Experimentation from Tradition in Parmigianino's 'Virgin and Child'

Explore Parmigianino's process of experimentation in this seemingly unfinished painting.

Virgin and Child Virgin and Child (1527/1528) by ParmigianinoThe Courtauld Institute of Art

In this painting considered unusual and daring for its time, The Virgin and Child (c. 1527-28) attests to Parmigianino's confidence as a painter.

Virgin and Child Virgin and Child (1527/1528) by ParmigianinoThe Courtauld Institute of Art

Previously thought to be unfinished due to the Sack of Rome in 1527, recent interest in Parmigianino's artistic process has revealed the Virgin and Child as an intentionally unfinished painting, making it an early example of an abbozza, or a painted sketch.

Many of Parmigianino's paintings are highly finished, but in Virgin and Child he boldly demonstrates his ability to use paint as a fluid, malleable medium.

The Madonna is depicted reclining with her legs outstretched, as she tenderly reaches her hand towards the Christ Child in front of her.

As Parmigianino drew swiftly and decisively with his brushstrokes, the garments of the virgin appear translucent in parts and reveal the position of the body hidden beneath it with mastery.

This was an unusual detail for an early sixteenth-century painting. At the time, artists tended to prefer smooth surfaces and clear outlines, delivering pictures to a high state of finish.

Parmigianino's experimentation from tradition extends beyond brushstrokes. Rather ambiguously, the Virgin does not bear a halo, and the Christ child does not carry a cross. In fact, there are no visible religious symbols in the painting.

The lower right-hand corner shows a more clearly unfinished quality as the imprimatura, a thin layer of colour applied to the ground before painting, shows through.

The white cushions behind the playful Christ Child almost seem to recall wings, as if he were Cupid.

The curtain on the right-hand side frames the two figures, while an imposing classical building looms over them in the background on the left.

The architecture may have been inspired by the ancient Roman Septizodium, a building still standing in Rome when Parmigianino was there.

In the distance, a rich blue sky seems to darken over the hills, adding a dramatic intensity to the almost surreal surroundings. The sky is painted thickly, using richly grained pigments.

Want to learn more about Parmigianino's Virgin and Child ? Watch Dr Guido Rebecchini, Reader in Sixteenth-Century Southern European Art, reconsider Parmigianino's intentions of his sketch-like painting.

In Detail: 'Virgin and child’ by Parmigianino, From the collection of: The Courtauld Institute of Art
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Parmigianino (1503-1540), Virgin and Child, c. 1527-28, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust) © The Courtauld

Virgin and Child Virgin and Child (1527/1528) by ParmigianinoThe Courtauld Institute of Art

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