In a composition by Parmigiano, Christ is standing at his mother’s knee ; Elizabeth presents St. John the Baptist; the other little St. John kneels on a cushion. Behind the Virgin are St. Joachim and St. Anna ; and behind Elizabeth, Zebedee and Mary Salome, the parents of St. John the Evangelist. In the centre, Joseph looks on with folded hands.
A catalogue raisonné of the Holy Families painted by distinguished artists including from two to six figures would fill volumes : I shall content myself with directing attention to some few examples, remarkable either for their celebrity, their especial beauty, or for some peculiarity, whether commendable or not, in the significance of the treatment.
The strictly domestic conception may be said to have begun with Raphael and Correggio ; and they afford the most perfect examples of the tender and the graceful in sentiment and action, the softest parental feeling, the loveliest forms of childhood. Of the purely natural and familiar treatment, which came into fashion in the seventeenth century, the pictures of Guido, Rubens, and Murillo afford the most perfect specimens.
1. Raphael. [The Holy Family of Francis I. in the Louvre, Paris.] Mary, a noble queenly creature, is seated, and bends towards her Child, who is springing from his cradle to meet her embrace ; Elizabeth presents St. John ; and Joseph, leaning on his hand, contemplates the group : two beautiful angels scatter flowers from above. This is the celebrated picture once supposed to have been executed expressly for Francis I. ; but later researches prove it to have been painted for Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino.
2. Correggio. Mary holds the Child upon her knee, looking down upon him fondly. Styled, from the introduction of the workbasket, “La Vierge au Panier.” A finished example of that soft, yet joyful, maternal feeling for which Correggio was remarkable. (National Gallery.)
3. Pinturicchio. In a landscape, Mary and Joseph are seated together; near them are some loaves and a small cask of wine. More in front the two children, Jesus and St. John, are walking arm in arm ; Jesus holds a book, and John a pitcher, as if they were going to a well. (Siena Academy.)
4. Andrea del Sarto. The Virgin is seated on the ground, and holds the Child ; the young St. John is in the arms of St. Elizabeth, and Joseph is seen behind. (Louvre.) This picture, another by the same painter in the National Gallery, a third in the collection of Lord Landsdowne, and in general all the Holy Families of Andrea, may be cited as examples of fine execution and mistaken or defective character. No sentiment, no action, connects the personages either with each other, or with the spectator.
5. Michael Angelo. The composition, in the Florence Gallery, styled a Holy Family, appears to me a signal example of all that should be avoided. It is, as a conception, neither religious nor domestic ; in execution and character exaggerated and offensive, and in color hard and dry.
Another, a bas-relief, in which the Child is shrinking from a bird held up by St. John, is very grand in the forms : the mistake in sentiment, as regards the bird, I have pointed out in the Introduction. (Royal Academy, Burlington House, London.) A third, in which the Child leans pensively on a book lying open on his mother’s knee, while she looks out on the spectator, is more properly a Mater Amabilis. (Bargello, Florence.)
There is an extraordinary fresco still preserved in the Casa Buonarroti at Florence, where it was painted on the wall by Michael Angelo, and styled a Holy Family, though the exact meaning of the subject has been often disputed. It appears to me, however, very clear, and one never before or since attempted by any other artist. Mary is seated in the centre ; her Child is reclining on the ground between her knees ; and the little St. John, holding his cross, looks on him steadfastly. A man coming forward seems to ask of Mary, ” Whose son is this ? ” she most expressively puts aside Joseph with her hand, and looks up, as if answering, ” Not the son of an earthly, but of a heavenly Father ” There are five other figures standing behind, and the whole group is most significant.
6. Albert Direr. The Holy Family seated under a tree ; the Infant is about to spring from the knee of his mother into the outstretched arms of St. Anna ; Joseph is seen behind with his hat in his hand ; and to the left sits the aged Joachim contemplating the group.
7. Mary appears to have just risen from her chair, the Child bends from her arms, and a young and very little angel, standing on tip-toe, holds up to him a flower other flowers in his lap : a beautiful old German print.
8. Giulio Romano. (La Madonna del Bacino.) (Dresden Gallery.) The Child stands in a basin, and the young St. John pours water upon him from a vase, while Mary washes him. St. Elizabeth stands by, holding a napkin ; St. Joseph, behind, is looking on. Notwithstanding the homeliness of the action, there is here a religious and mysterious significance, prefiguring the Baptism.
9. N. Poussin. Mary, assisted by angels, washes and dresses her Child.
10. V. Salimbeni. An interior. Mary and Joseph are occupied by the Child. Elizabeth is spinning. More in front St. John is carrying two puppies in the lappet of his coat, and the dog is leaping up to him. This is one out of many in-stances in which the painter, anxious to vary the oft-repeated subject, and no longer restrained by refined taste or religious veneration, has fallen into a most offensive impropriety. (Pitti, Florence.)
11. Ippolito Andreasi. Mary, seated, holds the Infant Christ between her knees ; Elizabeth leans over the back of her chair ; Joseph leans on his staff behind the Virgin ; the little St. John and an angel present grapes, while four other angels are gathering and bringing them. A branch of vine, loaded with grapes, is lying in the foreground. Christ looks like a young Bacchus ; and there is something mannered and fantastic in the execution. (Louvre.) With this domestic scene is blended a strictly religious symbol, “I am the vine.”
12. Murillo. Mary is in the act of swaddling her Child (Luke ii. 7), while two angels, standing near him, solace the divine Infant with heavenly music. (Madrid Gallery.)
13. Rubens. Mary, seated on the ground, holds the Child, with a charming maternal expression, a little from her, gazing on him with rapturous earnestness, while he looks up with responsive tenderness in her face. His right hand rests on a cross presented by St. John, who is presented by St. Elizabeth. Wonderful for the intensely natural and domestic expression, and the beauty of the execution. (Pitti, Florence.)
14. D. Hopfer. Within the porch of a building, Mary is seated on one side, reading intently. St. Anna, on the other side, holds out her arms to the Child, who is sitting on the ground between them: an angel looks in at the open door behind. (Bartsch, viii. 483.)
15. Rembrandt. (Le Ménage du Menuisier.) A rustic interior. Mary, seated in the centre, is suckling her Child. St. Anna, a fat Flemish grandame, has been reading the volume of the Scriptures, and bends forward in order to remove the covering and look in the Infant’s face. A cradle is near. Joseph is seen at work in the background. (Louvre.)
16. Le Brun. (The Benedicite.) Mary, the Child, and Joseph are seated at a frugal repast. Joseph is in the act of reverently saying grace, which gives to the picture the title by which it is known. (Louvre. There is a celebrated engraving by Edelinck.)