Madonna of the Cherries
Quentin Massys & Workshop, Early Netherlandish 1465-1530
SN 200, Panel. Painted in 1520's

by Robert Anderson. 2000

Quienten Massys was a leading painter of early 16th century Antwerp. He was said to have been self-taught although he may have been trained as a miniaturist and by Hans Memling in Brugge who may well have been a source for his style. Massys' activity as a portrait painter specialized in images of wealthy, rather than noble, clients and his international renown was comparable to Memling's own sucess in these areas.

His first major religious work was painted when he was 41 (c.1508) and was a large altarpiece painted for the confraternity of St. Anne. His masterwork, the enormous St. John altarpiece was painted for the chapel of the Joiners Guild in Antwerp Cathedral at approximately the same time.

Massys celebrated native South Netherlandish traditions, reflecting both Hugo van der Goes diptych's and the modernizing & refining images from Jan van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece. Other striking features of Massys' work were his Italianate lighting and ornament as well as a sfumato ala

Leonardo da Vinci which softened and modified his colors.This dual interest of Massys reflected the taste of the ruling Habsburg Regent of the Netherlands.Two of Massys' best known secular works are Money Changer and His Wife, and the portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam. in which those portrayed have fully developed personalities and show distinct moods.

By the 1520's Massys was painting portraits and small panels for private use. These included both portraiture as well as religious and secular subject matter. In these later paintings Massys style became increasingly Italianate with landscape backgrounds reminiscent of Raphael. His work became more mature and complicated and a life sized work of the Virgin and Child Enthroned served as an altarpiece in Archduchess Isabella's Palace in Brussels - an indication of the esteem in which Massys was held in Rubens' day.

The painting which probably served as an altarpiece, either in a church chapel or in a private home shows the Madonna and Child seated on an imposing architectural throne of carved and gilded marble.

The scene of the Madonna and Child is one of warm affectionate intimacy. The mother and child are seen kissing one another in an altogether human and realistic relationship. The Madonna, dressed in a red robe and white gown, is seen holding two cherries in the fingers of her right hand while the Christ Child sits on a purple pillow which could reflect royalty. The couple are positioned behind a ledge on which are an apple and some grapes. In the background at the left there is a view of a river valley.

The apple is symbolic of the fall of man ( original sin = Adam eating the apple) while the grapes represent salvation ( wine of redemption = The Eucharist). The cherries were known symbolically as the fruit of Heaven and would indicate that the Madonna and Christ Child are in heaven - exempt from all sin.

Historical Context:
This painting is one of three copies of the same subject painted by the artist. It is our opinion that the Ringling painting is the origional. One of the other versions of this composition hangs in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The painting shows the influence of Raphael ( background landscape). Massys in turn influenced the artistic development of both the Carracci and Rubens.