TIZIANO Vecellio
(b. 1490, Pieve di Cadore, d. 1576, Venezia)

Madonna and Child with St Catherine and a Rabbit

Oil on canvas, 74 x 84 cm
Musée du Louvre, Paris

In 1529 Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua ordered three more works from Titian. The only one to survive is probably identifiable with the Madonna and Child with St Catherine and a Shepherd, known as the Madonna of the Rabbit. With a look of winning encouragement the Virgin restrains the rabbit, a symbol of fecundity, so that the child can clamber down and play with it. The richly dressed St Catherine, proffering her charge like a lady-in- waiting, introduces a courtly aspect, and in fact the Giorgionesque shepherd in the background may be a portrait of Federico himself: Since x-rays show that the Madonna's head was originally turned in his direction. In the foreground, the delicate wild flowers recall the locus amoenus or "idyllic setting" of classical poetry, and in the park-like landscape we see the Arcadia of the Concert Champêtre refracted through the smiling fertility of the Ferrara Bacchanals. Nowhere else does Titian so successfully integrate the traditions of the Sacra Conversazione and the Pastoral.

This painting mainly captivates through the beauty of its colours and the marvellous landscape. The small format is a sign that this was a private devotional picture. What at first sight appears to be a normal picture of the Madonna gains an additional, very private dimension as a result.