Bruges Madonna and Child
The Bruges Madonna and Child (height 49 inches, depth 28 inches, width 24 inches
Early in 1504, even as the David received its finishing touches, Michelangelo was already at work on a free-standing marble statue of the Madonna and Child. The Bruges Madonna, as it is known today, thus followed Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s by only five years. In both of these important sculptures, the Virgin Mary’s face is noticeably young and beautiful. The two works of art underscore different qualities, however. In the Pieta, Mary appears as a delicate maiden; in the Bruges Madonna, she is portrayed with the dignity of the Queen of Heaven.
Umberto Baldini, a noted historian of the Italian Renaissance, wrote,
“In this work we see Michelangelo engaged in the search for an almost architectonic solemnity, which instills a new moral and physical content.”
The Madonna is seated upright, as if enthroned. The two figures face directly forward. According to an ancient Christian iconography, the Child is positioned in front of his mother’s womb in order to evoke her title as the Mater Dei, Mother of God. When the Madonna is enthroned on high, tradition holds that she embodies the Seat of Wisdom, the Sede Sapientiae. The Divine Wisdom of God was a favorite theme of Renaissance Christianity.
Rona Goffen, another noted historian of the Italian Renaissance, noted that
“The Bruges Madonna seems to be Michelangelo’s most solicitous Virgin Mother, as well as his most feminine.” Frederick Hartt, the eminent Michelangelo scholar, wrote, “The Virgin’s lips are fuller, even slightly tremulous. Soft hairs grow naturally and in profusion on the broad, straight brows, set at a somewhat greater height above the fuller, larger eyes. The forehead is less than half the height of that of the Virgin in the Pieta, and is now bordered by masses of hair combed back on either side from a central part. Fifteenth-century elegance, even in dress, has given way to the sober classicism of High Renaissance.”
Hartt continued, “The sweet, grave Christ Child is one of the artist’s most winning creations, partly perhaps because he never makes the least concession to the whimsicality, charm, even cuteness so frequent in fifteenth-century representations of the Christ Child. The boy seems aware of the grandeur of His mission, even of its perils, and His tentative step toward the world is accompanied by a certain solemnity.”
Provenance of The Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni
(Florence 1475 – 1564 Rome)
Bruges Madonna and Child
Selected Reference Literature:
Condivi, Vita di Michelangelo Buonarroti…1553; Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 1550; Nathaniel Harris, The Art of Michelangelo, 1983; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo: Sculptor, Painter, Architect, 1975; Robert Coughlan, The World of Michelangelo 1475-1564, 1972; Brandes, Georg. Michelangelo: His Life, His Times, His Era, 1963; Goldscheider, Ludwig, Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, and Architecture, 1975.
In the early years of 1504 Michelangelo was in Florence for his second professional sojourn in the city of his childhood and education. During the time he was offered the commission for the Bruges Madonna with the Christ Child Michelangelo was working on the civic commission of the David for the city of Florence. Michelangelo, although occupied with the David was offered several other commission including the Tondo Taddei, the Tondo Pitti, the Doni Tondo, one of the painters only surviving paintings on canvas, and of course the Bruges Madonna.
This was a time period in the painter’s life in which he was preoccupied with the subject of the Virgin and Child and the Holy Family. Michelangelo, although aware of the traditional treatment of the Madonna and Child, still demonstrated a much freer treatment of the centuries old subject.
The Flemish merchant Alexandre de Mouscron commissioned the Bruges Madonna with the Christ child. This marble sculpture would come five years after the Vatican Pieta and would bear striking similarities, mainly the young appearance of the Madonna. This sculpture was carved from a single piece of Carrara marble, and is an interpretation of the popular scene in which:
“Michelangelo evokes from a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci in order to reject it. In this version Mary makes no attempt to restrain her son from the mission foretold in her prayer book.” Michelangelo portrays the virgin with a ‘face of stone,’ not to question the love of her child but to show that “her self restraint makes her exemplary of virtuous stoicism in the face of pain.”
The first mention of the marble sculpture is mentioned in the Diary of Albrecht Durer, the Flemish painter, when he describes his visit to the Netherlands on April 7, 1521. He says:
“I saw that alabaster Madonna in Our Lady’s Church (Notre Dame) that Michelangelo of Rome made.”
Condivi later describes the work as a Bronze, never having seen the work in person. He also says that the statues was delivered by the Bruges merchant Mouscron and paid 100 ducats for the Madonna and Child.
It is believed by many, including the French sculptor David d’Angers and Pieraccini, that this was one of Michelangelo’s ‘doubtful works,’ and that:
“The back and side views show that an assistant, perhaps Baccio da Montelupo, did some work, at least the drapery and the socle of rough stones on which the Virgin is seated. Apparently the group is designed to be placed rather high. In the present position the head of the Child seems to large.”
It seems that just after two years after Michelangelo carved the Pieta in St. Peter’s that the creation of a new Madonna and Child is an attempt to extract deeper meanings from a similar theme. “He carved no smiling, worldly Virgin with gently tilted head, as was so popular during the second half of the 15th century.” Michelangelo uses the form of his predecessors, like Donatello with:
“Her severe frontality and the very way in which her face is framed by the draperies covering her head recall the earlier [style]. Inward staring, she sits ramrod straight on a pile of stones. She knows what is going to happen to her Son. And the Child in turn, although at first glance appearing to be a playful cherub, reveals upon closer examination a seriousness that betrays the role He will play as a man.”
There is a slight change in the traditional position of the Christ child, previously seen on the Virgin’s lap. Michelangelo places the child between the Madonna’s knees. By using this composition, Michelangelo was able to:
“Not only play off smooth flesh against the elaborate folds of the robes, As in the Pieta [in St. Peter’s], but to increase the complexity and liveliness of the composition as a whole- The Virgin with her left knee raised higher than her right, the Christ Child with His right foot dangling in space as though He were about to step down from His perch into the waiting world.”
Georg Brandes writes:
“This Madonna of his Michelangelo desired to invest with the full sovereign of the Queen of Heaven. He sought to express his notion of the sublime by making the figure utterly devoid of passion, and in this he succeeded. Without looking at anyone-neither at her son or at the people-she exhibits the child crown prince to her subjects with the unswerving poise of a born ruler. In the face of neither mother nor son is there even a trace of smile or of the slightest awareness of the worshipful congregation. They are enthroned on high and look downward before them, where ordinary mortals must be thought to dwell.”
Charles de Tolnay describes the sculptural aesthetic used by Michelangelo in the Bruges Madonna:
“The solemnity is accentuated by the symmetrical, vertical folds over the breast recalling fifth-century Greek draperies, by the veil which covers the head in an almost architectural way, and by the regular features of her grave face (probably inspired by Leonardo da Vinci).”
After being moved several times due to political and social upheaval the Bruges Madonna with Christ Child now sits in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium.