Celebrated for his powers of invention, range of expression, and technical prowess, Donatello was the preeminent Italian sculptor of the fifteenth century. Madonna reliefs were among the most common works of art produced during this time, and Donatello’s conception of the genre—its spirituality, naturalism, and rendering of mass and depth in what is in fact a shallow plane—counts among the most remarkable and influential achievements of the period. Because of the demand for these devotional works, which were displayed in family chapels, bedrooms, and the public areas of residences, his compositions were much copied and imitated. Among the many “Donatellesque” Madonna reliefs that survive, those likely to have been sculpted by the master himself are rare.
Until 1902 the Borromeo Madonna was in the church of San Giovanni Battista in Lissaro di Mestrino, a village near Padua. In the fifteenth century the church was under the exclusive patronage of the prominent Borromeo family, who were bankers and merchants in Milan, Padua, and Venice. Antonio Borromeo and his son were on the board of the basilica of Sant’Antonio in Padua (the Santo), which com-missioned Donatello’s masterwork, a complex bronze altarpiece completed by 1450. A member of the Borromeo family probably acquired the Kimbell’s Madonna relief around this time, although it is not documented at Lissaro di Mestrino until about 1500.
Over time the original painted and gilded surface of the relief was disfigured by layers of stucco and overpaint. A recent cleaning that removed these later accretions, leaving only the few surviving traces of original color, has revealed the quality of the modeling. The sense of intimate and intense emotion is characteristic of Donatello. Christ trains his eyes on his mother, whose gaze is wistful and diverted in prescience of his future sacrifice on the cross.