ITALIAN masters         





(Antwerp 1540 –- 1619 Bologna)


The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist and an Angel


Signed and dated left of center: FECIT/DIONISIO CALVART FIAMENGO/1579

Oil on canvas; 58 x 41 cm




Simone Twiehaus, Dionisio Calvaert (um 1540-1619) – Die Altarwerke, Berlin 2002, p. 148.

N. Dacos, “Denys Calvaert,” The Age of Correggio and Carracci: Emilian Painting of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (exh. Cat., Washington, DC, N.G.A., 1986), p. 77-81.


A Flemish painter, born around 1540, Denys Calvaert began his artistic training in landscape painting in Antwerp but moved to Bologna in 1560 where he became thoroughly Italianized.  The artist was immediately influenced by the work of Parmigianino and Correggio and wholly abandoned landscape painting for religious subjects.   As his style matured, however, Calvaert was increasingly influenced by the work of Barocci, all the while maintaining a Mannerist aesthetic even after it fell out of fashion.


In 1572 Calvaert accompanied Lorenzo Sabbatini to Rome to complete a commission from Pope Gregory XIII.   After finishing the papal palace assignment, Calvaert remained in Rome where he enjoyed three profitable and prolific years.  With ready access to the work of the Renaissance painters, he diligently created drawings and paintings after works by Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo and especially Raphael.  Calvaert’s reproductions were so convincing, in fact, that contemporary art dealers sold his copies as Renaissance originals.


Upon his return from Rome in 1575, Calvaert founded a successful painting school in Bologna for young artists.  His extensive knowledge of cinquecento art and culture informed his method of instruction, which attracted such distinguished pupils as Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Domenichino.  Seven years after Calvaert established his studio, however, the Carracci brothers started a rival school, Accademia degli Incamminati, which lured away some of Calvaert’s best students, including Reni and Domenichino.  Nevertheless, Calvaert remained a distinguished draftsman and painter of his time. 


Painted in 1579, The Holy Family is characteristic of Calvaert’s post-Roman style in its tight grouping, rich coloring and smoothness.  The dazzling contrast of colors and the flowing forms of drapery work together to create a stunning effect.   The intense pearly hues and the pallid complexions of mother and child reveal Barocci’s influence.  The Holy Family is a popular subject in Calvaert’s oeuvre.  The present painting most closely resembles the Holy Family with John the Baptist at the Musée d’ Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.


The Holy Family is set within a classical architectural setting that opens to a distant and obscure landscape.  Situated in the center of the compact composition is the Christ child proudly displayed  by his mother.  His body twists slightly to follow the direction of his upward gaze at his mother.  The angel behind the Christ child holds a loose bouquet of flowers that sift through its fingers, softly showering the Divinity.  John the Baptist, also captivated by the falling flowers, sports a fur sash and animal skin garment, signifying his future role as a prophet in the desert.  In keeping with convention, Joseph is shown outside of the intimate interaction of the others.  He leans on a stone parapet that distances him from the other figures; one hand supports his head while the other dangles a cane.