On a golden background adorned with an original golden frame is a majestic young woman with blond hair representing the Virgin. A white dove, representing the Holy Spirit, hovers above the scene and releases three distinct rays of golden light. The Virgin’s drapery greatly contributes to the majesty of this vision. She is dressed in a silken blue cape with a golden hem, a rose-colored gown decorated with delicate gold stars, and tight belt worn under her chest that underlines her advanced stage of pregnancy. Each of these pieces is meticulously decorated with great detail.
On her chest the Virgin wears a locket composed of sun rays. In her left arm she holds the scriptures beautifully bound in a red cover with gold binding. The presence of the scriptures conveys the Word of God and its role in the Virgin’s pregnancy. The sun and twelve stars that surround the Virgin and the golden decorations on her garment allow art historians to identify this depiction of the Virgin as the Virgo amicta Solis that appears in the the Apocalypse of John. The woman in this biblical episode appears pregnant and “surrounded by the Sun and with the moon under her feet and a tiara with twelve stars on her head.” Since the medieval period, exegesis has linked the “Woman of the Apocalypse” to a theology of the Virgin freed from original sin in becoming the mother of Christ.
The painting displays a harmony between its spiritual and material aspects. In addition to the naturalistic image of the pregnant Virgin and the scriptural references to the divine pregnancy and Immaculate Conception, there are also allegorical representations of her virtues. The Virgin, depicted as the Virgo Virtutum, is surrounded by eight virtues that take the form of seraphim. These angels represent the three theological virtues and the four cardinal virtues. An additional angel has been added for the purposes of maintaining symmetry in the image.
On the left-hand side of the painting are the theological virtues: Charity depicted with a cornucopia and flame,Faith with a cross and chalice, Hope raising its arms in exaltation, and Prudence, who presents a disquieting image of two faces and holds a snake that refers to the Gospel of St. Matthew (10:16): “prudentes sicut serpentes.” The cardinal virtues appear on the right-hand side of the painting. To the right of the Virgin’s shoulder hovers the virtue representative of her most important quality of Humility. This virtue enacts a gesture of shyness by concealing herself with her veil. Positioned next to Humility is Strength wearing lion fur and holding a column, both of these items referring to the biblical story of Samson. Beneath Strength there is Temperance, depicted pouring content from one vase to another. Justice, beneath Temperance, is shown with a sword and the devil chained at its feet.
Information on the painting’s origins are well known due to a written and glued cartouche on the back side of the painting by the former owner Lamberto Cristiano Gori. Gori acquired the work 1772, believing it to be a work of Cimabue. Gori states in his writings that the piece was originally located on the altar of a small chapel in an abandoned suburban villa, and that it was used for private worship. In 1842, the painting was acquired by the Vatican Apostolic Library Sacred Museum, and in 1908 it was moved to the Vatican Museums galleries.
During the fourteenth century, naturalistic images of the Pregnant Madonna became popular in art produced in Tuscany. These depictions of the pregnant Madonna often personified the presence of the Divine, an artistic phenomenon that began in the twelfth century that can be seen in this painting with the anthropomorphic forms taken on by the virtues. During the twentieth century, some critics attributed the painting to several different Florentine painters of the fourteenth century such as Agnolo Gaddi, Giovanni del Biondo, Bernardo Daddi and Cenni di Francesco.
The naturalistic rendering of the female form, the representations of the virtues well-illustrated with their allegorical objects, the refined gilding process used for the gold elements, and the shape and surrounding frame of this image represent new trends in pictorial representation which spread in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century.