Michelangelo's depiction of the Madonna and Child differs significantly from earlier representations of the same subject, which tended to feature a pious Virgin smiling down on an infant held in her arms. Instead, Jesus stands upright, almost unsupported, only loosely restrained by Mary's left hand, and appears to be about to step away from his mother. Meanwhile, Mary does not cling to her son or even look at him, but gazes down and away. It is believed the work was originally intended for an altar piece. If this is so, then it would have been displayed facing slightly to the right and looking down. The early 16th-century sculpture also displays the High Renaissance Pyramid style frequently seen in the works of Leonardo da Vinci during the late 1400s.
Madonna and Child shares certain similarities with Michelangelo's Pietà, which was completed shortly before – mainly, the chiaroscuro effect and movement of the drapery. The long, oval face of Mary is also reminiscent of the Pietà.
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