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Annalena altarpiece with predella
by Fra Angelico
, c. 1435, considered the "first" instance of the sacra conversazione format
In art, a sacra conversazione (Italian pronunciation: [ˈsaːkra komversatˈtsjoːne]) meaning holy/sacred conversation, but usually left in Italian, is a depiction of the Virgin and Child (the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus) amidst a group of saints in a relatively informal grouping, as opposed to the more rigid and hierarchical compositions of earlier periods.
The term is most used to describe a genre in renaissance art which developed in Italy as artists replaced earlier hieratic triptych or polyptych formats for altarpieces with compositions in which figures interacted within a unified perspectival space. Early examples are Annalena altarpiece by Fra Angelico and others by Filippo Lippi. Among other artists to depict such a scene are Piero della Francesca, Giovanni Bellini, Paolo Veronese, and Andrea Mantegna. Early examples such as the Bellini illustrated rarely show actual "conversation" or much interaction, though this may be seen from the 16th century on, as in the Madonna and Child with Saints Luke and Catherine of Alexandria by Titian. The setting is often architectural, but may be a garden or, especially later, an open landscape. The group subjects' format when placed in a garden enclosure are known as Hortus conclusus, and when the subjects with Mary are known as Virgo inter Virgines.
Hortus conclusus in Triptych of the Virgin and Child with Saints depicted by a member of the Cologne school, c. 1520