Birth of the Virgin

WAG 2856


The 'Birth of a Virgin' was probably painted as a predella panel and placed below an altarpiece under the lower edge of the main image. It would have had at least two companion panels. One of these is thought to be a painting in the National Trust house at Polesden Lacey in Surrey depicting 'The Miraculous Foundation of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore'. The Surrey painting is almost exactly the same size (18.7 x 40cm compared to the Walker's 18.6 x 41cm) and has the same red and white feigned-marble oval framing painted around the central scene. Until their sale in London in 1804 both paintings also shared the same history. Predella panels usually complement the subject matter of the main altarpiece. The Polesden Lacey predella depicts the legend of how in the 4th century AD a vision of the Virgin Mary led to the church of St Maria Maggiore being founded on a hill in Rome on the site of a miraculous snowfall (in the shape of a church) in August. This subject suggests that the rest of the altarpiece would also have been devoted to the life and imagery of the Virgin Mary. It was possibly painted for a church or chapel dedicated to the Virgin. For this reason the Walker's painting, which had in the past been described as the (more commonly depicted) 'Birth of John the Baptist' is now considered to represent the 'Birth of the Virgin Mary'. Also, the important Liverpool collector, William Roscoe (born 250 years ago), who owned the Walker's painting at the beginning of the nineteenth century also called it the 'Nativity of the Virgin'. The sex of the small standing child has been artfully hidden by the carefully placed piece of cloth draped over the baby's abdomen as it is being towelled down after bathing. The towelling down is just one element of this painting that makes it appear to modern eyes like a realistic view into the household of a 15th century woman. Just like any Italian merchant's wife of the time, St Anne (the Virgin's mother) lies in her bed, which is raised off the ground on a plinth that could double as seating and storage-chest, the curtain drawn back to receive her guests. The scene shown is not in fact that after the birth of her child - the mother looks dignified and composed if a little weary and weak - but the lying-in of the mother some days after, when by custom female friends and relatives would visit to admire the child and bring gifts and congratulations. The servants and midwives, meanwhile, busy themselves with washing and drying the baby. Certain other elements of the painting, such as the drapery folds and the trees with their impossibly spindly tree-trunks suggest that the panel was painted by a young artist called Perugino. In 1786 the Walker's painting was bought from the chapel of the Casa Pucci in Florence by John Campbell, the Earl of Cawdor, whilst he was on a tour of Italy. The Pucci family was a close supporter of the Medici and major artistic patrons of Renaissance artists in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The predella first appeared in Liverpool in the collection of William Roscoe (1753 - 1831) who bought it (as a work by a different artist, Masaccio) for 9 guineas (£9.9 shillings) in 1804. Roscoe was a great admirer of the Medici family and its first English historian. He was probably attracted to the Perugino panel because of its connection to the Pucci family. Roscoe bought from the same sale several other paintings, including Simone Martini's 'Christ Discovered in the Temple' (for 5 guineas), which is also in the Walker's collection.