Apparition of the Virgin and Child to Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist
Giovanni di Niccolò Luteri, known as Dosso Dossi (Tramuschio, Modena? circa 1487 - Ferrara 1542)
This sacred scene is immersed in nature, against the backdrop of which stands out a fantastic city, surmounted by a gash in the sky from which the Virgin and Child emerge surrounded by clouds and cherubs. They miraculously appear to the two saints who are caught in the ecstasy of the vision. The Baptist is depicted with a cross on which is draped the cartouche 'Ecce Agnus Dei' ('Behold the Lamb of God'), from the words he spoke to Jesus according to the Gospel of John (1:29). With his left hand he points to the Holy Scriptures, which prophesy the arrival of the Saviour, while the left foot is resting on a book, which might represent an allusion to the ancient pagan texts overridden by Christian faith. John the Evangelist is depicted while holding his Gospel on his left hip and a chalice in his right hand. The chalice becomes the centre of the entire scene, as a serpent leaps out of it. This is a reference to the legendary episode in the saint's life: after being ordered to drink poison, the Evangelist blessed the chalice from which a snake came out, thus remaining unharmed by the poisoning. The detail of the chalice implies the triumph of good over evil and is placed on the same vertical axis of the composition, at the top of which is depicted the forehead of the Virgin with the Child at her side. The flaming disc at the top of the apparition may allude to the Apocalypse, which according to tradition was written by John the Evangelist himself: «appeared in the sky a great sign: a woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars» (12:1). In the same way, the walls and palaces on the background, which were painted by Dosso with an almost impressionistic technique, could be those of the square-shaped Heavenly Jerusalem, in which «length, width, and height are equal» (21:16). The artist was able to create shapes full of meaning with a few lively brush strokes, which sometimes are barely perceptible, alternated with wider and clearly visible ones, as in the grass full of life that sprouts between the two saints and in the landscape behind them.
It has been hypothesised that in the first half of 1517 Dosso Dossi made a trip to Rome with the approval of his major patron, Alfonso I d'Este, who wanted to convince Raphael to participate in the decoration of his famous 'Camerino' dedicated to paintings.
The contact with the artist from Urbino is evident from the flaming disc, which may recall the one of the Madonna of Foligno (Pinacoteca Vaticana), a visual prototype from which Dosso may have taken original suggestions. Raphael's influence can be found once again in the figures of the two saints, which recall those of Plato and Aristotle in the School of Athens preserved in the Vatican Rooms. There is also a long-distance dialogue with the contemporary works by Titian, which can be appreciated in the face of John the Evangelist that emerges from the soft glow of the clouds behind him.
The work was probably commissioned in 1517 when Cardinal Ippolito d'Este, brother of Duke Alfonso I, spent some time in Codigoro (Ferrara), and was preserved there in the parish church of San Martino. When the religious building was closed for structural reasons at the beginning of the 20th century, the painting was placed in the town hall of the municipality, which then sold it to the Uffizi in 1921 together with the Madonna and Child Enthroned between St. Martin of Tours and St. Dorothy (or Rosalie) by Benvenuto Tisi, known as Garofalo (inv. Deposits no. 6).
A. Ballarin, Dosso Dossi. La pittura a Ferrara negli anni del ducato di Alfonso I, Cittadella (PD) 1995, pp. 32-33, 36-38; M. Lucco, Apparizione della Vergine ai santi Giovanni Battista e Giovanni Evangelista, in Garofalo Pittore della Ferrara Estense, catalogo della mostra (Ferrara, Castello Estense, 5 aprile - 6 luglio 2008), a cura di T. Kustodieva, M. Lucco, Milano 2008, pp. 182-183; M. Menegatti, Apparizione della Madonna con il Bambino ai santi Giovanni Battista e Giovanni Evangelista, in Dosso Dossi. Rinascimenti eccentrici al Castello del Buonconsiglio, catalogo della mostra (Trento, Castello del Buonconsiglio, monumenti e collezioni provinciali, 12 luglio - 2 novembre 2014), a cura di V. Farinella, L. Camerlengo, F. de Gramatica, Milano 2014, pp. 62-64