A vast number of paintings of the Virgin and Child were produced in Florence in the late 1400s to meet a new demand for devotional images on a domestic scale. Early in his career, Botticelli specialized in such works. While this painting possesses much of the calm prettiness expected from these Madonnas, it also contains unexpected elements of allegory. The angel, Virgin, and Christ Child all look down at a bowl of grapes studded with ears of grain. Grapes and wheat produce the wine and bread of the Eucharist, and allude to the blood and body of Christ’s sacrifice. The Virgin carefully selects some of the wheat, to signify that she accepts her child’s fate. The angled arcade adds further mystery: like a set of isolated doorways, the structure encloses the figures while it simultaneously frames the landscape beyond.
In 1899, Isabella Stewart Gardner discovered that the Prince Chigi in Rome was willing to sell his painting by Botticelli, so she cabled Bernard Berenson to ask if it was worth $30,000. He replied emphatically that it was not, but she was not discouraged. A few months later, the price had risen to $70,000 and Berenson was recommending its purchase! The acquisition stirred great controversy because the press believed that the painting had been illegally exported from Italy; the Prince Chigi was fined, but later cleared of impropriety. Popular interest on both sides of the Atlantic became so great that it was decided to exhibit the painting in London at Colnaghi before it was shipped to Boston.
Source: Alan Chong, "Virgin and Child with an Angel," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 58.