The above work was chosen quite by chance; while standing in line at the leftmost cashier at the main entrance to the Metropolitan Museum, I was struck by the classical beauty of this piece set into the wall, its equilibrium of composition (its symmetry), which "(translated into moral terms), signifies dominion over the passions and studious serenity."
There is in that bas-relief sculpture in glazed terracotta an atmosphere of mystical tranquility, portrayed in a pose, an attitude of tender motherly love. The delicate white figures of the Madonna and Child stand out in relief against a deep astral blue background and comprise the central group; the Dove is dispatched by the Father, who is portrayed wearing a crown and with hands extended in a beneficent manner from a cloud of cherubim above them. The Virgin's hair is gathered under a veil; she is in a three-quarter turned profile, depicted facing the Child, who is seated on her lap to her right. The figures remain subject to the principle of the overall balance of the scene and yet achieve variety in unity, a vividness and animation within the harmonious structure of the whole: their realism (the solid and uncompromising corporeity of these central figures) is expressed in a vibrant harmony of attitudes and robes that alludes to the influence of Donatello.
A world of intimacy and motherly tenderness is in the mien of the Virgin, contrasted by the lively and natural expression of the Child. There is a carefully studied correspondence of form: the Child is the central axis of the composition, partly by virtue of that little foot pushed forward (held back by the large plump hand of His Mother) and His raised right hand (echoed yet again by the Mother's other hand, steadying His cavorting form).
Lucca Della Robbia is recognized as the founder of the Della Robbia dynasty of clay artists and inventor of the technique of glazed terracotta decoration; rather than true inventor, "(Della Robbia's) contribution was a conscious and deliberate revival by the sculptor of a very ancient technique, now placed at the service of monumental plastic art." The application of a clear tin-based glaze preserved these fragile works made out of earthen clay.
Andrea Della Robbia (son of Lucca Della Robbia's brother, Marco) inherited an established workshop from his uncle in 1482. Andrea Della Robbia is credited for having developed the art of glazed terracotta and "achieved its wide dissemination well into the sixteenth century, combining the lessons that he had received from Lucca in the studio with the new ideas that were emerging among young artists (in the city of Florence)."
Andrea's strength as an artist lies in his ability to communicate directly to his audience; the clarity and directness of his message helped popularize the terracotta production of his studio. The formal language incorporated by his design includes certain artistic conventions derived from the Platonic concept of beauty, which is closely bound up with those of harmony and grace.
The iconography of this frieze bespeaks the close ties between Catholic cosmology and the human activity during the Renaissance. According to the esthetic canons of the time, Mary is the personification of grace and purity; there is a very real affinity between the ideal of beauty and the figure of the Virgin as modeled by Andrea Della Robbia. The halos around the heads of all the figures in the piece impart unity and identify this as a religious image.
Originality of language is there, too. The inversion of the central group, the placement of the Child to the right of the Virgin, is a reinterpretation of Lucca's model, "with a more undulating motion of the limbs reminiscent of Verrochio." And, the vigor of their expression has deep mythical concordance in the human psyche. This work resonates with familiar themes (i.e., domestic bliss, home) and is easily interpreted even today in this humanistic light.
The cinque-foil foundry mark (authenticating the work) on the lower right side of the Virgin's veil also alludes to one of the attributes accorded Mary, "the rose without thorns"; it is a symbol attesting the state of "sinlessness" and purity of the Mother of God. This layering of meaning occurs within the strict guidelines adopted by the artists of the Renaissance; and, ultimately, the plaque represents the all pervasive benign power and nurturing influence of the Holy Roman Catholic Church.