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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes/The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist/c. 1270/1275,” Italian Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Paintings, NGA Online Editions, (accessed October 25, 2016).


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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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Saint John the Evangelist, most beloved of Jesus’s disciples, holds his head in sadness. According to John’s Gospel, he was present at Christ’s crucifixion, and this panel, along with one depicting the Virgin Mary also in the collection of the National Gallery of Art, was originally part of a large, painted crucifix (see Reconstruction).

The cross to which the Gallery's panels belonged was probably made for the church of San Francesco in Bologna, and has a touching story around it. A commentary written in the late 1300s recounts how a crucifix in that church had spoken to console a monk visiting from England. That monk was John of Pecham, a Franciscan theologian who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1279 after his return to England. The story helps define the probable dating of the Gallery's two pictures, which are not signed or dated. This anonymous artist painted crucifixes for other Franciscan churches—hence the name he has been given by scholars. Those included one at the basilica in Assisi, the mother church of the order and where Saint Francis is buried. It is likely that the artist trained in Assisi, and since all his known works seem to have been Franciscan commissions, he may well have been a Franciscan friar himself.  

The two mourners would have appeared at the ends of the cross’s lateral arms—Mary on the left, John on the right. The dimensions of the two panels—each nearly three feet tall—suggest just how large the entire cross must have been. Examples that survive intact often measure 10 feet tall or more.


Because of their relatively large size, this panel and its companion, The Mourning Madonna, have been considered part of the apron of a painted crucifix.[1] As their horizontal wood grain suggests, they undoubtedly formed the lateral terminals of a painting of this type, probably that belonging to the church of Santa Maria in Borgo in Bologna (now exhibited at the Pinacoteca Nazionale of that city), as Gertrude Coor was the first to recognize [fig. 1] (see also Reconstruction).[2] Another fragment of the work, a tondo with the bust of the Blessing Christ [fig. 2], was in the possession of the art dealer Bacri in Paris around 1939.[3]

The two panels represent, respectively, the mother of Jesus and his favorite disciple in the typical pose of mourners, with the head bowed to one side and the cheek resting on the palm of the hand.[4] As is seen frequently in Italian paintings of the late thirteenth century, Mary is wearing a purple maphorion over a blue robe,[5] and Saint John a steel-blue garment and purple-red mantle.[6] In publishing them (1922), Osvald Sirén noted the stylistic affinity of the two panels with the Bolognese crucifix [fig. 3]. He inserted them in the catalog of the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes,[7] a painter of mixed Umbrian-­Pisan culture of the second half of the thirteenth century, whose oeuvre he himself had reconstructed. For his part, Raimond van Marle (1923) considered the fragments works of an Umbrian artist of the school of the Master of San Francesco.[8] Robert Lehman, in compiling the catalog of his father’s collection (1928), accepted Sirén’s opinion but proposed the date of c. 1250 for the two fragments.[9] In 1929, Evelyn Sandberg-­Vavalà undertook a far more thorough examination of the problem of the two fragments and their stylistic affinities. Emphasizing the Umbrian component in the painter’s figurative culture, she stated that he was active in the years close to 1272 [10] and had worked extensively in Emilia-­Romagna.

While most art historians have accepted Sirén’s view and the conventional name he coined for the master,[11] advocates of a contrary thesis have not been lacking. There are those who support the thesis that the two fragments are Pisan in derivation, or even propose Giunta Pisano as the master of the crucifix.[12] Other art historians insist that the painter was Bolognese and exclude from his oeuvre the paintings of Umbrian provenance.[13] Today, however, there seems no good reason to deny the common authorship of the oeuvre mainly consisting of crucifixes first assembled by Sirén, or to reject the name he attached to it, Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes.[14]

The chronological sequence of the works attributable to the anonymous master is still under discussion. Useful clues can be deduced, however, from a comparison between some passages, such as the figure of the mourning Saint John, that frequently recur in his paintings. In my view, the pictorial treatment of the apostle in the crucifixes in the Treasury of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, the Pinacoteca of Faenza, the bank in Camerino, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna not only confirm that these works were all painted by the same master but also suggest that their order of execution must have been that listed above. In the four versions of the image of Saint John, the design seems to gain in fluidity and the contours in movement, while the forms become more segmented, or ruffled, by the increasingly close-set alignment of the drapery folds. At the same time, the pose of the apostle gradually assumes the hanchement so dear to Gothic taste. These changes are present, of course, in the works of other contemporary artists and provide points of reference for the dating of our two panels. Thus, the figure of Saint John in the painting in Assisi seems to be close in style to that executed by the Master of Santa Chiara between 1253 and 1260 (crucifix in the Basilica of Santa Chiara at Assisi),[15] while the version of the same image now in the National Gallery of Art seems more closely comparable, both in elegance of proportions and in pose, to the mourning Saint John by the Master of San Francesco, part of the painted crucifix in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, dated 1272.[16] The period of time indicated by these works ought also to circumscribe the years of activity of the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes. On the other hand, the more lyrical manner of this master in comparison with the Umbrian masters cited above suggests that during the years spent in Umbria he was especially in contact with such painters as the Master of San Felice di Giano, the master of the crucifix (no. 17, unfortunately undated) in the Pinacoteca of Spoleto.[17] His style clearly differs from that of the Bolognese followers of Giunta Pisano,[18] and this circumstance in itself seems to rebut the hypothesis that he had been trained in the Emilian city. Yet it cannot be excluded that the artistic climate of Bologna could have stimulated successive developments in his career, especially the town’s vital and increasingly sophisticated tradition of producing miniatures for illuminated manuscripts, along with the influence of the sculpted Arca in the church of San Domenico, completed not long before the crucifix under discussion.[19]

That the two fragments formed part of the crucifix now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna must remain a hypothesis that only proper scientific and technical analysis of the panels could corroborate. Yet the dimensions and pictorial treatment of the panels now divided among the galleries of Bologna and Washington and a private collection provide strong arguments to support the view that they originally belonged together. As for the measurements, the two panels in the Gallery, slightly cropped to the sides, are very similar in size to the upper terminal of the Bolognese crucifix [fig. 4].[20] A virtual identity can also be seen in the pictorial treatment of these works. They all reveal the same search for a stylistic balance between Giuntesque formulae and a tendency towards the new needs of elegance and softness in the modeling of the figure. The similarity between the rapid brushstrokes that create the forms in the figures of the Madonna [fig. 5] and Saint John and in the crucifix in Bologna seems to me evident. All three panels, moreover, reveal the same manner of producing relief effects by sudden flashes of light, using the same technique of applying delicate touches of white to the green underpaint preparation. The effect of this pictorial freedom and of the graceful and humanizing rendering of the figures would not fail to stimulate the Bolognese miniaturists active in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.[21]

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


The two fragments (NGA 1952.5.13 and .14) were originally lateral terminals of a painted Crucifix presumably made for the church of San Francesco, Bologna, sometime after 1254 and before 1278;[1] the Crucifix is known to have been in the Lombardi Malvezzi Chapel in that church in 1577,[2] and was transported to the Bolognese church of Santa Maria in Borgo in 1801 (perhaps by which time its two lateral terminals might have been removed);[3] purchased, probably in Italy, by Osvald Sirén [1879–1966], Stockholm, by 1922.[4] Philip Lehman [1861–1947], New York, by 1928; purchased June 1943 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[5] gift 1952 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 809.
The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi, Petit Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998-1999, no. 3/2, repro., as The Mourning [same] by Master of the Blue Crucifixes (shown only in New York).
Duecento: Forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, 2000, no. 50, repro.
Vollmer, Hans. "Meister des Hl. Franziskus von Assis." In Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Ulrich Thieme, Felix Becker and Hans Vollmer. 37 vols. Leipzig, 1907-1950: 37(1950):105.
Sirén, Osvald. Toskanische Maler im XIII. Jahrhundert. Berlin, 1922: 221-222, 223, 224, 339, pl. 82.
Marle, Raimond van. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 19 vols. The Hague, 1923-1938: 1(1923):402.
Lehman, Robert. The Philip Lehman Collection, New York: Paintings. Paris, 1928: no. LX, repro.
Sandberg-Vavalà, Evelyn. La croce dipinta italiana e l’iconografia della Passione. Verona, 1929: 845, 855, 857, 884.
Mayer, August L. "Die Sammlung Philip Lehman." Pantheon 5 (1930): 115.
Venturi, Lionello. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931: no. 5, repro
Venturi, Lionello. Italian Paintings in America. Translated by Countess Vanden Heuvel and Charles Marriott. 3 vols. New York and Milan, 1933: 1:no. 6, repro.
Coletti, Luigi. I Primitivi. 3 vols. Novara, 1941-1947: 1(1941):24.
Sinibaldi, Giulia, and Giulia Brunetti, eds. Pittura italiana del Duecento e Trecento: catalogo della mostra giottesca di Firenze del 1937. Exh. cat. Galleria degli Uffizi. Florence, 1943: 149, 151.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 5, repro.
Douglas, Robert Langton. "Recent Additions to the Kress Collection." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 88 (1946): 85.
Frankfurter, Alfred M. Supplement to the Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1946: 15, repro.
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC, 1946: n.p.
Garrison, Edward B. Italian Romanesque Panel Painting: An Illustrated Index. Florence, 1949: 14, 221 n. 605, repro.
Lazarev, Viktor Nikitič. "Un crocifisso firmato di Ugolino Tedice." Paragone 6 (1955): 9, 12 n. 40.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 3.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 11, repro.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 297, repro.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 85.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century. London, 1966: 4, fig. 5.
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 75, repro.
Pittura nel Maceratese dal Duecento al tardo gotico. Exh. cat. Chiesa di S. Paolo, Macerata, 1971: 44 n. 3.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 287, 646, 665.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 220, repro.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:312-313; 2:pl. 224.
Scarpellini, Pietro. "Le pitture." In Il tesoro della Basilica di San Francesco ad Assisi. Edited by Maria Grazia Ciardi Dupré Dal Poggetto. Assisi, 1980: 40-41.
Tambini, Anna. Pittura dall’Alto Medioevo al Tardogotico nel territorio di Faenza e Forlì. Faenza, 1982: 34-35.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 253, repro.
Lunghi, Elvio. "Maestro dei Crocifissi Blu." In La Pittura in Italia. Il Duecento e il Trecento. Edited by Enrico Castelnuovo. 2 vols. Milan, 1986: 2:596.
Marques, Luiz. La peinture du Duecento en Italie centrale. Paris, 1987: 58, 286.
Todini, Filippo. La pittura umbra dal Duecento al primo Cinquecento. 2 vols. Milan, 1989: 1:125 as by Maestro dei Crocifissi Blu.
Tartuferi, Angelo. Giunta Pisano. Soncino, 1991: 82, 94.
Tomei, Alessandro. "Giunto Pisano." In Enciclopedia dell’arte medievale. Edited by Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana. 12 vols. Rome, 1991-2002: 6(1995):811.
Morello, Giovanni, ed. Sauver Assise. Exh. cat. Musée du Petit Palais, Paris. Milan, 1998: 50.
Cannon, Joanna. "The Stoclet ‘Man of Sorrows’: A Thirteenth-Century Italian Diptych Reunited." The Burlington Magazine 141 (1999): 110 n. 28.
Morello, Giovanni, and Laurence B. Kanter, eds. The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Milan, 1999: 64, repro. 65.
Benati, Daniele. “La città sacra: Pittura murale e su tavola nel Duecento Bolognese.” In Duecento: forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna. Edited by Massimo Medica and Stefano Tumidei. Exh. cat. Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna. Venice, 2000: 106 n. 42.
Medica, Massimo, and Stefano Tumidei, eds. Duecento: forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna. Exh. cat. Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna. Venice, 2000: 186, 194, 197-200, 201, 203, 210, repro. 198.
Medica, Massimo. “La città dei libri e dei miniatori.” In Duecento: forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna. Edited by Massimo Medica and Stefano Tumidei. Exh. cat. Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna. Venice, 2000: 125.
Cannon, Joanna. "The Era of the Great Painted Crucifix: Giotto, Cimabue, Giunta Pisano, and their Anonymous Contemporaries." Renaissance Studies 16 (2002): 576.
Giorgi, Silvia. "Maestro dei Crocifissi Francescani." In La pittura in Europa. Il Dizionario dei pittori. Edited by Carlo Pirovano. 3 vols. Milan, 2002: 2:534.
Pinacoteca Nazionale (Bologna). Catalog generale. Edited by Bentini, Jadranka, Gian Piero Cammarota, and Daniela Scaglietti Kelescian. Vol. 1 (of 5), Dal Duecento a Francesco Francia. Venice, 2004: 43.
Cooper, Donal. "Projecting Presence: The Monumental Crosses in the Italian Church Interior." In Presence: The Inherence of the Prototype within Images and other Objects. Edited by Robert Maniura and Rupert Sheperd. Burlington, VT, 2006: 54-55, 61 n. 42, repro. 68.
Tambini, Anna. Storia delle arti figurative a Faenza. Vol. 1 (of 4), Le origini. Faenza, 2006: 75, repro. 79.
Technical Summary

Both this painting and its companion, The Mourning Madonna, were executed on wood panels formed from at least three members with horizontal grain.[1] The joins in both paintings line up with one another. One of the joins runs through the panels at the heights of the figures’ hips and another slightly below their knees. A third join or check runs through the top of the figure’s head in both panels, though it is more prevalent in Saint John the Evangelist. The panels were prepared with gesso, and the backgrounds of both panels are gilded. Incised lines demarcate areas to be gilded from those to be painted, and the gilded areas were prepared with red bole. The paint was applied with bold, deliberate brushstrokes. The halos are delineated by incised lines and decorated with punched dots and freely inscribed curvilinear motifs. The decorative gold borders on the Virgin’s robe are mordant gilded. 

The panels are in fair state. During a treatment by Stephen Pichetto in 1944, they were thinned and attached to secondary panels with auxiliary cradle supports. The panels (together with their secondary support and cradle) are now 4.5 cm thick. Strips of wood have been attached to the edges of the panels, probably during the 1944 treatment. The fact that the halos of both figures are slightly truncated at the top and the Madonna’s robe cut off at the bottom suggests that the painted surface has been slightly cropped above and below in both panels. It is possible that the panels were trimmed on the other sides, too. Several large checks can be seen in the figure of the Virgin, at the height of her right arm, and below the lowest join line in the lower part of her robe. The painted surface is somewhat worn in both panels, with darkened inpainting evident along some of the joins. The gold ground is badly abraded, especially around the edges, more so in the Madonna panel than in that of Saint John. The Madonna’s robe and much of Saint John’s clothing have been heavily glazed or overpainted, most likely during an undocumented treatment carried out probably when the two panels appeared on the art market sometime before 1922.[2] The varnish applied in 1944 has discolored slightly.

Altarpiece Reconstruction

Click on any panel in the altarpiece reconstruction below to see an enlarged version of the image. Color reproductions in the reconstruction indicate panels in the National Gallery of Art collection.

Reconstruction of a painted crucifix, formerly in San Francesco, Bologna, by the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes:

a. Painted Crucifix with the Madonna between Two Angels (above) and the Kneeling Saint Francis (below), and Saint Helen (added by Jacopo di Paolo) (Entry fig. 3)
b. The Mourning Madonna
c. The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist
d. Bust of the Blessing Christ (Entry fig. 2)