In a Holy Family of four figures, we have frequently the Virgin, the Child, and the Infant St. John, with St. Joseph standing by. Raphael’s Madonna del Passeggio is an example. In a picture by Palma Vecchio, St. John presents a lamb, while St. Joseph kneels before the Infant Christ, who, seated on his mother’s knee, extends his arms to his foster father. Niccolo Poussin was fond of this group, and has repeated it at least ten times with variations.
But the most frequent group of four figures consists of the Virgin and Child, with St. John and his mother St. Elizabeth, the two mothers and the two sons. Sometimes the children are sporting together, or embracing each other, while Mary and Elizabeth look on with a contemplative tenderness, or seem to converse on the future destinies of their sons. A very favorite and appropriate action is that of St. Elizabeth presenting St. John, and teaching him to kneel and fold his hands, as acknowledging in his little cousin the Infant Saviour. We have, then, in beautiful contrast, the aged coifed head of Elizabeth, with its matronly and earnest expression ; the youthful bloom and soft virginal dignity of Mary ; and the different character of the boys, the fair complexion and delicate proportions of the Infant Christ, and the more robust and brown-complexioned John. [A modern painting of the Holy Family showing the four figures in these relations is by Carl Milner. The Virgin bends over her beautiful Babe while Elizabeth presents the boy John to adore the Infant Saviour. The two groups are contrasted with excellent insight.] A great painter will be careful to express these distinctions, not by the exterior character only, but will so combine the personages that the action represented shall display the superior dignity of Christ and his Mother.