Touch binds together the figures in this masterful religious scene, which was likely painted while Luca Giordano was in Florence. Dressed in a rich blue mantle, the Virgin Mary holds the naked Christ Child on her lap, her fingers touching his bare flesh. He in turn reaches for the small cross held by his cousin, the infant Saint John the Baptist, who offers a basket of fruit as a present. The design of the composition is based on a diagonal which leads from the figure of Joseph at the top left to the lamb at the bottom right. This is emphasised using chiaroscuro (literally 'light-dark'). The use of light and the shadows gives the work a sense of naturalism and dynamism. The intimacy of the group conveys a peaceful mood, but several details also bring a darker premise to the work.
The painting is full of symbolic references to Christ’s life and eventual death. The small wooden cross is a prophetic image of Christ’s crucifixion, and the lamb that accompanies the Baptist also refers to when, as an adult, the Baptist will describe Christ as the ‘lamb of God’. Giordano chose to include not one, but two goldfinches – one in flight in the top right-hand corner and one in the foreground, toward which the lamb gazes. According to Christian symbolism the goldfinch’s red spot was acquired when it removed a thorn from Christ's head and was splashed with blood. Emerging out of the darkness, behind the goldfinch in flight, is an owl – usually representing death and danger, which in this instance may be a harbinger of Christ’s fate. The fruit in the basket also has a strong Christian significance. Strawberries recall the drops of Christ's blood, the five petals of the flower represent the five wounds suffered by Christ on the Cross and grapes are the primary Eucharistic symbol, again representing the blood of Christ.
The refinement of emotion and elegance of gesture evident in the figures suggests that this canvas was painted by Giordano during his stay in Florence and Bologna, between 1682 and 1686. The painting also recalls the dramatic lighting effects of painters such as Caravaggio (1571–1610), Artemesia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) and Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652), who were all active in Naples in the early seventeenth century.
Luca Giordano The Holy Family with the Infant St John the Baptist About 1682–1686 © Compton Verney