Birth and death in Lavinia Fontana’s Holy Family painting

Renaissance artists often employed foreshadowing as a theological device in their paintings of Christ’s infancy to remind viewers that Jesus came not just to live a perfect life but to die an atoning death on behalf of sinners. Over all the joy and celebration of the Nativity looms the dark cloud of Crucifixion.

Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis by Lavinia Fontana (1552–1614)—one of the first professional female artists to achieve international fame—is one such work that’s embedded with signs of future death: a sarcophagus-like crib resting on an altar-like slab; Mary’s elevation of the body of Christ in a manner that recalls the priest’s raising of the host during the Eucharist; Francis’s cradling of a crucifix in his left elbow pit; and a curtain opening into darkness.

A year earlier, Fontana’s firstborn child died, so her bereavement may have partially inspired the painting.

Holy Family with Saints by Lavinia Fontana
Lavinia Fontana (Italian, 1552–1614), Holy Family with Saints Margaret and Francis, 1578. Oil on canvas, 127 × 104.1 cm (50 × 41 in.). Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts.

[ZOOM IN]

The following commentary by Margaret A. Samu is taken from the 2001 exhibition catalog Divine Mirrors: The Virgin Mary in the Visual Arts (pp. 197–98):

In her Holy Family with Saints, Lavinia Fontana presents the Madonna in an intimate domestic scene. Mary tenderly places the infant Christ in a cradle as Joseph stands behind her; opposite them, Saints Margaret and Francis bow their heads in worship. At first glance, the painting appears to celebrate both Christ’s divine birth and the human joy of motherhood, yet its iconographical elements speak also of Christ’s death.

Fontana is widely considered to be the first professional woman artist, as she received numerous commissions for portraits and large-scale religious paintings and actually supported her family by her work. She painted the Holy Family just as her career was beginning to flourish. As an assertion of her arrival as an artist, the painting prominently bears her signature and the date: LAVINIA FONTANA DE ZAPPIS FACIEBAT MDLXXVIII. This signature not only allows us to date the painting with ease but also reveals something of the confidence of this artist, who signs her work like a master so early in her career. Unknown to Italian scholars before the 1990s, this painting has gained prominence in two recent exhibitions.

Like other artists of her period, Fontana responds to the artistic decrees of the Counter-Reformation by turning away from the excesses of the Mannerist style in which she had been trained. Instead, she uses linear perspective and foreshortening to create a realistic sense of spatial recession that clearly defines the setting. In addition, she gives her figures the modest dress and pious decorum that are appropriate to the painting’s religious subject matter. By creating a balanced, nearly symmetrical composition with strong upward diagonals, she emphasizes the centrality of Christ to the devotional image. The linking of her figures by gazes and graceful gestures shows that, like other Bolognese artists, she was influenced by the work of the High Renaissance artist Correggio. In order to succeed as a woman artist in a male-dominated art world, Fontana had to adhere scrupulously to the newly defined doctrines of the Church that arose out of the 1545–1562 Ecumenical Council of Trent.

The artistic verisimilitude of the painting would have made its iconography all the easier for contemporary viewers to read. Saint Margaret is recognizable by her attribute, the dragon that accompanies her. According to legend, she became the patron saint of women in childbirth after using her cross to deliver herself unharmed from the belly of the dragon that had swallowed her as a test of her Christian faith; she then asked women to call upon her for the safe delivery of their children. Bathed in a beatific light, Mary and Saint Margaret are fully absorbed in the present moment, worshipping and caring for the child who raises his plump hand in a babyish sign of blessing. Standing in shadowy gloom, the male saints appear unaware of the scene of maternal bliss before them. Somberly contemplating the crucifix, they are occupied not with the present, the infant Christ, but with his coming death on the cross. To emphasize the point, Saint Francis reveals the stigmata on his hands, miraculous signs of his communion with Christ’s suffering.

Yet the light and dark areas of the painting do not create an absolute division between present and future concerns. Saint Francis is also associated with Christ’s birth: credited with creating the first Nativity scene in an Italian grotto in the thirteenth century, he cradles the tiny crucifix in his arm like a mother holding a child. Mary, on the other hand, does not cradle the child near her but places him in a sarcophagus-like crib on a sacrificial altar table. She lifts his body like a priest raising the Host—the transubstantiated body of Christ—in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

Fontana’s inextricable merging of these signs of the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ may reflect her contemplation of the recent birth and subsequent death of her own first-born child in the year before she painted the Holy Family. As she depicts this theme of great personal significance, Fontana also establishes a connection between the divine and earthly planes: a holy subject takes on the real, everyday quality of a domestic scene, while an everyday scene of motherhood is lifted to a sacred level.

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