Antoon Van Dyck (Antwerp 1599 - London 1641)
Madonna of the Straw
Oil on canvas
110 x 87 cm
The Virgin, seated with her arm resting on the manger, supports the Christ Child asleep in her lap, covering him with a white sheet. The work is named after the straw seen in the manger, which together with the donkey evokes the Nativity theme and makes the scene more than a simple Madonna and Child. In fact, the image is also interwoven with multiple references to Christ’s passion: the infant Jesus is laid on his mother’s knees, as in a Pietà, folded in a white sheet, as he will remain for three days in the shroud. On the right, the nailed and crossed wooden boards seem to allude to the Crucifixion, and the ears of wheat seen on the left are a reminder of the sacrifice of the Eucharist. All this explains the Virgin’s troubled expression, veiled with sadness. Although similar symbolic allusions to the passion are not uncommon in such subjects, in this case the sorrowful mood of the painting has been seen as a personal memorial of the death of Van Dyck’s sister Cornelia, leading the artist to finally leave Italy and return to Antwerp.