Mobile menu
Dosso Dossi (c. 1490-1542)

The Holy Family c. 1527-8

Oil on canvas | 169.7 x 172.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 402853

Your share link is...

  Close

  • The Holy Family is shown with the Virgin’s parents, St Joachim and St Anne. The cockerel held by the Christ Child alludes to his Resurrection and the reawakening of the world, as the cock crows to mark the dawn of a new day. The painting was almost certainly commissioned by the Gonzaga, rulers of Mantua, in whose inventory of 1627 it is recorded.

    Giovanni de Lutero’s family owned property at Villa Dossi, near Mantua, from which the artist derived his name. Dossi’s first documented work was for Francesco Gonzaga II in Mantua in 1512, but by the following year he had settled in Ferrara where he was the leading court artist for the rest of his life, first for Alfonso d’Este and then for his son Ercole II.

    The commission for this Holy Family probably came from the ruling Mantuan family, the Gonzaga, as it first appears in the inventory of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua in 1627. It was not heard of for an artist at the court of Ferrara to work for the nearby court of Mantua: there was a friendly rivalry between Alfonso d’Este and his sister, Isabella, who married Francesco II Gonzaga, Marchese of Mantua, in 1490. In 1519 Dosso Dossi and Titian were allowed to study Isabella’s collection in the Castello in Mantua on behalf of Alfonso; in 1523 Isabella was interested in a view of Ferrara by Dosso in her brother’s collection, which she wished to have copied.

    There is some uncertainty about the subject of the painting, although it probably depicts the Holy Family with the Virgin’s parents, St Joachim and St Anne. The cockerel so firmly grasped by the Christ Child alludes to his Resurrection and the reawakening of the world under the new dispensation, as the cock crows to mark the dawn of a new day. The Virgin Mary points to her son, while St Anne raises her hand in recognition. The red and white lilies allude to the purity of the Virgin; the small white flower, seen growing in the foreground, possibly a strawberry flower, is also an emblem of the Virgin.

    This painting was first identified as by Dosso by Van der Doort in 1639, an attribution which has never since been disputed, although it has been suggested that Dosso’s brother Battista may have contributed to the landscape. It can be dated to c.1527-8 by comparison with Dosso’s Saints John the Evangelist and Bartholomew with Pontichino della Salle and another man (Palazzo Barberini, Rome) of c.1527.

    Dosso planned his composition directly onto the grey prepared layer of the canvas without the use of preliminary drawings. The many changes that he made while painting are now partially visible. Initially, the Virgin wore a fuller green and blue robe with elaborate bunched folds extending further to the left, and with a tumble of drapery towards the bottom right, below the figure of St Anne. Dosso moved the Virgin’s head slightly to the right and painted out a twisted crimson sash that curled around her body. He also moved the head of St Anne further down and to the left and simplified her headdress.

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
    Provenance

    Acquired by Charles I from the Mantuan Collection; recorded in the Long Gallery at Whitehall in 1639 (no 42); sold from Somerset House for £100 to Proctor on 7 November 1649 (no 65); recovered at the Restoration and listed in the Square Table Room at Whitehall in 1666 (no 163)

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas

    Measurements

    169.7 x 172.7 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    192.4 x 195.7 x 8.6 cm (frame, external)