The Spanish artist Murillo painted this altarpiece for the Archbishop of Seville’s private palace chapel. Rather than tell a story it presents the viewer with a heavenly vision of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Their tender, yet troubled gazes, hint perhaps at their suffering to come. They add a human quality to a supernatural scene. Murillo’s varied Virgin and Child compositions had a great impact on Roman Catholic Church imagery in the 17th century.
The altarpiece was commissioned in 1673 by Ambrosio Ignacio Spínola y Guzmán, Archbishop of Seville (1670 - 84) for his private chapel on the ground floor of the Archbishop's palace in Seville. He paid Murillo the substantial sum of 1,000 ducats for the single painting. Its unique imagery may have been created by Murillo to cater for the Archbishop's special devotion to the Virgin Mary.
Murillo was the most important religious artist in Spain and the highest paid painter in the country at the time this work was created. His religious images and his scenes of Seville's street-children were admired in Spain and across western Europe within his own lifetime.
Murillo loved his own children, whom he brought up single-handed after his wife died in 1663. His affectionate, naturalistic portrayal of children, in religious images and scenes from daily life, influenced 18th-century English artists, such as Gainsborough and Reynolds.
From the 18th century until the mid 1860s the altarpiece suffered a complex history. During the Spanish Peninsular War (1808 - 1813) the archbishop's palace in Seville was the headquarters of the French army commander, Marshal Soult, who took the altarpiece with him to Paris as war booty. However, he did not have the central area of the canvas showing the faces of the Virgin and Child as that had already been removed and replaced with a copy in the 1780s. The two separated parts were not reunited until they were acquired by the British collector Lord Overstone in 1862.