About the artwork
The coats of arms in the bottom corners of this picture are of the Venetian families of Donata and Michiel. The Venetian state archives contain the register of marriages by noble families and this records that in 1526 the marriage took place between Giovanni Michiel and Andrea Donata. It is possible that this painting connects in some way with the joining of these two families and may have actually been painted to celebrate the wedding union.
Both families were extremely prominent in Venice. The Michiels had provided two outstanding Doges (rulers of Venice) in the twelfth century and the Donata's provided three, one in 1546 and two later in the seventeenth century. In addition to this members of both families filled numerous high state offices at home and abroad.
There are seven remaining palaces in Venice connected with the families and there are in the archives a further three marriages recorded between them, in 1450, 1476 and 1690. Giovanni Michiel later became Procurator of Venice and was a Venetian ambassador. Among his dispatches is his graphic account of the proxy marriage in 1548 between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth of France.
Marco Palmezzano (1469 -1539) was the most important contemporary artist working in Forli - a city south of Venice situated within the papal territories. He bought a house in Venice in 1495 possibly because residency might better help him with obtaining commissions. He adapted his painting style to that of Giovanni Bellini who was Venice's leading artist at the time. Bellini's influence can be seen in this picture, particularly in the pose of the seated virgin (compare it with another Venetian Madonna and child picture displayed nearby by Vicenza Catena, another artist who was also much influenced by Bellini).
This type of picture showing the virgin and child with saints is called a 'sacra conversatione'- literally sacred conversation or meeting.Holy figures from widely different historical epochs come together in the timeless sacred space of the picture.Each saint is present because it had some particular significance for the owners of the picture.
From left to right they are, 'St Francis of Assisi' - shown displaying the 'stigmata', wounds that miraculously appeared on his feet and hands redolent of those inflicted on Christ at the crucifixion. He carries a book that is possibly intended to be the Franciscan monastic rule.
'St Matthew' who was one of the four evangelists is shown holding a copy of his gospel and gesturing as though listening out attentively for the word of God.
'St Louis of Toulouse', who gave up his claim to the Kingdom of Naples in order to pursue a religious life also carries a volume, the contents of which are not clear, and he is dressed as Bishop of Lyon. The rejected gold crown of the kingdom of Naples is lying on the ground in front of him.
'St. John the Evangelist' is shown with pen poised to write his gospel, which he clasps in his other hand. 'St Anthony, Abbot', who is usually regarded as having founded monasticism carries a beggar’s bell and staff and is reading from a devotional book.
'St Peter, Martyr', a famous Dominican monk who was murdered is shown with the knives that were used to kill him and carrying a book possibly indicative of Dominican religious rule.
We cannot be sure what significance these saints had for the Michiel or Donata families. The balancing at the outer edges of St Francis and St Peter Martyr may reflect the dominant place that the two major religious orders of Franciscans and Dominicans had in Venice, evident in say the two great churches of The Frari and San Giovanni e Paolo.
There were also important lay religious fraternities connected with these saints that Giovanni Michiel might have belonged to. St John is possibly there as the name saint of Giovanni Michiel. The pose of the two evangelists is broadly similar, they may be intended to be read as a pair even though they are not symmetrically placed. Similarly St Louis and St Anthony may be seen as a pair of distinctly unworldly saints.
Other symbols include what appear to be poppy petals strewn in the foreground. They are symbolic of death and may refer to the overcoming of death by Christ. The two trees growing out of the wall beside Mary - possibly meadow rue, a sign of grace, and a fig - indicate life transcending death, an allusion to Christ's death and resurrection.
The picture is a poplar panel made up of seven narrow vertical planks. The paint is tempera. It is likely that it has been cut down in size at some point. One might normally expect to see a fabric canopy of some sort over Mary. The bottom edge may also be trimmed.
Overall though the picture remains much the same width as when first painted. Its proportions suggest that it is an altarpiece rather than simply a devotional picture. It seems likely that it is complete in this one piece. It was originally framed differently.
The original setting is a matter of conjecture - a small chapel either in a church or house might have accommodated it. All figures have cast shadows towards the right and this suggests that it may have been made specifically for a location that was lit by a window on the left.
The picture is first recorded in England in a sale catalogue of 1812. It entered the Liverpool Royal Institution between 1836 and 1843. Unlike many of the early pictures in the Walker's collection it did not belong to William Roscoe. One may speculate that, like the more famous picture by Titian currently on loan to the Gallery, it was a casualty of the severe disruption to Venetian life following Napoleon's invasion of the city.