Madonna with St Zachariah dates to the early 1530s, when the artist, who had fled after the Sack of Rome 1527, was staying in Bologna for a few years, focusing on an intense production of altarpieces and paintings for private devotion like this one.
The stern gaze of the priest, father of John the Baptist, guides the beholder towards the Virgin, who is sitting down with the Child in her arms. Baby Jesus is held tight by John the Baptist. John the Baptist is bending over to give his cousin a tender kiss, which he returns, caressing his cheek. On the left, a sensual Mary Magdalene, her breast barely concealed by her long blonde flowing hair, shows the vase of anointing oils, her traditional attribute.
The heavy book held by St Zachariah in his left arm may be the key to interpreting the meaning of the work, which refers to St John as the precursor of the Messiah. The fragmented wording visible on the book is indeed taken from a passage of Luke’s gospel (1:68) in which St Zachariah, when naming his son John, regains the power of speech and immediately recognises his son as a prophet. More on this painting
Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (also known as Francesco Mazzola or, more commonly, as Parmigianino); 11 January 1503 – 24 August 1540) was an Italian Mannerist painter and printmaker active in Florence, Rome, Bologna, and his native city of Parma. His work is characterized by a “refined sensuality” and often elongation of forms, and he remains the best known artist of the first generation whose whole careers fall into the Mannerist period.
His prodigious and individual talent has always been recognised, but his career was disrupted by war, especially the Sack of Rome in 1527, three years after he moved there, and then ended by his death at only 37. He produced outstanding drawings, and was one of the first Italian painters to experiment with printmaking himself. While his portable works have always been keenly collected and are now in major museums in Italy and around the world, his two large projects in fresco are in a church in Parma and a palace in a small town nearby. This in conjunction with their lack of large main subjects has resulted in their being less well known than other works by similar artists. He painted a number of important portraits, leading a trend in Italy towards the three-quarters or full-length figure, previously mostly reserved for royalty. More on Parmigianino
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