Giovanni Bellini Madonna with Blessing Child (Madonna of the Thumb)


Gallerie dell' Accademia di Venezia




630 x 790 mm



historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The painting depicts young Mary who emerges from a dark background and holds her son who is standing in his feet. The Virgin is dressed in a red robe and dark blue cloak with a gold embroidered hem that covers her head as in Mary’s traditional iconography. She is behind a marble balustrade, on which little Jesus is standing. The painting takes its name -Madonna of the Thumb – from the fact that the blessing child is holding with his left hand his mother’s thumb, as small children often do. This detail, together with the strong physical and spiritual bond between the two characters, in Mary’s tender expression manifests with great naturalness and spontaneity the intimate relationship between a mother and her child. Jesus, who is portrayed frontally and slightly placed on the left, as if to allow the viewer to see the mother’s face, is blessing with three fingers pointed up, which would represent the Trinity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit according to the critics. This is Bellini’s early work, which was still very much influenced by his brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna in the 1460s’. Madonna of the Thumb actually represents one of the first examples of his research of intimate, sweet and naturalistic representation of the sacred subject, which began to break away from the harsh and sharp style of his family member at the end of the 15th century. Bellini was young but already well-known during the execution of the work and he may have been aided by his assistants. The work is often compared to Madonna and Child of Pinacoteca di Brera, because even though they are both influenced by Mantegna they began to show some softness of forms, lighter and calm tones, as well as general softening of Mantegna’s style, which will be the main features of Bellini’s more mature works. In 1812 Gallerie dell’Accademia of Venice acquired the work, which was identified as the painting that once was in Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, the palace of the traders of the Republic of Venice, in Rialto, more specifically in the room of the Magistrate of Monte Nuovissimo. In 1771 the conservator of the Venetian paintings, Pietro Edwards, remembered that the work at that date had a gold background, perhaps added in a restoration between the 15th and the 18th century, which, however, was not found during the last intervention on work dated 1938. The bad condition of the painting excluded further restorations after that date.

Artist Details

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Bellini was born in Venice probably around 1430. He studied with his brother Gentile and his father Jacopo, who were known artists, but he also showed interest in Vivarini and especially in the work of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. He went to Padua from 1443 to 1453 where he was influenced by Donatello’s work, which can be seen in his works made in the 1460s with shallow lines in landscapes and figures and with bright and polished colours. Among them are the altarpiece of San Vincenzo Ferreri (SS. Giovanni and Paolo), the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration (Museum Correr), the Prayer in the Garden (National Gallery, London) and juvenile paintings of Madonna and Child and Pietà. Bellini often softened the forms and preferred less harsh tones of colours, which can be seen in the altarpiece of Pesaro (Coronation of the Virgin, Museo Civico) of 1475. During this period, he also painted the Madonnas of Brera and Santa Maria dell’Orto, the Transfiguration of Capodimonte (1480 - 85) and the altarpiece of San Giobbe (1480) the Triptych of Frari (1488) where you can already see some typical 16th-century influences. The composition is large and solemn, peaceful and sweet, before the works of San Zaccaria (Madonna in the throne with saints, 1505) and San Giovanni Crisostomo (St. Jerome, 1513) where the form and colours are inspired by the works of Giorgione and Titian. Bellini died in Venice in 1516.

Collection Details

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The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.

In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.

The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480). The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.

The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.

The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.

In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.

In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.