This beautiful and intimate painting depicts the Caritas, or the Virtue of Charity. A young woman, pictured at half-length, looks at the observer over her right shoulder. She wears a light red tunic with fine pleats, with a white belt around her waist and a wide sleeve bind-up on her upper arm. She wears a green shawl with gold fringes around her shoulders, together with a long coat, which falls down over her back. On her head she wears a veil of translucent cloth. On a voile shawl, which also falls around her neck, the young woman holds a lying child. With her right hand she supports his left foot and with an equally tender gesture he caresses her chin. A second child, with translucent voile around his body, stands diagonally behind the lying child and they turn their heads towards each other. A third child wraps his right arm around the woman's neck and holds the shawl in his fingers. This affectionate gesture mirrors the arm of the reclining child. The balanced composition, with a repetition of shapes and poses, places this work in the High Renaissance. However, the typical twist in the upper-body of the young woman – referred to as the figura serpentinata – and her rather elongated neck, already indicate the influence of Mannerism. The same applies to the classical Ideal of Beauty deconstructed in her physiognomy, which is clearly inspired by Classical Antiquity and the achievements of the Italian Renaissance, or the influences of the so-called Italianisers.
The young woman in this painting is the physical incarnation, or personification, of charity, also known as Caritas. In Latin, carus means ‘expensive’ or ‘dear’, and in this specific context it refers to charity: committing an act of love and mercy. The iconography applied here, with three children, is emblematic of the personification of charity. A child, in his state of helplessness, is a symbol of dependence. This symbolism may refer to the needy who is dependent on his fellow man, but also to the man seeking support from God. The relationship between mother and child also symbolizes the unconditionality that characterizes pure love. The great importance given to Caritas within Christianity can be traced back to the first letter that Paul wrote to the Christian Community of the Corinthians (1 Corinthians). In this letter he writes: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.". Caritas, as such, refers to the love for God, but also to the love of God for mankind and in our love for our neighbour, we imitate Christ’s example. In this context, the charity-figure – or charitable works as a whole – fits into the context of the love for God and the Imitatio Christi. In West-European History of Art, which is deeply influenced by Christian themes, the charity-figure forms an often recurring iconographic theme. Although Caritas is typically depicted as a woman with small children from the fourteenth century onwards, the objects she has with her, specific details or poses are diverse.
The composition of the present work cannot be see separately from two similar compositions given to the South Netherlandish master Vincent Sellaer (ca. 1490–1544/64): The Holy Kinship in Stockholm, usually dated to the third quarter of the 16th century, ca. 1560 and of which several versions exist and – as Dr. Peter Carpreau confirmed – in particular Caritas, dated 1544, collection of The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels. Vincent Sellaer was active in Malines (or the city of ‘Mechelen’), where he was one of the leading masters of his time. Most likely he visited Northern Italy, possibly Brescia. This can be deduced from distinct Lombard and Florentine stylistic influences in his paintings, which can hardly be to explained as being indirect. However, an attribution to Sallaer – partly due to the relatively small size of the present panel – is not plausible. Still, the master who produced the present work must have known Sallaers Caritas composition and evidently based his own invention on it. It is therefore highly plausible that the present panel originated in the immediate circle of Sellaer, possibly even in Malines, probably (shortly) after 1544 and – given the applied colour scheme – before 1560. It has not been possible to attribute the work to a particular master on stylistic grounds or to identify a specific hand. The rather static depiction of the folds, the relatively small panel and the use of cheaper pigments – such as smalt – also suggest a lesser master or workshop, many of which were active in the Southern Netherlands of the 16th century.
The panel is not marked, but the Malines Joiners’ Guild (the ‘Schrijnwerkersgilde’) - unlike, for example, that of Antwerp – did not use quality marks. As such, Malines should not be excluded as the place of origin of the present work and is in fact an even more likely place of origin than a large artistic centre, such as Antwerp or Brussels. Although the master's hand cannot be identified, the present piece is a beautifully executed and well-preserved work, with not only an iconographically interesting, but also very attractive theme.