Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647)
The Virgin Hands the Child to Saint Cajetan of Thiene
c. 1620-1630
oil on canvas
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 41708


General Description

This painting is the result of a vision of the Virgin and Child by Cajetan of Thiene (1480-1547) on Christmas night, 1517, in Santa Maria Maggiore (Rome).  He described the vision in a letter to Sr. Laura Mignani.

The Vision

“I, the daring one, at the hour of His Birth, I found myself right in the very Holy Crèche.  I was heartened by my Father, adorer of the Crèche, the blessed Jerome, whose bones are hidden in the cave of the Crèche, and, with the confidence of the old man, from the hand of the timid Virgin, a new Mother, my mistress, I took the tender Baby, flesh and embodiment of the Eternal Word.  My heart must have been quite hard, believe me, because if it did not melt at that moment, it must surely have the hardness of diamonds.” (Luciani, 1996, 227-228)

Together with Charles Borromeo and Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Cajetan of Thiene was regarded as one of the important promoters of church reform in the sixteenth century.  A lawyer and secretary to Pope Julian II, he was a one-time member of the Oratory of Divine Love, and later joined the Brotherhood of Saint Jerome dedicated to the poor and infirm.  In 1524, he founded with three companions, the Congregation of the Theatines (from Theate, name of the archbishopric of his founding companion, G. P. Caraffa and later, Pope Paul IV) committed to church reform, in particular, that of clerics. Cajetan was canonized in 1671.

The Motto

It is believed that this painting was commissioned by the Theatine Fathers on the occasion of their founder’s beatification in 1629.  It is the artistic translation of the saint’s vision, and simultaneously reflects the founding moment of the Theatines and their spirituality. Indeed, angels in the upper right corner are holding an open book bearing the Theatine motto, “Quaerite Regnum Dei.”

Matthew’s invitation to “seek first the Kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33) highlights dependence on God and trust in divine providence as they are  expressed e.g., in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-14).  Of course, the ultimate reason for this holy audacity is found in Mary’s gift to the saint. She hands the Christ Child to Cajetan of Thiene.

The Painting

Cajetan is dressed in a cassock, eagerly extending his left arm to Mary.  Behind him, we see the figure of an old man dressed in liturgical garb. He encourages Cajetan but is held in check by what looks like an angel.  The personage may be Saint Jerome mentioned in the letter about the vision. More likely, we are dealing here with a member of the Theatine Order, Saint Andrea Avellino (1521-1608).  He died suddenly while saying Mass, and was beatified  about the same time as Cajetan (1624).  A profusion of drapery and baroque exaltation heightens the impression of drama.  The scene is constructed according to a double diagonal, one along the line of Cajetan’s and Avellino’s bodies, the other – sharp and steep – formed by the angel on the left and the Madonna with the Child.  The two lines suggest a converging movement.  The dark front (Cajetan and Avellino) tends toward the light, while Mother and Child seem eager to share the light and move toward the two saints.  The result is one of increased attention, on the part of the onlooker, to the focal point of this double movement which is centered in the Christ Child.  Accessories such as the blue and white flowers to the right, and the broad and sumptuously displayed cape of the Madonna underscore beauty of the soul and virtue (flowers) and revelation of love and light in Christ (cape).

The Light

Although never exhibited before, critics have rated this painting as “splendid” and “superb.” Giovanni Lanfranco owes this posthumous fame in part to his skillful use of Correggio’s technique of “chiaro-scuro.” Lanfranco’s painting is characteristic of Correggio’s Adoration of the Christ Child, commonly known as La Notte, the night (Gemäldegalerie Dresden).  In both works, the only light is coming from the Child. It literally transforms the baby in a child of light, irradiating the face of the mother and permeating with his brilliance those who seek him out, or happen to be in the vicinity.

In Correggio’s La Notte, there is a young shepherdess protecting her eyes against an abundance of light coming from the Child. In Correggio, the light has atmospheric value.  It creates a climate of peace and contemplation, and gives prominence to the mother. In our painting, the light conveys a more active and communicative impression.  It symbolizes revelation understood as spiritual dynamism.  No wonder the light emanating from the Christ Child was characterized as “splendor . . . and light of divinity.” (Vasari on behalf of Correggio)  The Protevangelium of James uses a similar symbolism to describe the birth of Christ: “. . . a great light appeared, so that our eyes could not bear it.” (19)

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog:  The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 72-74. 

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