The Virgin of the Rose Bush

Bernardino Luini (1481-1532) was one of the most accomplished Milanese painters of his own time. He was born near Varese, a city in the lake area toward the Swiss border. He probably began his career in the under the influence of the Venetian school, whose effect is visible in the vibrant colours of his works. However, Leonardo during his period of work in Milan left the most evident trace in Luini’s art.

Madonna of the Rose Bush – Bernardino Luini – 1516-7 – oil on panel

The Madonna of the Rose Bush is a perfect example of the Leonardesque influence on Luini’s style. The subject itself is quite traditional and modelled on the Virgin and Child iconography. However, the painter sets the scene against a beautiful backdrop of green leaves, which create an immersive scenario. We can imagine that the colour of the plants in the background may have darkened throughout time, yet the soft tone helps the bright dress of the Virgin and the Child’s light complexion to stand out by contrast.

Leonardo’s presence becomes utterly evident when looking at the way light spreads over the objects’ surface. The vase of the left, for example, shows a bright left side, while the right one is dark and shadowy. The two different portions do not contrast, rather the tones pleasantly turn as our eyes move across the surface of the painting. This is the quintessentially Leonardesque sfumato technique. The term comes from the Italian fumo, smoke, and alludes to the impossibility of discerning the borders between light and dark areas. In fact, sfumato does not create any chiaroscuro effect but causes light areas to turn into dark ones through the juxtaposition of intermediate tones. The result is far less dramatic and overall more naturalistic.

Vase detail

Luini was a refined painter, whose delicate pictorial style perfectly matched the tender expressions of his Madonnas. Throughout the sixteenth century, after his death, his workshop continued being animated by his descendants, creating over time a school of skilled and renowned painters. The Madonna of the Rose Bush is the perfect prototype of Luini’s style, which is based on a placid application of traditional subjects and themes through the technical innovations of the Late Renaissance. He can hardly be called a revolutionary, yet his creations show the sophisticated precision of a great master.


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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