Flemish Renaissance Painting of Virgin and Child Kissing Heads to Auction

A newly restored work by Flemish Northern Renaissance artist Quinten Massys, the celebrated Old Masters painter widely regarded as the father of the Antwerp School, is heading to auction this summer. “The Madonna of the Cherries” (1520) is full of new life, with layers of varnish lifted to reveal delicate and bright colors in the formerly dark tableau and the removal of overpainting that obscured a detailed view of the countryside out the window. The work, estimated to fetch up to £12,000,000 (roughly $15 million) at Christie’s in July, depicts Mary on a marble and gold throne holding a little blond baby Jesus in a loving embrace — which is to say, a kiss more befitting a tiny lounge singer, perhaps, or an aggressive prom date.

But don’t worry! While the Holy Child has been rendered with a tiny adult man’s face, the cherries held in Mary’s other hand symbolize purity, sweetness, and the sacrifice of Christ’s blood. So everything is probably fine, and this is a normal way to be kissed by a baby, for sure.

“Quentin’s mature work of the 1520s became dominated by the depiction of the Virgin and Child in the moment of a kiss, the iconographic type of which was derived from mid-15th century examples,” Christie’s specialist Maja Markovic told Hyperallergic, citing Dieric Bouts’s “Virgin and Child”(c. 1455–60). Markovic further referenced more ancient archetypes of the mother-and-child imagery, originating in Byzantine depictions, and characterized as the Eleusa-type Virgin Mary, also known as the “Virgin of Tenderness.”

This archetype also appears in the Orthodox icon canon as Panagia Glykophilousa, translated as “sweet-kissing” or “loving kindness.” Or, as Baby Jesus seems to convey in the painting, “Hey, hot-lips!”

Compositions of this type, according to Markovic, “focused on the maternal tenderness of the Virgin that she extended to all of mankind, emphasizing personal piety and a devotion to the Virgin Mary, who was seen as an intercessor for the Christian faithful, shortening the distance between the worshipper and the worshiped.”

Certainly, it’s a sweeter visage than some of Massys’s other notable works, including his famously hilarious “An Old Woman (The Ugly Duchess)” (c. 1513) — which appears to draw its inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci and served as inspiration for an iconic illustration for the original 1865 edition of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Massys often took the Virgin-and-child duo as a subject in this period of his career, though usually in a more serious attitude, as with “The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Four Angels” (1506–9), “The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Barbara” (1515–25), and “The Virgin and Child with Saints and Angels in a Garden” (c. 1510–20).

“The Madonna of the Cherries” has the opportunity to raise spirits and auction paddles this summer, not only due to its transformative glow-up and its impressive art history accolades — which include its representation as a focal point of “The Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest,” a 1628 painting by Willem van Haecht that displays the Wunderkammer art collection of his eponymous employer, a wealthy merchant of Antwerp.

Massys’s “Madonna of the Cherries” appears in the painting not simply as one of dozens of small replicas that line the walls, but the one under discussion and drawing all the attention of the Antwerp elite fictitiously assembled in the painting, including Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck, as well as van der Geest’s nephew Cornelis de Licht and the Antwerp collector Peter Stevens, both of whom went on to own the painting at different times.

If we know one thing about Old Masters, it’s that they loved fruit almost as much as they loved the Holy Infant, and perhaps that’s why Massys rendered this particular composition several times in his career. As the thumbnail in van Haecht’s painting confirms, this version has now been restored to its former glory, literally pulling back the curtain to shed new light and exquisite detail on an endearing (and maaaaaybe a little creepy) family moment.

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