(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

The Virgin and Child Enthroned (Bardi Altarpiece)

Tempera on panel, 185 x 180 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Botticelli painted one of his most impressive altar paintings, the Virgin and Child Enthroned between St John the Baptist and St John the Evangelist, known as the Bardi altarpiece, for Giovanni de' Bardi. Bardi, who came from Florence, was known as the "great English merchant" by his contemporaries; he had directed the London branch of the Medici bank for a long period and had made his money exporting wool. When Bardi returned to his native city from England in 1483, he built a chapel in Santo Spirito for his spiritual salvation. The altar top and paneling is still in the Bardi Chapel today, in a prominent location to the left of the choir. The altarpiece, in contrast, is now in the Berlin Gemäldegalerie; the original frame, produced by the wood carver and architect Giuliano da Sangallo, has been lost.

Portrayed as the so-called Madonna lactans, the Virgin is baring her breast in order to feed her child. The client, Giovanni de' Bardi, chose the two saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, his patron saints, as intercessors. The Baptist, being the patron saint of Florence, was accorded the place of honour to the right of the Mother of God, and he is pointing the observer towards the Madonna and child. At his feet lies the instrument of his work, the baptismal bowl. The Evangelist to the left of Mary is an old man; he is holding a quill and book, and the eagle behind him is his evangelist's symbol.

The composition of this Sacra Conversazione clearly shows his originality. Botticelli produced a different solution to the classical three-part structure of such paintings, showing the enthroned Madonna and Child flanked by saints, from that of his artistic colleagues. He did not simply use architectural elements to structure the picture surface, but mainly used naturalistically painted niches of foliage to form a deferential backdrop for the holy figures.