Back to Homepage

Beverley Thiel Hood


Symbolism and Meaning in the Madonna della Candeletta, c. 1490 C.E. by Carlo Crivelli


A rose, a lily, a candle, a pear, the Madonna and the Christ Child … Northern Renaissance painting, Italian Renaissance painting? A lavish piece of art or is it that and something much more? Carlo Crivelli, early Renaissance painter, created a sumptuous altarpiece for the Cathedral church of Camerino, Italy in c.1490 C.E. with a central panel entitled Madonna della Candeletta. His art has been described as decorative, deliberate, reflective and unique!


1490c madonna della candeletta, brera


No artist, whether from pre-history or the 21st century, works in a vacuum. The artist is the sensitive child of the society producing him / her and reflects the values, mores, political, economic and social climate in place during the particular time frame in which the artist is born and works. This is the manner in which the artistic mind is molded either being compliant with or reacting to the culture. While many artists of the Renaissance were dominated by the artistic giants in the art centers of Italy (Florence, Venice), some actually moved through the major trends of these centers gathering influences and moving beyond to something wholly unique. Such was the case for Carlo Crivelli, 15th century Italian painter, and as such bears a closer look at the times which formed him.

 Crivelli, born to a family of painters in Venice in northern Italy c.1430-35 C.E., became an independent master by 1457, C.E. Evidence suggests that he resided not far away in Padua (1457-59) and then in the Marches (central, eastern Italy) until 1472 C.E. Undeniably his formation however, must have come from his training in the workshop of leading painter, Antonio Vivarini during the years 1476-1484 C.E. in Murano just outside Venice.

In Vivarini’s workshop Crivelli learned techniques such as balance, the limited use of gold, the use of bright colors, contrasting light and shade, figural renderings, and naturalistic plant motifs. Even Vivarini himself, showed changes from the sumptuous International Gothic style to Renaissance thought using a broad visual vocabulary which included “Renaissance architectural settings and motifs, putti with swags, antique columns, eagles perched on swags and antique lettering.”1 “This first formation…was to remain the matrix of Crivelli’s art, though on it he was to impose the powerful influence of the Squarcionesques (Paduan school), and to incorporate with eclectic waywardness borrowings from Northern art.”2 Crivelli combined Andrea Montegna’s “point of view:” the outlining, the contours of forms, sarcophagi fruit motifs and Jan Van Eyck’s Netherlandish attention to detail, landscapes and realism in textiles. Literally taking what he appreciated in the styles of others and incorporating those characteristics into his own work, he forged a unique perception of religious painting making him “the most eclectic of the great Venetian 15th century artists.”3 

In 1489 C.E. Crivelli was knighted by Andrea Matteo Acquaviva d’Aragona, Duke of Atri (1458-1529), not as a military knight but as a knight of the golden spur for his virtues as a painter, an honor very rarely conferred. In the 1470’s Crivelli settled in Ascoli in the Marches, a small and square area of central Italy bordered on the eastern coast by the Adriatic Sea. Politically, the region was shaped by preceding centuries of Imperial government and the 15th century seems to have witnessed a constant state of civil war in the communes and lordships of the area. The Emperors and the Papacy battled for the territory. Relevant to Crivelli was one family in the Marches who had dominated and been lords of their city since the 13th century known as the Varano of Camerino where Crivelli worked and where the altarpiece containing the Madonna della Candeletta was commissioned. The population of Camerino was about 8,000 and it had a reputation for being wealthy and populated for a mountainous city. His work could well be afforded in this area.

In the second half of the 15th century agriculture and industry were revived in all the Marches and professions were made into guilds. Economically, the three cities of Ascoli, Camerino and Ancona became federated due to the manufacturing and sales of woolen goods and the industry of dying. Crivelli would observe here the extreme contrast in dress among the nobility, knights and merchants and the poor. With his keen eye for detail, his paintings are filled with the dress of those around him.

Additionally, the 15th Century was rife with the plague in the Marches and in Florence as all natural disasters were seen as God’s wrathful punishment for sin so with no medical cures the spiritual realm became the offering for appeasement. The building of churches, along with paintings of the Virgin, was commissioned in an attempt to either keep the plague away or as thanksgiving for having been spared it. Thus the political, economic and religious mentalities in this region were such that Carlo Crivelli’s art, especially of the Virgin and Child sumptuously clothed, was appealing to those whose means enabled the patronizing of it. 

The Work

On May 10, 1488 C.E. a gigantic altarpiece was commissioned for the Duomo of

Camerino (western Marches) and was completed before April 2, 1490 C.E. The piece was signed by

 Crivelli with his title of knighthood which has been noted as ‘1489’ thus further confirming the dating of the painting. This commission was for the high altar in the cathedral as a polyptych was an extraordinary

 undertaking with as many as fourteen panels not including the predella. (Many of the side panels and parts

 of the predella are in various museums presently.)

The lower central panel was The Madonna della Candeletta with a Crucifixion panel above it, both of which were flanked by as many as twelve saints. The difficulty here is that in 1725 C.E. the panels were removed as high altarpiece to another part of the cathedral and additionally the altarpiece was partially destroyed by a severe earthquake of 1799 C.E.  No description of it in its entirety remains. Scholarly investigation attributes at least four panels to Carlo Crivelli, one of which is The Madonna della Candeletta.

The panels of saints are said to have been done in part by his assistants. In piecing the panels back together

 at least on paper, it is speculated that the whole altarpiece must have ascended some fifteen feet above the

 main altar and was a width of about eight feet. There was precedent for the configuration of an altarpiece as

 in the church of Santa Croce; Florence and this may have born some influence on Crivelli at least in


Specifically, The Madonna della Candeletta panel (see photo) can be examined for its style and symbolism revealing the times and the artist, Crivelli. This central panel measures approximately 7 ft. x 2 ˝ ft. and was done in tempera which was mostly the medium of choice for Crivelli. The point of view is below the painting with the horizon line being two-thirds up the panel. “Plainly the altarpiece in its original setting rose so far above the floor of the nave so that eyes had to be turned upwards from below to the shining splendor of its heavenly images.”4 The specific name of this panel comes from the candle placed at the left of the painting. It is presently in Brera Gallery, Milan.

This sumptuous painting iconographically depicts a young Madonna enthroned with the Christ child seated on her lap. Both she and the child are clothed in rich fabrics trimmed with jewels and on Mary’s head is a jeweled crown. Her cloak covers partially her red gown and is held together by yet more jewels above her breast; however, the sash around her waist is plain. Both figures have golden hair and golden haloes. There is a rich fabric conforming to the three-dimensionality of Mary’s head known as a dossal. This fabric with the arch of natural forms and the marble seat combine to create an image of enthronement and are superimposed on a gold background. Conspicuously and somewhat randomly placed at the feet of the Madonna are a pitcher with flowers, fruit, a flower and the extinguished candle. Yet another lower tier of marble is rendered completing the throne.

The forms of the Madonna and the Christ child are painted realistically and occupy space three-dimensionally as is typical of Renaissance paintings of the second style. The Christ child holds a pear with a wooden stem and the expressions of both are quite somber. Taken at face value, the painting speaks to us in the 21st century on one level as nothing more than a religious image of the Christian faith inspiring the Renaissance devotee and can inspire us today as well. Discovering the candle at the lower left of the painting might singularly satisfy some as to its naming yet upon closer examination of the work however, the images of the pitcher, the flowers, the fruit and candle might lead us to look beyond the initial significance as indeed, when understood at its fullest, the face value is a very minor part of the whole. The Madonna della Candeletta is incredibly rife with multiple layers of symbolism. Crivelli drew on a long teaching tradition of church doctrine which he incorporated as visual instruction in to the work. The Renaissance mind would have understood completely!

Let us now begin to uncover all that awaits our investigation. It is a fascinating journey as we open a door onto another world that ultimately takes the knowing viewer to Christian salvation and to the promises of an eternity through the Virgin Mother. First the Madonna herself, figure and face, which may have been modeled on an earlier late thirteen Century panel of the Madonna di Santa Maria in Via still in a church in Camerino perhaps done by a local Umbro-Marchigian painter (see photo). Purportedly this image was based on an authentic portrait by St. Luke. Nonetheless, there is no other Madonna figure painted by Crivelli with this type figure or long, oval-shaped face.

Other influences may be seen in her tall body rendered as Andrea Mantegna would have done adding to her dignity, majesty, aristocratic grace, all things fitting for the Queen of Heaven, a 6th century notion and a concept fundamental to Marian devotion of the Middle Ages. Something else learned from Montegna was the ability to foreshorten which creates the illusion of depth. In this panel, Crivelli does so with the left foot of the Madonna projecting from just beneath her clothing. In all of Crivelli’s Madonnas there is an idealized depiction of her as youthful and beautiful. Purposefully this Madonna with her child follows suit even to her plucked brows, a fifteen century notion of loveliness.

Now we must understand the sad countenances of both figures. In Catholic Christian understanding, the Incarnation of Christ, Savior, is made possible through the consent of the Virgin Mother who will bear Him. The dogma is that as humankind sinned, redemption could be made only through a god-man, Christ, born miraculously through the Virgin. The Christ will suffer terribly and die a brutal death. All of Crivelli’s Madonnas had this foreknowledge, so while there is great joy at Christ’s incarnation, the Madonna, Mother, also knows what is to come. Thus is revealed in her reflective countenance a knowing sorrow as she holds her precious child. This understanding transcends linear time. Interestingly enough is the fact that the Crucifixion panel was placed directly above this panel so that the viewer was impacted with the entire message.

The Christ child is seated on the Madonna’s right knee which is also rendered naturalistically and three-dimensionally occupying illusionistic space. His knowing little face looks out at those who by sinfulness will cause the great anticipated suffering He will endure as expiation for their transgressions. His hands hold a large pear with its wooden stem supported by the Madonna, a telling continuation of meaning regarding her consent as a part of the whole redemptive cycle.

Now let us probe the symbolic data of the entwined fruit, vegetable and laurel vine which serve as a bower in the throne of Madonna and Child. This way of creating such an image apparently came from a stock motif Crivelli had incorporated from Padua and Venice in his youth. There is evidence that the motif was used in Northern painting, specifically in Germany, but as it passed through Venetian interpretation, this iconography became less delicate, more monumental and richer with symbolism. Donatello used garlands as did other Renaissance artists lifting the image from sarcophagi and altars in antiquity.  The bower here is comprised of pears, apples, apricots, cherries and two cucumbers side by side with apples on the lower part of each side of the arch. All the fruit and the cucumbers are bound together by the laurel vine and all are rendered with exquisite detail. R. W. Lightbown states in his authoritative book, Carlo Crivelli, that “There is no single medieval manual which is definitive for meaning of fruit … incomparably the greatest source of symbols was the Bible itself, either directly or in the interpretation of its commentators.”5 

Let us endeavor however to sort through the multiplicity of meanings which have come down through the ages. The pear along with the peach, the apple and the pomegranate could be the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Paradise. (Notably, the peach which is Persian in origin is aptly chosen as it comes from the area where the Garden of Paradise is thought to have been.) All these are orchard fruits which is all that is referenced in Canticles 4:13 and in Crivelli’s day since the specific fruit was an unknown it was perfectly acceptable to have various interpretations of it. Another connotation for the pear is that it is a symbol for the Virgin and the Christ while at the same time symbolizing the love of the Incarnate Child for humankind. The pear therefore being held by the Christ child and supported by His Mother at once becomes the complete symbol for the fall and the redemption through Christ born of Mary. She is sometimes referred to as the Co-Redemptress.

The apple, while often depicted as the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve, is also a prefiguration of the Crucifixion in addition to representing the Incarnation in the Virgin, the new Eve. The cherry is simultaneously a fruit in the Garden of Paradise enjoyed by the blessed and may be held by the Christ child representing the shedding of His blood at the Crucifixion. The pomegranate, too, is possibly the forbidden fruit but is also a symbol of resurrection, immortality and chastity.

The cucumber vegetable which figures so prominently in many of Crivelli’s paintings and certainly here, is phallic, bitter and misshapen representing sin, especially lust. It is also associated with Jonah and the gourd which protected him as well as the resurrection of Jonah from the belly of the whale for three days before being spewed out (Jonah 4:6).  “Certainly for Crivelli the fruits, which garland his paintings, seem to weigh heavily with sweetness and sorrow.” 6   There are as many positive associations as there are negative ones for the images of the bower.

Lastly throughout the entire arch is the laurel representing Christ’s victory over sin. Woven together these fruit along with the laurel become a continuance of the medieval understanding of symbolism in nature as they represent again and again the Passion, Death and Resurrection necessary for redemption. In Venetian art, these symbols were no longer used after 1460, but Crivelli continued to use them well in to the1490s and always in his Madonnas.

We must now move on to the remaining fruits in the painting, the one single peach placed on the base of the marble throne by the Madonna’s right foot and a single cherry to the left of the plinth with double cherries to the right of it. That these fruits should be selected from any of the afore-mentioned ones is significant. As if to whisper to us again should our thoughts stray, Crivelli gently and beautifully reminds us of the meaning of the peach and the cherries as forbidden fruit and redemptive fruit.

As the puzzle continues to unfold, let us examine the iconography of the jug with gilded leaves and the flowers therein. Placed significantly at the Virgin’s feet in the center of the painting, it represents her womb filled with the Incarnate Christ. She is the spiritual vessel and as such, the jug is decorated with finely detailed golden grape leaves, yet another symbol of the Incarnate Christ through the Eucharist symbolic in the consecrated wine at Mass considered the blood of Christ. The jug is filled with lilies and roses some of which are buds. The white of the lily is widely accepted as a symbol for purity and points to the Madonna’s virginity. It is often depicted in scenes of the Annunciation and sometimes held by the Angel Gabriel. The red roses are to honor her and the white roses again speak of her virginity. She is sometimes referred to as the rose without thorns (without sin).

As with the singular fruit placed separate from the bower, Crivelli places a single white rose on the plinth. The Renaissance devotee finds here again the Virgin Mother. Due to his early training in Padua and Venice where symbolism was an expected part of the painter’s vocabulary, Crivelli uses his art in this fashion naturally. One cannot help but additionally associate this incredible attention to detail and profound duality in meaning of inanimate objects with the works of Northern Renaissance painters such as the Master of Flemalle, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden of the 15th century in the Netherlands. “But so personal to him (Crivelli) did his symbolism become that his pupils and imitators copied from it only one or two motifs whose meaning was generally obvious, notably the apple.”7

Before investigating the throne, clothing and jewels there remains one object seen only once in the painting and from which the painting takes its name in part. At the lower left of the work is a single, ecru, extinguished candle. This is what the Virgin’s sadness indicates and such knowledge accounts for the distressing countenance of the Christ child as well for it is a reminder of His eventual crucifixion. From the bower of fruits and laurels at the top of the painting to the jug, flowers, fruits and candle at the bottom along with everything else in between, the entire story of the fall, Incarnation, Crucifixion and ultimate redemption is inescapably told visually over and over again.

The marble seat and plinth seems to be the most direct in meaning only associated with a person of importance and therefore not pregnant with additional symbolism. What

Crivelli does show in the painting of this architectural feature however, is how he renders the colors and veins of marble.  Choosing this way over the trend of grisaille adds to the richness of textures seen on the clothing and the rest of the painting for that matter. The architectural feature of the throne is really secondary to the ornamentation of the fabric, jewels, fruits etc. and yet is stately in three-dimensional appearance manifesting Crivelli’s ability and mastery of color, textures, and detail. The throne absolutely complements everything else in the painting via color.

The fabrics of clothing for the Christ child and the Madonna as well as the dosall behind her head and the cloth at her feet reveal many influences. Using gold, red, pink and black with exquisite textures and patterns harkens back to something called the International Style used by Simone Martini in late Italian Gothic painting (14th century) and then by the Limbourg brothers in the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry in Northern painting (early 15th century). Additionally Gentile da Fabriano clothes his figures in similar sumptuousness in his Adoration of the Magi (early 15th century) and Rogier van der Weyden’s Escorial Deposition details gold brocade on one of his figures (early 15th Century).

There is a respectable tradition upon which Crivelli draws artistically both from the north and the south. His early exposure to textiles from Venetian silks and opulent velvets with gold embroidery must have appealed to his sensibilities in his formation. If Florence is remembered for its sculptural forms, Venice is remembered for its color, especially Venetian red. While Camerino could boast of a new wealth with people whose clothing reflected that, one gathers that this was incidental to Crivelli’s impressions. Further validating the adornment of the Madonna and Child are writings of the visionary, St. Bridget of Sweden, who describes her ethereal beauty and clothing relevant to her status as is that of the Christ child. Thus in color and texture Crivelli’s fabrics are befitting of the Queen of Heaven and her little son.

Before continuing we must acknowledge something which came into existence in 15th century Italy apparently as the result of extreme excesses in clothing, jewels, and foods etc., known as the Sumptuary Laws. While applied (albeit loosely) in many areas and to several classes of people, one of the motivating principles of this law was to safeguard the populace from excessive materialism and thus immorality. Limits were placed on the amounts of jewels worn as well as colors and fabrics. Therefore Crivelli takes all that is forbidden to humankind in his day and adorns his Madonna and Child with the most exquisite things reserved for the royalty of heaven. This concept is based on the idea that nothing material is too good for the honor and glory of God and throughout the history of

Christianity has created a dichotomy of thought. The opposite stance was taken most especially by the 12th Century monk, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who railed against the expenditures and lavishness of ornamentation for church objects at the expense of monies for the poor. Nonetheless, Crivelli’s own tastes pulling from a long history of influences surface in all his Madonnas who are royally and elegantly clothed. The red forbidden to the general public and the detailed golden velvet patterns are used with loving disregard and find their way as dress and mantle in the Candeletta panel.

Touching on other cloths, we must note the transparent veil on the Madonna’s head, a Medieval and Renaissance symbol of her virginity, the red and gold dossal, a mark of royalty framing her head from behind, and the little pink tunic of the Christ child, a color befitting and all continuing with the multiplicity of meaning so intriguing in Crivelli’s luscious art. It must also be noted here that the sash around the Virgin’s midriff is devoid of jewels. Ordinarily for a person of status, this would have been decked with jeweled ornamentation. The lack of it represents the Madonna’s humility.

Finally, an examination of the particular stones used in the Madonna’s crown, on the clothing of both the Madonna and Child, and as a brooch holding the Madonna’s mantle together is most fitting. Traditionally, crowns of gold with stones were thought to be worn in heaven as early as the 6th Century. From the early Middle Ages, stones had possessed magical powers of protection from illnesses and all sorts of difficulties and represented many things as well as cures. Renaissance stones continued in that heritage.

Let us now look at the golden crown of the Virgin with its seven fleurons (lilies / purity) set with pearls, rubies and sapphires. This crown and stones were seen as most appropriate for the Queen of Heaven and had been worn in Western Europe by royalty since the 11th Century. While there were five notable stones from medieval times, (the diamond, the emerald, the pearl, the ruby and the sapphire), the diamond and emerald were used the least and not at all in the Madonna della Candeletta.

Pearls have a very long history from medieval literature and art as representing purity and virginity. The pearl additionally represents Christ, “the Pearl of Great Price” from the New Testament and Christ in the Virgin’s womb as with the oyster. Crivelli uses this stone in the Madonna’s crown, in her brooch and as trim on Christ’s and her sleeves and neckline. The ruby is multi-layered with connotations of lordship and illuminating the world as does the Madonna and the sapphire is at once cool, serene, beautiful and hopeful. These virtues of the Madonna and Child are extolled visually through the beauty of the gold and stones.

One can only imagine the prayers of the Renaissance faithful before this splendid representation of the Virgin and Child. From fruit and laurel leaves, flowers and jug, cloth and stone, countenances and candle, Christian mysteries are visualized over and over again through the paint brush of this gifted artist who created such sumptuous, symbolic beauty. No matter where the devotee’s eyes wander, it is understood that Christ Incarnate through the Co-Redemptress Virgin Mother would suffer and die for the salvation of mankind due to the Fall of Adam and Eve. He would leave Himself in the sacrifice of the Mass and in the Eucharistic shedding of His Blood.

Carlo Crivelli breathes into life these divine mysteries through his exquisite representations. The result differentiates him from all other 15th century Italian artists due to the symbolic naturalism in his works. He is unique. Five hundred fifteen years hence, the Madonna della Candeletta still draws us close to her, inviting us to understand on a plane more profound than words, the fulfilling part her humble “yes” played in surrendering to the will of God. Through her and the Son, the Christian mysteries are accomplished. Whether one sees the work as simply a lovely, intriguing painting from times gone by or as a means for the present day believer to experience deeper faith, we must nevertheless acknowledge and respect the intellectual, spiritual and artistic achievements of the consummate Italian Renaissance painter, Carlo Crivelli, whose exquisite Madonna della Candeletta spans the centuries touching us all on some level.

End Notes 

1        Lightbown, R.W., Carlo Crivelli, Yale University Press, 2004, page 3. 

2        Ibid., page 5. 

3        Ibid., page 6. 

4        Ibid., page 425. 

5        Ibid., page 20. 

6        Fisher, Cecilia, Flowers and Fruit, National Gallery Limited, 1998, page 27. 

7        Lightbown, R.W., Carlo Crivelli, Yale University Press, 2004, page 8.



Fisher, Cecilia. Flowers and Fruits, National Gallery Publications Limited, 1998. 

Hall, James. Illustrated Dictionary of Symbols in Eastern and Western Art,

Westview Press, 1917. 

Hart, Frederick and Wilkins, David G. History of Italian Renaissance Art, 5th Edition, Prentice Hall, 2003. 

Lightbown, R. W. Carlo Crivelli, Yale University Press, 2004. 

Tansey, Richard G. Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, 10th Edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996. 

Watkins, Jonathan. Untricking the Eye, The Uncomfortable Legacy of Carlo Crivelli,

Art International (0004-3230), Issue: 5, 1988. 

“Sumptuary Laws”

 Cranny, Michael W.  Pathways: Civilizations Through Times Scarborough, Prentice Hall, Ginn Canada, 1998

 Riberio, Aileen. Dress and Morality, Holmes and Meier, 1986.

Hunt, Leigh. “Carlo Crivelli”. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 4.  Online Edition, 2003.


  Beverley Thiel Hood is an Art History Major. She currently works as a secondary teacher of Studio Art and as the AP of Art History in a college preparatory school. She holds a MFA in Studio Art.