The cover of the month

And the maiden’s name was Mary by Pierre-Marie Dumont

This “portrait” of the Virgin Mary, held in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, was long considered the surviving fragment of a lost work by Andrea del Sarto entitled The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist—a work whose existence is attested to in an engraving by Cornelis Bloemaert. However, in 1999, the original work, corresponding to the engraving, was claimed to be rediscovered in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Perm, Russia. Yet while the face of the Virgin does depict the same model as the “portrait” in the Met, and as in the engraving, she appears much older and her facial expression much less touching. While a superb work, it doesn’t achieve the same level of genius as Andrea del Sarto, so much so that, in the end, the Perm painting was attributed to another great Florentine artist, Franciabigio, who from 1506 to 1509 shared a studio with Andrea del Sarto. Curiously, the so-called Met “fragment”, though of a clearly different execution and superior quality, was given the same attribution. 

Andrea del Sarto: “the perfect painter” 

In all likelihood, this portrait of the Virgin Mary is neither a fragment of a vanished work by Andrea del Sarto nor a work in his style by Franciabigio: it is well and truly a preparatory study, in Andrea del Sarto’s own hand, for an original work, now lost, of which Franciabigio painted a copy and Cornelis Bloemaert made an engraving. This study would then have been a youthful work, painted around 1507, by he whom Robert Browning considered “the perfect painter”. The model is Lucrezia del Fede, with whom Andrea fell hopelessly in love the first time she posed for him, probably for this portrait of the Virgin Mary. When Lucrezia was married at a young age to a wealthy Florentine milliner, she nonetheless continued posing for him. After she was widowed, Andrea married her and never ceased painting her as the Madonna or Mary Magdalene. Even when he received commissions for portraits of other women, he couldn’t help giving them a resemblance to his beloved… 

Contemplate the wonders God has done for her and through her 

This face on the cover of your Magnificat is an absolute masterpiece, beyond even the portrait of the Mona Lisa in which Leonardo so brilliantly succeeds in revealing all the complexity of a human soul through a discreet, amiguous smile. Here, with eyes humbly lowered and half-opened onto the invisible, Andrea opens a window into the interior life of she whom all ages would call blessed, who preciously kept all these things in her heart, contemplating the wonders God had done for her and through her. What admirable prayerfulness in the expression of this young woman, suggestive of the glory of God bearing its fruit of salvation in the heart of the most pure and delicate humility. Along with Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea del Sarto remains one of the four geniuses who raised the Italian Renaissance to unsurpassed heights. Of the four, Andrea is the less well-known, but not the least in quality. What inspired artist ever succeeded more than he in rendering with such finesse the great mystery of this betrothed girl through whom the powers of sin and death were to be conquered! What artist ever managed to so explicitly render in a face the emotions of this blessed woman who kept all these things and contemplated them in her heart! What artist ever managed to let us approach so closely the mystery of this bride who, at thirteen or fourteen, became no less than the Mother of God!

Head of Virgin (c. 1509), Franciabigio (1484-1525), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY, USA. Photo: Public domain.