Michelangelo’s The Holy Family

Michelangelo’s The Holy Family portrays an intimate moment of the Holy Family done on a round panel and encased in an elaborate frame. The work, often referred to as the Doni Tondo, was completed just before Michelangelo began work on the Sistine ceiling and gives hints of Michelangelo’s movement toward Mannerism. The work shows the progression of time, from the pagan era, to the Christian era, as we move from the background to the foreground. A small John the Baptist, often overlooked, unites the story of the work.

Who was Michelangelo?

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, or Michelangelo is one of the greatest artist in history, he was a master sculptor, painter, and architect. There are not enough superlatives to heap on Michelangelo. His is the most celebrated and documented life of the 16th century.

Living nearly 90 years, and producing masterpieces for most of those years, we have an abundance of his works at which to marvel. We have letters, commissions, and even 2 biography’s of his life, written while he was still alive.

Michelangelo's Dono Tondo

Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, and painting a ‘lesser art’. In fact, his commission to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling was offered due to the suggestion of a competitor who hoped the famous sculptor would fail. He not only didn’t fail, he expanded the vision for the ceiling and painted one of the most famous cycles of art ever done.

Don’t insult the Master

The Doni Tondo was a commission Michelangelo received prior to starting the Sistine Ceiling. A tondo is a round painting, the shape commonly used for domestic scenes. Doni comes from the name of the man who commissioned the work, Agnolo Doni. The painting was to celebrate either his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi or the baptism of their first child. For either, a painting of the Holy Family would fit a domestic theme.

The story goes that when the painting was delivered Michelangelo wanted 70 ducats for it. Doni countered that with sending 40 ducats. This insulted Michelangelo, who said the painting would now cost 100 ducats. Doni really wanted the painting, so he sent the original price of 70 ducats. Michelangelo was not to be so easily appeased and insisted on 145 ducats. I’m not sure how the bartering eventually ended, but records indicate the painting hung in the Doni house for some time.

Michelangelo’s The Holy Family is a surprising composition

The Doni Tondo is the only panel painting that we have by a mature Michelangelo that was completed without assistants. Along with the painting, Michelangelo is also believed to have designed the elaborate frame. The work is of the Holy Family, and is unusual in several respects.

The positioning of Mary and Joseph is striking. In most instances Joseph is seen off to the side, seemingly unimportant. He is portrayed as elderly so as not to be a threat to Mary’s virginity, often even sleeping, unaware of the drama unfolding around him. We feel he is very much a footnote in the story, not a major player.

Here, however, we have Joseph portrayed as the family’s protector. Mary sits between his legs, and he envelops her. His head is higher than both her and Jesus. An atypical placement as this could be an indication of importance or position. In this painting Joseph is presented as the caring head of the family.

There is debate over whether Joseph is handing Mary the baby, or she is handing Jesus back to him. I’m not sure it matters. Here, instead of an elaborate presentation of doctrine, we have a family portrait, an intimate, gentle moment of familial closeness.

The gift

Detail of the Dono TondoThe word for giving or gift in Latin is donare, which could be a play on the name of the family that commissioned the painting. Some who follow this line of thought think that Mary is ‘gifting’ the baby Jesus to Joseph. This would make even more sense if the painting were to commemorate the birth of a first child. Following this line of thought, Joseph is a stand in for the rest of humanity, and Mary is acting as the mediary, giving the Christ child to the world to save them. Although this painting appears to be meant as a glimpse of the family in a private moment, Michelangelo was a deeply religious man and so it is reasonable to read more into the scene.

Hints at Michelangelo’s move toward Mannerism

The Holy Family is painted in typical Michelangelo fashion. They feel sculpted. Both Mary and Joseph are muscular and solid. Their clothing is vibrant, and there are clear outlines around their bodies creating sharp, clear images. The volume and draping of the fabric is substantive and has weight. A sculpture first, all of Michelangelo’s paintings have this feel to them.

Detail of Michelangelo's Dono TondoBoth the sculpted feeling, the twisting pose of Mary, and the gorgeous colors are precursors of the work that Michelangelo will do when painting the sibyls in the Sistine Chapel. In fact, the colors themselves are worth paying attention to, as this work and the Sistine Chapel will usher in a new age in painting, Mannerism.

Mannerism is a style that developed in the late Renaissance. Growing tired of the perfectly composed, harmonious works of the high Renaissance, artist began to experiment with exaggerated colors, elongated bodies, and twisting, contorted poses to inject emotion and drama into their works.  Michelangelo had mastered the ideals of the Renaissance, began to alter his style in his later career. We can see that transition occurring in this painting. The heightened emotions and colors of Michelangelo’s late style will inspire many of his contemporaries, and establish Mannerism as the predominant style for decades.

John the Baptist

In contrast to the clear figures in the foreground, the figures in the distance are a bit vague, their edges blurred, a nod to the fact that these figures are distant from the family. We have a small wall separating the foreground from the figures in the background. On the right is John the Baptist, also a child. He would only have been a few months older than Christ. John was the patron saint of Florence and so it was very common for Florentine artist to include him in their paintings of Jesus’ family, or of the Madonna and child.

The 3 eras of man as portrayed in Michelangelo’s The Holy Family

Behind him are 5 mysterious nudes. Two to the left, three to the right. There are theories as to who these figures represent, but no one really knows for sure. I’m going to give you the theory that seems the most likely to me. The figures are presented not in space but in time, or history and represent three ages of man.

The five figures in the background represent the pagan age, or as it was sometime referred to, era ante legem meaning before the word of God. Mary who has a book on her lap represents post legem, or after the word. John the Baptist is the connection between the two eras.

John appears to be in water, appropriate as he is the baptist, but also appropriate if this painting is representing the different eras. The pagans also practiced a baptism of neophytes, and hence these figures are naked as going to or coming from baptism. John practices a baptism that prepares the way for Christ, so John and water unite the two images or eras.

Michelangelo's Dono Tondo in it's frame

You will note that while Christ is the focus in the foreground, and John the Baptist is looking at the Family, the nudes in the background appear unaware of their presence. Another indication that we are looking at a picture of temporal distance not spatial distance.

The flowers in the front of the frame and in the grasses are clover, signifying the trinity, and cornflower or hyssop, referencing the Passion of Christ.

The FrameDetail from the frame of the Dono Tondo

The frame, which was designed by Michelangelo and likely carved by Marco and Francesco del Tasso is gilted in gold and is still with the painting. There are flowers, moons, ribbons and other elements carved into the frame that were pulled from the family crest of the the Doni’s and his brides family, showing them linked around the frame. There are also 5 sculpted heads that stick out from the frame. At the top is Jesus, there are two prophets, and then two sibyls.

Again, the repetition of the prophets and sibyls are precursors to the iconography that Michelangelo will expound on in the Sistine Chapel. Sibyls are ancient prophetess’s and several were believed to have predicted the coming Messiah, and so are often included in religious paintings.

It is unusual for the frames of paintings to survive in tact and we are lucky to have this one.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at a lesser known painting by the esteemed Michelangelo. This is an interesting very short video of the Doni Tondo being moved while renovations were going on.

If you would like to read other post in this series you can follow this link.

Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 18 Grunewald

Matthias Grunwald, The Annunciation from the Isenheim Altarpiece


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website  www.nga.gov

Metropolitan Museum of Art website  www.metmuseum.org

The Getty Center www.getty.edu

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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