More than any other Renaissance master, Titian was acclaimed—in his own lifetime and for centuries thereafter—for his expressive handling of paint and rich use of color. Like his teachers Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione, Titian set many of his religious subjects in a pastoral landscape. The Kimbell panel is closely related to a version of the same composition in the National Gallery, London. In both works Mary cradles the Christ Child, who is embraced by a kneeling female saint. Various aspects of the Kimbell painting underscore the devotional theme of Christ’s impending sacrifice. Christ’s chubby arm is curled over his head in a pose used since antiquity to denote sleep as well as death. The white cloth that sets off his plump form foreshadows his shroud and also recalls the cloth traditionally used to protect the host during the Mass. X-radiography reveals that, as in the London version, Titian initially painted a figure at the left (an angel in the Kimbell version) offering flowers to the Virgin. The artist later painted over this figure with a thicket and a finch, a symbol of Christ’s Passion. Giving further emphasis to this sacrificial message, Titian also introduced the infant Saint John the Baptist gently leading a lamb.
Whereas the London version is on canvas, the Kimbell painting is on panel, which results in more deeply saturated color. Some areas—such as the sky, the Virgin’s mantle, and the saint’s dress—have darkened in color and become more transparent with age.