A Thousand Words

Leonardo's Madonna and Child with Saint Anne

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

The Madonna and Child with Saint Anne has long been regarded as a problem picture, not only for us but also for Leonardo. The iconography creates a fundamentally impossible visual dilemma: how to combine two adult figures and a small child into a dramatic and unified whole, giving each one equal weight and successfully conveying the theological concepts they traditionally stand for. Earlier solutions like Masaccio's (Figure 1) imposed a medieval hierarchy of scale and at best created interlocking generational boxes to form a kind of human trinity of Christ's human genesis. Such a static devotional image did not satisfy Leonardo, who sought always for drama and . . .

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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