Madonna and Child with St. Anne
Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child with Saint Anne reveals an endearing family scene rich with displays of intimate tenderness and affection. The Virgin is caught in a moment of rapture of motherly love, while St. Anne shows a more sober attitude; Christ child, playing beneath the two, returns an ambiguous look. The scope of sentiment brings to mind The Last Supper, where each apostle marks a different point in a broad emotional arch.
The image combines two canonic Catholic themes. One is the meeting of generations, where the grandmother, the mother, and the child appear together, interacting. The other is the notion of the sacrifice and passion, represented by the the lamb, and the toddler holding it.
More often than not the central mood in visual expression of both themes tends towards the contemplative, or mournful — reflecting the magnitude of forthcoming distant events. Da Vinci, however, prefers to focus on the immediate rather than the distant, investing the painting with urgent emotional energy. Contemplation is only marginally suggested by the misty background and St. Anne’s aloof expression.
Idyll turned Tragedy
While thoughtful, St. Anne’s face also beams with joy, her curving smile (a trademark motif that reappears in the Mona Lisa) and the arm stuck in her side betraying signs of good-natured irony. The way the child irreverently plays with the lamb, and looks up, with perhaps just a glint of mischief, underscores the idyllic tones of the scene. Overall, on a literal level the group telegraphs a sense of deep trust and unconditional support.
Indeed, the image may appear idyllic at first — a love-drenched family scene with a pet — but its underlying dark motifs gradually take shape as we lower our gaze and look closer at the child. Da Vinci makes him reveal his purpose in subtle motions and gestures: he holds the lamb in a such a way as to create a juxtaposition between its head and his own. His inquisitive, ambiguous look narrates his actions: “look at us, mother, we’re exactly the same.”
Common context (basic understanding of Christian iconography) bridges between the literal and the suggested figurative meaning. The artist assumes that the observers know their catechisms: there is no actual gap if the religious background is taken for granted. If we are to interpret the painting correctly, we must be familiar with the concept of Jesus’ sacrifice.
In front of us is a dynamic composition that’s barely contained by the classic pyramid shape: every actor moves and interacts with the others, threatening to break the triangular boundaries — which may appear somewhat artificial as a result.
In a sudden descent, Madonna lowers her body to form a ninety degree angle with St. Anne’s mostly upright position. She responds to the activity and meaning ensuing from below: the child is playing with the animal as if it were a close pet, holding it by the ears, and pinning to the ground with a plump leg.
St. Anne is removed from Christ and his martyrdom both generationally and via visual hierarchy, a distance also emphasized by Mary’s sudden rush downwards, away from her mother, towards the child. Physically, the matriarch tops the group, and appears the largest of the participants. As our eyes travel down, the shapes become smaller — but their significance grows in inverse proportion, as they accumulate more symbolism.
The emotional force of the Virgin’s impulse towards her son anticipates another Christian canon, the Pieta. The child’s grip on the lamb symbolizes how tightly linked — apparently with all his limbs, as he would be with the cross — he is to the sacrifice the animal represents. He guides the lamb to look up at the mother, as if saying “I am — it, and it — is me,” forcing the parent to acknowledge the forthcoming passion.
At once being held and being let go (a tragic struggle), child Christ is confined between Mary and the lamb. He forms a link in a notional chain, suggesting a familiar religious narrative: he comes from one — the Virgin and the immaculate conception — to become the other — the martyred Messiah, the Saviour. As a mother, Madonna is at odds with the sacrifice, as a saint, she accepts it.
By being placed between the Madonna and the lamb, small Jesus is made to mark “a stage” between his human start and divine purpose. Such compositional placement allows to infer the concept of the duality of Christ, as he absorbs from both ends, uniting them into one. He is made a mediator, reflecting his function of connecting between believing Christians and God.
To give his ideas a powerful visual anchor, Da Vinci creates a memorable repetition effect of outstretched hands. We see both Madonna and child extend their hands in an almost identical embracing motion; the repetition generates a visual rhythm, as our eyes go back and forth, following the saints as they return each other’s glances.
This rhythmic device features the child in two different roles: as a passive agent when held by Mary, and as an active one when he holds the lamb. This dichotomous agency — during which the child is equated to the passive sacrificial animal — may again imply the dual transcendent nature of Christ.
Given a Chance
The misty, grand, mountainous landscape in the background encourages contemplation, much like it is reflected in St. Anne’s face. She, like us, is an almost external observer, removed somewhat from the mother and son physically, allowed to literally keep her head in the clouds.
Like her, we are all given a chance to contemplate the story of Christian becoming in an abstract, removed manner. We are given this chance by God — and by Leonardo da Vinci.