What child is this?

The elegant young woman in the blue cloak gazes pensively at the child cradled in her left arm. Her young son, perhaps two years old and wearing a lavender cloak over a red tunic, looks back at her and reaches up to move the veil from her face. The child, like the viewer, admires the flush on his mother’s cheek, her lovely almond-shaped eyes, her beautifully modeled nose and delicate lips. The mother and child are presented against a golden background and behind a parapet. The scene is at once intimate and majestic, as tender as any caress between a mother and a child; and yet, there is something sorrowful in the woman’s eyes.

This picture (see cover), which measures only 8 x 11 inches, is one of the most famous portrayals of the Madonna and Child. Painted by the great Si­en­ese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-1319), it represents a break from the traditional Byzantine representations of the Madonna, which tended to be highly stylized and two-dimensional. Duccio’s Madonna, in contrast, is recognizably human: we can sense her body beneath her robes. The tender depiction of the child reaching toward his mother was revolutionary and would be copied by artists for generations. The great British art historian John White has called Duccio’s Madonna “the first, lonely forerunner of that long line of Italian Madonnas...which achieved its finest flowering almost two centuries later in Giovanni Bellini’s splendid...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author


Leo J. O’Donovan, SJ, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, is president emeritus of Georgetown University.