperture. Colors are basically “primary,” but Mannerist secondary colors make an appearance. Lighting is essentially ambient, tempered by a touch of Baroque chiaroscuro . (The date under Lanino’s signature, 1567, indicates that the painting was a product of the artist’s “second phase,” as described above.)
- The figure bearing the cross had been identified as St. Andrew (Suida, 1949); research indicates “...more likely that it is St. Philip, whose attribute is a conventional cross.”3 The brother of St. Peter, Andrew carried the Gospel message to the Black Sea area and was crucified on an X-shaped cross, which is the form of cross that bears his name, at Patras in Achaia.
- Although information on St. Phillip is readily available from many sources, “nearly everything known about him is in the New Testament.”4 An early disciple of Jesus, Phillip embraced Christ’s teachings after meeting St. John the Baptist. Andrew and Phillip are often portrayed as bearded, of “venerable appearance”; in the Gospels, he and Andrew are reported to have played a role in the “feeding of the 5,000,” at which Christ miraculously increased five barley loaves and two fishes to an amount that fed more than 5,000 people. These commonalities might have led to the mis-identification of Philip as Andrew in the earlier titling of Lanino’s painting. Among Phillip’s attributes is the long cross seen in the work, derived from de Voragine’s The Golden Legend: After having preached the Gospels in Scythia for 20 years, Phillip was seized by a group of pagans who ordered him to sacrifice to a statue of Mars, but a foul-smelling dragon issued from the statue, killing several pagans and emitting a noxious gas that threatened to stifle the crowds. Phillip cried out for the pagans to destroy the statue; once they did, he directed the dragon to leave for a deserted place. The dragon obeyed and all the stricken pagans recovered. The Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art reports that as Phillip used his long cross to banish the dragon produced such a terrible stink that many died. In a fury, the pagan priests put Phillip to death on his cross.
- Basic iconographic elements are universally recognizable: we see them every December as Christ’s story is retold. Most particular, however, is inclusion of St. Philip and the musical angel. Central placement of the angel with viol might suggest a representation of St. Cecilia, the 2nd or 3rd century martyr known as the patroness of music. However, the diminutive size of the figure indicates that it does not depict a recognized saint. Nonetheless, musical instruments such as the viol impart a “precise meaning as the symbols of love.”5
- Made for the cut-down painting in Italy at end of 19th century, the Venetian style frame with Moresque ornamentation is of the type known as a “tabernacle” frame, probably intended to stand on a horizontal surface rather than hang on a wall. It was on the painting as purchased by John Ringling. The name for this type of frame comes from the fact that it looks like “the face side of a tabernacle... a term used for the container for ...the host.”6
. Bernardino Lanino and Il Cinquecento a Vercelli, Casa di Pisparmo di Torino, 1986, p.263 (in Italian)