(b. 1494, Pontormo, d. 1557, Firenze)

Madonna and Child with Saints

Oil on wood, 214 x 185 cm
San Michele Visdomini, Florence

Pontormo executed this celebrated painting for the chapel of Francesco di Giovanni Pucci in the church San Michele Visdomini in Florence. The painting, usually mentioned as the Pucci Altarpiece, portrays the Virgin with St John the Evangelist, Joseph, holding the baby Jesus, the young St John, St Francis and St James, the latter being the artist's self-portrait. This work shows clear references to classical figurative culture, although overall there is a definite break with the effects of harmony and equilibrium.

The figures are arranged in two areas, divided by a vertical axis, which forms the height of a triangle, at whose apex is the Virgin's head. The painting, which also shows evident references to the psychological characterization and sfumato of Leonardesque works, nonetheless represents a moment of exasperation and overall saturation of classical motifs.

The compositions of both the right part and the left part, although symmetrical and populated by an identical number of figures, are organized very differently. The complex twisting of the bodies and the many different directions of the gestures suggest the use of a grid of extremely complicated and dynamic geometrical schemes. The lines of vision go in all possible directions; in no instance do they cross or match, this emphasizing the psychological isolation of the figures. The facial features and expressions of the older Joseph and St John the Evangelist, as well as the laughing putti, are exaggeratedly pronounced. In short, everything combines to create an atmosphere of restless instability. The effect of suffocating compression produced by the reduction of spatial depth, and by the dense chiaroscuro that attenuates the colours, is counterbalanced by a centrifugal energy generated by the agitation of the figures. This definitely breaks the harmonious unity of the classical compositional structure.