The Madonna of the Dragonfly  

Madonna and Child with St. Sebastian and St. Roche.
Bernardino Luini, Italian 1480-1532
SN 37. Cradeled panel. Painted about 1520

Robert Anderson. 2000

Read another interpretation by David Weeks here

Luini was one of a generation of Lombard painters who were greatly influenced by Leonardo and Raphael. In the decade from 1510-1520 Luini was fully aware of the innovations of Leonardo and Raphael and was able to apply them in part to his own work (ie Leonardo's sfumato and Raphael's design and depiction of space). His style remained archaic, however, in the use of rigid gestures which emphasize the symbolic significance of each figure but fail to characterize or unite the composition. Even in his most celebrated works, while the facial expressions owe much to Leonardo, and the freely painted landscapes recall Raphael, the severe classicizing architecture, and the solemn idealized figures are Luini's own contribution.

The formal elegance of Luini's style and the richness of his repertory of classical forms made him one of the most studied, collected and popular painters of the 19th century. Unfortunately his popularity had some unfortunate consequences as many of his frescos were detached from their original settings, many of his panel paintings were transferred to canvas and other works were heavily restored. As a result few survive in good state.

The Madonna and Child are enthroned between St. Sebastian and St. Roche in a beautiful landscape. St. Sebastian was a martyred Christian Roman soldier in the time of Roman Emperor Diocletion (4th century). Because of his refusal to stop converting pagans to Christianity, Diocletion ordered Sebastian to be shot with arrows. While he did not die at this point, being nursed to health by Irene, he was subsequently beaten with rods to his death. Saint Roche was of the14th century. Having given his wealth to the poor he ministered to victims of the plague until he himself fell ill. He was said to have been saved from starvation by a dog at one point and to have made a pilgrimage to Rome on which he ministered to plague victims along the way. Both of these saints were invoked by the faithful against the plague.

We see in this painting an example of a Sacra Conversazione or Holy Conversation. It is a representation of the Virgin and Child flanked by St. Sebastian on the left and St. Roche on the right. In a Sacra Conversazione the figures were to be in engaged in some kind of dialogue or at least to be aware of one another's presence in a unified pictorial space.

The Madonna is seen as left handed, holding the Child in her right arm. She is dressed in blue with a gold cape. The pose and physique of Sebastian recalls ancient statuary - he does not appear to be suffering even though pierced with arrows. St Roche is depicted with a staff for his pilgrimage - note the badge on his tunic and the shell, both of which denote a pilgrim. The dog at his feet signifies his rescue by a dog when starving and sick with plague. His left leg is bare to show that he had sustained injury in his travels.

The painting is an example of a Renaissance ideal of balance, clarity and harmony.
The colors are rich and subdued - the painting symmetrical - triangular - the figures of St Sebastian and St.Roche both balance on one leg.

The symbolism of the dragonfly on a rock in the foreground has never been understood.

Historical Context:
This altarpiece was painted about 1520 when the plague or "black death" was feared throughout Europe. We know it reached Rome in the 1522 and reduced the population there to a level of about 50,000. There naturally would have been a great demand for religious art which reminded the faithful as to who to pray to for protection from the terrible pestilence.