Visual images of mother and child are always complementary. We see two distinct figures, yet together they form a single entity. The mother’s emotions, duties, the child seeking physical and spiritual support—these are integrated into a single cultural item we call ‘mother and child’. We examine how the mother holds her child, contemplate on what she must feel, wonder if the child is satisfied or in distress—all of these questions are derived from the way in which they relate to each other. Western tradition is, of course, abundant with depictions of Mary and Jesus that exemplify almost endless interpretations of their complex relationship as part of a religious statement.
I came across the work of Bernardino Luini (1480/82–1532) while looking for images of mother and child. A northern Italian painter, he worked with Leonardo da Vinci, and some of his paintings were attributed mistakenly to da Vinci. We know very little about him. He was the son of Lombardi, born in a village on Lake Maggiore. He traveled to Milan, and then Treviso, Rome, and Lugano. Some of his works were commissioned, as he was known as an accomplished artist. He made a well-known fresco in Milan. Although very gifted, he was paid little for his work. da Vinci influenced him strongly, of course, as shown particularly in his compositions, facial expressions, and the unique play of light and dark tones, although it is generally believed that he lacked da Vinci’s depth and subtlety.
Luini had no master, in the Renaissance sense of the word. He wandered alone from place to place and never was part of a specific school. However, despite his individualistic spirit, he adhered to the artistic conventions of his time, at least in part. In many ways, his portrayal of baby Jesus and Mary is consistent with a long European tradition: Mary is depicted as either happy, as the mother of Christ, or pensive, foreseeing his future suffering. The baby may be watching his mother, sleeping, or suckling. Art historians have pointed out that during the Renaissance, babies gradually became more realistic, while the mothers remained more stylized, their faces betraying either joy or measured contemplation. da Vinci’s Madonna of the Carnation depicts Mary attentive to her child, her response measured.
However, in all pictures of Mary and Jesus, the mother and the child never relate to each other in the same manner. There is a profound difference between the way in which the mother reacts to the son and his response to her. It is this dissimilarity—the mother caring for the baby, and his dependence on her—that forms the cultural pattern of ‘mother and child’.
Yet, when examining Luini’s The Virgin Holding the Sleeping Child, I felt that the painting was fundamentally different. Mary and the baby Jesus did not relate to each other according to the common artistic tradition. Of course, they are mother and child, but they seemed to me unlike other images of the Madonna and Christ. Eventually, I concluded that they were more similar than complementary. I do not mean that their facial features look alike, which would, course, be normal for a mother and child; instead, there is an attempt to emphasize the profound similarity between them: their heads are aligned in the same direction (rather than towards each other, as is often the case), inclined to the right and slightly down, the cheeks are equally rosy, the emotional impression their mouths express is similar, and there is a sharp contrast between the heads and very light skin on the chest. Not only are the heads parallel, but also the hands, with the fingers in the exact same position and oriented in the direction; his small hand holds her exactly as she holds him. In this painting, Jesus strikes me more as a diminutive version of the mother rather than one who corresponds to her.
I do not know whether Luini made a conscious effort to create a distinctive image of motherhood. We know so little about him that it would be practically impossible to determine his motivation. I suspect that his life experience made him see the relationship between mother and son differently and he portrayed the Madonna and Child unconsciously as parallel more than interdependent. However, regardless of his intention, this hypothesis poses a set of intriguing questions: should a mother (or today, parents) emphasize the asymmetry between herself and her child, pointing constantly to the fact that she is the adult and he is the infant, or rather suggest that she and the child are essentially alike, encouraging him or her to imitate her? Is there an essential conflict between maternal duties and the intimacy created between the mother and her child? Is it possible at all for a mother to see her child as a distinct person—like her, but younger and smaller?
I would imagine that Bernardino Luini grew up motherless.