Tragedy Foretold

In a large, placid Renaissance painting, an infant Jesus holds a seemingly innocuous early-spider-orchid in his left hand.

The serene and symmetrical composition, with its emphasis on line and depth,  in the tondo ‘Madonna and Child with the young St John the Baptist and an Angel in a Landscape’, is not calculated to elicit an emotional response in the viewer. The orchid, together with the long reed cross held by a genuflecting toddler, John the Baptist, are the only intellectual references to Christ’s future sacrificial death on the Cross.

The tondo, a plausible collaboration between Maestro Tommaso and his mentor Lorenzo di Credi, is one of 13 paintings from an international private collection participating in ‘Masterpieces at MUŻA’, a prestigious exhibition organised by Heritage Malta which will run until end October. The paintings, the majority of which have been out of public sight for decades, are by world-renowned masters who have left a significant impact on the development of the history of Western art. Their dates range from the late 15th- to the mid-18th centuries.

In an age of gross illiteracy, flowers, birds, animals, and other natural or manmade objects acted as symbols of Jesus’ future destiny and provided painters with iconographic tools with which to predict narratives beyond the artwork itself.


A solitary poppy flower amidst the thick foliage behind a baby Baptist in another Mother and Child painting is an unassuming symbol of the Passion of Christ, not only due to its blood-red colour, but also because it connotes sleep and death. In the same painting of ‘The Madonna and Child with the infant St John the Baptist’, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and Circle, a goldfinch held up by Jesus is again a symbolic premonition of his Passion. The association references the legend explaining the red spots on the bird’s plumage.  Upon alighting on Christ’s crown of thorns, and picking out a thorn, the goldfinch was marked with the Saviour’s blood.

In another section of the exhibition dedicated to ‘Passion and Devotion’, the provocative sensuality of a long-haired, androgynous older St John the Baptist, identified by his camel-hair garment, is only tempered by another reed cross which refers to the Crucifixion he prophesied. The Baptist’s finger points upwards to symbolically indicate the unseen heavenly realm.

François Boucher was one of the foremost painters and decorative artists of the 18th century. His Rococo rendition of ‘Pan and Syrinx’ in Masterpieces at MUŻA’s section ‘Greek Myth in Art’ is a high-toned retelling in rosy pinks and blues of the nymph Syrinx’s flight from Pan’s obsessive infatuation. Contrasting with the paleness of Syrinx’s reclining nakedness, the faun’s saturnine hands grasp a bunch of reeds,  foreshadowing the future. Syrinx will eventually be turned into reeds by the river god to escape Pan, who, enamoured by the sound of the wind passing through them, tears some of the reeds to create a musical instrument that bears his name. Naturally, this will unfold beyond the canvas’ frame.

‘Masterpieces at MUŻA’ is being supported by Visit Malta; the Ministry for National Heritage, the Arts and Local Government; the Ministry for Finance; and the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Malta. For further information log onto

MUŻA is a project part-financed by the European Union under the European Regional Development Fund – European Structural and Investment Funds 2014-2020.

By Warren Bugeja, Executive Communications, Heritage Malta

As featured in Bizilla in flight Magazine July 2021