FRAME|WORK: Virgin and Child with Putti by Andrea della Robbia

FRAME|WORK is a weekly blog series that highlights an artwork in the Museums' permanent collections. As we approach the Christmas holiday, it seems only appropriate to examine one of the many works in the European Decorative Arts and Sculpture department that deals with the subject of the Holy Family. This poignant Virgin and Child with Putti by Andrea della Robbia is currently on display in Gallery 4 at the Legion of Honor.

Virgin and Child with Putti

Andrea della Robbia (Italian, Florence, 1437–1525). Virgin and Child with Putti, ca. 1490–1495. Glazed terracotta. Museum purchase, Alfred S. Wilsey Memorial Fund. 2003.1

Members of the della Robbia family were prominent sculptors in Renaissance Florence, best known for their maiolica reliefs such as this Virgin and Child surrounded by garlands of fruit and foliage. These tin-glazed earthenware reliefs were usually installed in dwellings or religious institutions as devotional objects and appealed to the popular piety expressed by Florentines in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Luca della Robbia (1400–1482) was the progenitor of the della Robbia family’s sculpture dynasty. The art historian Leon Battista Alberti placed Luca in the same category as his more famous contemporaries Donatello and Ghiberti. Luca went on to teach and collaborate with his nephew Andrea, who created this Virgin and Child with Putti.

After his uncle’s death, Andrea assumed the head of his family’s sculpture workshop and soon became one of the most important ceramic glaze artists of his generation. Andrea’s son, Giovanni della Robbia, also carried on the family art practice and maintained the della Robbia studio after Andrea’s death.

Both Luca and his nephew Andrea employed the traditional glazing palette of blue and white, whereas succeeding generations (including Giovanni) responded to the changing taste for polychromed surfaces. In this work, a noticeable blue speck in the Virgin’s halo is the result of a mineral's leaching out from the clay body and is often seen in Andrea’s work. The artist has beautifully rendered the Virgin who lovingly embraces the child, her sad countenance perhaps suggesting her foreknowledge of his fate.

Sculpture was the della Robbia family tradition–make your family tradition a holiday visit to the Legion of Honor!