Virgin and Child

Frederick Ilchman

Art needs to be seen. I believe a work of art becomes truly complete when a viewer is part of the equation. Without someone observing the artist’s work—perhaps centuries old—a portion of the meaning is lost. When a painting or sculpture is tucked away in the corner of someone’s attic, or in a climate-controlled vault at a museum, it isn’t being appreciated. Part of the sadness I felt when the MFA closed to the public in 2020 was for the dark, empty halls filled with masterpieces awaiting their viewers. It’s been a joy to see the galleries brought back to life, once again bustling with visitors who imbue our collection with meaning.

But which art gets to be seen? In some rooms at the MFA, such as the large “Impressionism and Beyond” gallery, we swap out artworks several times a year. New arrivals offer new emphasis and juxtapositions. The quality of our collection means that we can easily fill a gap in our displays from storage when we lend an object to another museum or one needs treatment by a conservator. Some kinds of art, particularly works on paper and textiles, are light sensitive; they can only be on view for a limited time and are otherwise stored in the dark.

Some pieces don’t make the cut for display. Their condition may be compromised, or their scale—very large or small—may make them difficult to include in a gallery. Perhaps they aren’t innovative enough to deserve the limited real estate available on our walls. A curator will generally choose a first-generation Cubist painting by Picasso over one made in a similar style a generation or two later.

Deciding which works to display is a fundamental question in planning a gallery from scratch. When we installed our new Italian Renaissance galleries a few months ago, we had to be selective. We created beautiful spaces for viewers to contemplate a portion of the paintings we own, such as the marvelous perspectival scene (about 1467) by Fra Carnevale, or Rosso Fiorentino’s powerful The Dead Christ with Angels (about 1524–27). Other Italian paintings from the period of 1400 to 1600 remain in storage, awaiting a future need.

Of those works, I have long admired a tender painting, probably made in the 1510s, of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus on her lap. The two figures are brightly lit, set off from a dark background. I particularly enjoy the contrast of the calm mother and the squirming child. His body twists as he looks out, with his left arm pressing against his mother for balance, his right hand playing with his toes. The curls of golden hair are delicately rendered. Scholars call this a fine example of High Renaissance painting, the period from about 1480 to 1530 that prized harmony and grace.

A painting of a haloed Virgin Mary clothed in red and green with a haloed baby in her lap.
Master of the Scandicci Lamentation, Virgin and Child, after 1508. Oil on panel. Robert Dawson Evans Collection.

So why has this lovely picture been relegated to storage for years? Like a second-generation Cubist painting, it’s simply not innovative enough. The two figures are derived from the central section of a big altarpiece in Florence—the Madonna del Baldacchino (Madonna of the Canopy)—that the young Raphael left unfinished in 1508, when he departed for Rome. As well executed as it is, our painting is not an original design.

The picture’s previous owner took a grander view. Maria Antoinette Evans (1845–1917), one of the MFA’s biggest donors in the early 20th century, was sure her painting had been made by Andrea del Sarto, one of the greatest High Renaissance artists (and a contemporary of Raphael). Mrs. Evans paid for construction of the Museum’s Evans Wing, the whole north section of the building with the granite columns looking over the Back Bay Fens. A few years later, her large bequest included fine pictures, including a superb double portrait (about 1621–22) by the Flemish painter Jacob Jordaens. But some of her holdings, such as this Virgin and Child, have not stood the test of time.

Now we attribute this painting to the “Master of the Scandicci Lamentation,” after a painting of the Lamentation of Christ located in the town of Scandicci, outside Florence. That picture is the starting point for reconstructing the oeuvre of an artist, still unidentified, active in Florence in the first quarter of the 16th century. A number of paintings by the same hand are very similar to the MFA’s example, all deriving from Raphael’s prototype.

Our picture might still be in storage, awaiting its viewer, had fate not intervened. Last February, the United States Postal Service contacted the MFA, asking if we would grant permission to use Virgin and Child for the 2022 Christmas Forever stamp. Having enviously looked on in past years as works from other US museums were chosen for the honor, we leapt at the chance. To get the painting ready for public view for the first time in decades, we commissioned a new frame, and one of our conservators spent months treating the painting. The stamp was unveiled at the MFA on September 22, 2022, the first day of issue, complete with Italian music performed by Boston’s own Handel and Haydn Society. Our painting now looks splendid in gallery 254, where it hangs on the west wall, next to a larger Virgin and Child (1561), also Florentine. Thanks to the United States Postal Service, our painting’s image circulates the globe on the upper-right corners of envelopes. As this year’s Christmas stamp, it will be seen on hundreds of millions of heartfelt holiday cards, letters, and thank-you notes. I’m sure our still-unidentified painter and Mrs. Evans would be pleased.

Hands holding up an envelope and book of stamps featuring a blonde Virgin Mary carrying a baby Jesus.
The 2022 USPS Christmas Forever stamps featuring MFA Boston’s Virgin and Child.

Frederick Ilchman is Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of Paintings and chair, Art of Europe.