St. Joseph with the Christ Child

St. Joseph with the Christ Child

Elisabetta Sirani

oil on canvas
78 x 69 cm
source of the artwork

Capuchin friars’ convent in Faenza; arrived in the Pinacoteca following its suppression in the wake of the unification of Italy (1867)

short description

The painting is paired with Madonna of the Pear

Elisabetta Sirani, a celebrated painter born in Bologna, trained with her father Giovanni Andrea Sirani, who had himself studied under Guido Reni. The two pictures are of the same size and were probably painted on the same occasion. Even though they were painted at a fairly late date in Elisbetta’s career, they hark back to the earlier compositions that she produced in her so-called “bed chamber paintings”, in other words small paintings for private devotion. The first of the two pictures reveals a traditional iconographical composition with the Virgin swathed in blue holding the Christ Child, although in this instance Sirani has added the detail of a pear, an attribute which probably alludes to original sin and to Jesus’s role in redeeming mankind. The artist has signed the painting on the hem of the sleeve of the Virgin’s red mantle. The Christ Child appears to be bent on escaping from his mother’s embrace, while holding the fruit after which the picture is named.

The composition of the second picture is similar, but this time the Christ Child has fallen asleep in St. Joseph’s arms while tenderly clutching the saint’s finger. The view from close up, the vibrant colours and the masterly use of chiaroscuro combine to impart a strong emotional impact to the two works.

inventary n°

These two pictures come from the Capuchin friars’ convent in Faenza (although we do not know whether that was their original destination). Clearly companion pieces, they were initially attributed to Giovan Andrea Sirani, before Fiorella Frisoni (1978) correctly reassigned them to his daughter Elisabetta. On closer inspection, however, in Malvasia’s Nota delle pitture (1678) the Madonna of the Pear is mentioned by the artist herself when she writes “a Virgin, half-figure, with the Christ Child seated on her arm, showing her the apple with his right hand, his left resting on her own hands: I know not for whom ec.” These few words tell us that she either did not know or could not remember who had commissioned from her this work which she signed on the Virgin’s left sleeve. Here the Christ Child appears to be bent on escaping from his mother’s embrace, while holding the fruit that Sirani calls an apple but that is in fact the pear after which the picture is named, a symbol of original sin and of Jesus’s role in redeeming mankind. Our attention is caught by the exchange of gazes, a silent dialogue between the eyes of the Virgin and those of the Christ Child. Chiaroscuro modulates the silhouettes of the figures, softening them and creating an unstable and restless balance that is unusual in this painter’s work. In the picture with St. Joseph, on the other hand, the composition is more static – among other reasons, because the baby Jesus is asleep in St. Joseph’s arms, while clutching his index finger in his tiny hand. As in its companion piece, so here too, the atmosphere is skilfully modulated by the light that turns certain areas into expanses of colour, softening the figures’ silhouettes and imparting the tender elegance that was one of Sirani’s hallmarks to the composition as a whole. The picture also hints at the inspiration sought by the artist in Guido Reni’s numerous renditions of the same theme. Frisoni (2004) suggests that the picture may be slightly later than its probable companion piece. In any event, the two paintings sit perfectly within the trend in small devotional works in a Counter-Reformation vein which were found by the dozen in the homes of Bolognese families and which had been one of the first kinds of painting to mark Sirani’s early career.

S. Casadei, La Pinacoteca di Faenza, Bologna 1991, pp. 85-86

F. Frisoni, “La vera Sirani”, Paragone, 29, 1978, no. 335, p. 12, fig. 22

F. Frisoni, Una Sirani ancora più vera, in Elisabetta Sirani: “pittrice eroina” 1638-1665”, exhibition catalogue ed. by J. Bentini and V. Fortunati Pietrantonio (Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, 4 dicembre 2004-27 febbraio 2005) Bologna 2004, pp. 187-188

C. C. Malvasia, Felsina Pittrice: vite de’ pittori bolognesi, II, Bologna 1678, ed.1841, p. 399

A. Modesti, Elisabetta Sirani. Una virtuosa del Seicento bolognese, Bologna 2004, pp. 54-55

The images are the property of the Pinacoteca Comunale di Faenza. For the use of the images, please write to

written by
Sveva Carnevale