Santi di Tito left his hometown of Sansepolcro around 1550 to study in Florence, eventually making his way into the shop of Agnolo Bronzino. After a period of work in Rome he returned to Florence where he became one of the outstanding artists of the second half of the sixteenth century, contributing to decoration of the private study (or studiolo) of Francesco I de’ Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio in the 1570s. In his devotional paintings, above all many important commissions for altarpieces, he broke away from the artificial style of many of his contemporaries, returning to an intense study of earlier Florentine artists, such as Andrea del Sarto, and introducing a decided shift towards a more naturalistic approach. This pictorial reform was closely allied with the renewed emphasis on the affective power of painting and places him among such outstanding innovators as Federico Barocci.
Vasari said that Santi produced many paintings of the Madonna and Child, but few have come down to us; of them this is one of the most carefully composed. John the Baptist offers the lamb of sacrifice to Christ who grasps one of its legs while the Madonna, seated on the ground, steadies him; the three figures are arranged in a tightly interlocked group with studied gestures, reminiscent of Andrea del Sarto, and are set before a landscape with classical architecture. The unusual palette, with its color harmonies of purple, orange, and pale green, is characteristic of the artist, as is the subtle fall of light to suggest volume and mass. Like most of the works done in the 1570s the panel is notable for the painterly quality of the brushwork, lending a fresh quality to the curls of the children’s hair, for example, and for the great sensitivity with which the Virgin’s head is modeled, as well as the tender way in which she supports the Christ Child’s arm. A later version of the painting (private collection) is slightly larger and includes a figure of Saint Joseph in the background as well as a column to replace the round temple found here, signaling a change in the iconography. The second version shares the harder, less painterly style of Santi’s work after about 1580, when he strove for a style more in tune with Counter Reformation devotion.
Many drawings show Santi working with this subject. One of the sheets closest to this composition includes three quick pen and ink sketches of a seated Madonna, two of them with the figures of the Christ Child and the Baptist, as well as a more developed study of the Holy Family (Worcester Art Museum, 2011.311). In these sketches the artist considers the positions of the figures in a way directly parallel to the emphasis on the pyramidal structure of the painting.
The provenance of the painting cannot yet be pushed back before 1928 when it was owned by the British collector Walter J. Abraham, Esq., and was attributed to Jacopo Pontormo.