The Madonna of the Carnation, by Bernardino Luini, shows the Virgin with the Christ child seated in her lap as he turns to grasp a carnation growing in a pot nearby. This may seem like an everyday gesture, but during the Renaissance a carnation symbolized either the Crucifixion or the Virgin\u0092s pure love. Thus the painting suggests that Christ, even as an infant, embraced his future sacrifice on the cross, while his mother\u0092s pensive expression implies her comprehension of what his action signifies.
Though not as well known today, Luini was once considered the leading painter from the Lombardy region of northern Italy. He was born about 1480 and trained with several local masters, but his life and art were transformed by encountering the work of Leonardo da Vinci, who visited Milan once in the late 15th century and again briefly in the early 16th century. Leonardo, as a young artist in Florence, painted several pictures with the same theme as that seen in this painting: the Christ child reaching for a flower. And it seems clear that Luini is indebted to Leonardo not only for this poignant theme but for other aspects of the painting as well: the dark background, the softness of the forms, the chiaroscuro (light and dark) modeling, the sweet sentiment of the figures, the turning pose of the Child.
Luini was a great painter of religious images, including frescoes, wood panels, large altarpieces, and small devotional works for the home. He was obviously very popular in his own time, as there are countless copies of his paintings. Then he regained popularity in the 19th century when the famous critic John Ruskin decided that Luini was greater than Leonardo, and many readers went to Italy looking for his works.