The Holy Family with the Christ Child Crushing the Serpent with His Feet by Sébastien Bourdon

Sébastien Bourdon

The Holy Family with the Christ Child Crushing the Serpent with His Feet, c.1643–71, Etching on paper, Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University; Friends of the Davison Art Center funds, 1967, 1967.24.1, Open Access Image from the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University; Photo: M. Johnston

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A Protestant Interpretation

Commentary by
Read by Ben Quash

A monumental Virgin is supporting the Christ child, who tramples a snake with his left foot. On the right, an elderly woman holding a book reclines at the bottom of a column.

Sébastien Bourdon, a French painter of Protestant faith, was in Rome between 1634 and 1637, and there almost certainly saw Caravaggio’s Madonna of the Serpent. Once in Paris, he executed this print, in which there are substantial departures from Caravaggio’s model. First of all, it is the child alone who crushes the snake, while the Virgin merely observes. This is perfectly in line with the Lutheran way of interpreting Genesis 3:15: ‘he will crush your head’ (ipse conteret capum tuum).

Another typically Lutheran aspect is that the figure on the right no longer represents St Anne, as most Protestant traditions do not acknowledge Anne as a saint. She has been replaced by the figure of what seems to be a prophet, holding a book. (Indeed, it has often been argued that an extra-biblical Anne has been exchanged for a biblical one, and that this is the female prophet Anna described in Luke 2:22–38). A representation of the Immaculate Conception—one of the pillars of the Counter-Reformation—is here transformed into an image against the cult of the Virgin.

Sébastien Bourdon probably perceived all the discussions and controversies that surrounded Caravaggio’s altarpiece, and decided to offer an interpretation which is compositionally similar yet powerfully different in meaning.



Thuillier, J. 2000. Sébastien Bourdon 1616–1671: catalogue critique et chronologique de l’oeuvre complet (Paris: Réunion des musées nationaux), p. 259


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