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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Master of the Washington Coronation/The Coronation of the Virgin/1324,” Italian Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Paintings, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/41702 (accessed September 26, 2016).

 

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Overview

This Coronation of the Virgin may be the first time the subject, which originated in the West, appears in Venetian art. Some of the earliest representations were carved above cathedral doorways in France—and certain elements in the Gallery's painting—its elaborate halos, for example—share in the decorative elegance of Gothic art. Yet, the painting also has a strongly Byzantine character. The gold striations that define the figures’ robes, the flat gold background, and the almost abstract way that colors and shapes fill the field might have been copied from a Byzantine icon. The artist, however, did not have a Byzantine model. Instead, the look of his painting is the product of a pervasive, and enduring, Byzantine influence on all art of the Veneto, the region around Venice. Venice had close ties to Byzantium, starting in the sixth century, and enjoyed a virtual monopoly on trade with the East. Its ships carried, and its merchants sold, most of the luxury goods desired by the West: silks, spices, ivory, and exotic pigments. In part because of the ready availability of these pigments, the brilliant color we see here would continue to be a hallmark of Venetian painting into the Renaissance and beyond.

The panel, originally part of a much larger assemblage (see Reconstruction), has been attributed in the past to Paolo Veneziano (Venetian, active 1333 - 1358), Venice’s most important artist in the 14th century. More likely, however, its painter belonged to the previous generation—he may even have been Paolo’s father, Martino da Venezia. A comparison to a painting by Paolo also in the National Gallery of Art, with more dimensional and less static figures, brings into focus the Coronation’s more schematic approach.

Entry

The Coronation of the Virgin marks the final episode of the legend of the mother of Jesus, that of her ultimate glorification after her bodily assumption into heaven. The episode first appears in medieval sources, but it was not until the thirteenth century that the scene in which Christ places the crown on his mother’s head is explicitly illustrated in monumental painting and sculpture. Mary usually is represented seated on the same throne as her son and to his right as he crowns her with his right hand.[1] This scheme, which subsequently underwent some changes, especially in Tuscany,[2] was faithfully followed by Venetian painters throughout the fourteenth century and beyond. The panel in the National Gallery of Art is one of the earliest representations of the subject that has come down to us from the Veneto region.[3] An iconographic innovation introduced here, one that Paolo Veneziano (Venetian, active 1333 - 1358) subsequently revived, is the representation of the celestial spheres that can be seen behind the cloth of honor in the background.[4]

The Coronation of the Virgin in Washington originally must have formed part of a larger complex. No evidence has yet been found of other panels with which it might have belonged. But there are good grounds for assuming that it would have been flanked by a series of stories of Christ or stories of the Virgin, arranged in two superimposed tiers, rather than by standing figures of saints, as found, for instance, in polyptychs of the full maturity of Paolo Veneziano.[5] It may also be assumed that the Coronation would have been surmounted by a gable panel representing the Crucifixion [6] and that standing figures of saints or prophets would have been placed at the two sides of the upper register [fig. 1] (see also Reconstruction). I think it probable, on grounds of style and measurements, that the panel of the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel and the busts of two Evangelists [fig. 2], formerly in the Cini collection in Venice and now in another private collection, belonged to this latter zone of the polyptych;[7] the panel seems well suited to integrate the upper right-hand part of the polyptych, now lost, of which the Washington Coronation formed the center.

Who was the Master of the Washington Coronation? As regards his possible identification with Martino da Venezia, we can only speak of a working hypothesis suggested by the stylistic affinities between the painting here discussed and those of Paolo, son of Martino, and also bearing in mind the undisputed ascendancy that Paolo’s bottega rapidly succeeded in winning in early fourteenth-century Venetian painting. The fact remains that the artistic profile of the Master of the Washington Coronation remains very uncertain. Art historians now generally agree on the need to exclude his works from the catalog of Paolo Veneziano, to whom they were almost unanimously attributed for some thirty years, beginning with Giuseppe Fiocco (1930–1931), and to whom the Gallery (1985), Francesca Zava Boccazzi (1993), and John Oliver Hand (2004) continued to attribute the Coronation in Washington.[8] But the alternative proposal by Michelangelo Muraro (1965, 1969), who placed the Washington panel at the center of his reconstruction of the oeuvre of an artist he considered the stylistic precursor and perhaps even the elder brother of Paolo, has met with increasing consent since the latter decades of the twentieth century.[9] Opinions differ, however, on the extent of the catalog of the Master of the Washington Coronation. Only three paintings, all chronologically close to the panel dated 1324, are unanimously, or almost unanimously, recognized as his work. They are the Madonna and Child no. 1604 in the Musei Civici in Padua;[10] the painted crucifix in the Istituto Ellenico in San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice;[11] and the fragment of a Crucifixion that surfaced at an auction sale in Rome in 1974, but which has since gone untraced.[12] To this small group a number of other works can, in my view, be added. These include one other dated painting: namely, the altar frontal of the Blessed Leone Bembo now at the treasury of the Church of Saint Blase in Vodnjan (Dignano d’Istria) in Croatia, painted for the Venetian church of San Sebastiano in 1321. Usually ascribed to Paolo Veneziano,[13] the panel provides further evidence of the essential stylistic continuity between the manner of Paolo and that of the older master.

The two painters, however, should not be confused. From his earliest works (those datable between the second and early third decade of the century, such as the scenes from the life of the Virgin in the Musei Civici at Pesaro [14] and the frescoes on the triumphal arch and nave of the church of San Fermo at Verona),[15] Paolo Veneziano displays a more spontaneous elegance in the movement of his figures, more fluent linear rhythms in his design, and more delicate passages of chiaroscuro in his modeling. In other words, he reveals a style akin to but more modern—more attuned to the Gothic manner—than that of the Master of the Washington Coronation. In the years in which Paolo made his appearance on the scene, the activity of our anonymous master is attested to by works in which the forms tend to be more incisive and in which any cultivation of elegance in gesture, or gothicizing animation in calligraphic rhythm, is muted. Instead, the author of the Washington Coronation dedicates particular attention to the corporeal substance of his figures, which in general seem more restricted in movement and more reserved in comportment than those that populate the paintings of Paolo Veneziano.

The results of the master’s activity in the 1310s, or slightly before, are probably the Crucifixion in the Serbian Orthodox church of Split (Spalato);[16] the two fragments of an altarpiece—one with three, the other with four figures of saints—now in the Pinacoteca Civica in Forlì;[17] and the so-called Madonna delle stelle in the church of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano.[18] These paintings are still strongly indebted to the classicizing aspirations of the Palaeologan Renaissance. But instead of cultivating the formal complexities and agitated rhythms of Byzantine painting of his day, the artist seems to draw inspiration from the powerful firmness of the bodies and the incisive figurative style of the painted images of previous decades. What remains of the important cycle of frescoes in the church of San Zan Degolà in Venice probably belongs to a slightly earlier phase in the master’s career, to the years around the turn of the century. These frescoes are variously attributed and dated,[19] but it seems to me difficult to doubt their very close stylistic affinity with the group of paintings just cited. They are truly superb examples of the painter’s sophisticated figurative culture, influenced not by Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337) (as has sometimes been suggested) but by the neo-Hellenistic figurative art developed in Constantinople and also in other centers of the “Byzantine Commonwealth” since the 1260s.[20] These works are preceded in date by the vigorous language of some other paintings in which the artist strives to create strong effects of plastic relief and to present his figures in illusionistically convincing architectural settings. I refer to such works as the Madonna and Child with Donors [fig. 3] in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow [21] and the busts of apostles from the iconostasis of Caorle Cathedral.[22] In particular, the articulation of forms in the latter, with zones of color almost geometrical in regularity, and their modeling with energetic brushstrokes and sudden flashes of white highlights suggest that they were executed within the last decade of the thirteenth century.

The fact that works of such importance had been commissioned from the artist some two to three decades before he executed the painting now in Washington shows that the Master of the Washington Coronation must have become a well-established painter by the time of its creation, even if he still proposed very different figurative ideas than those of his full maturity. If the artist followed a decidedly “philo-­Byzantine” orientation in his initial phase, in his paintings of the 1320s he draws closer to the classicism pursued by Giotto and other artists of central Italy. In works such as the panel now in Washington (dated 1324) he aspires to a figural style characterized by gothicizing elegance of movement and fluency in linear rhythms [fig. 4]. These paintings reveal an undeniable kinship with the first works attributed to Paolo Veneziano. It is therefore probable that the elderly master shared a workshop around this time with the rising star of fourteenth-century Venetian painting.[23]

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016

Inscription

on the base of the throne: MCCCXXIIII [1]

Inscription Notes

[1] The NGA scientific research department analyzed the gilding of the inscription, that of the background, and that of an area of restoration using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (see report dated February 9, 1999, in NGA conservation files). All three areas showed the same elements; therefore, this type of analysis could not be used to determine if the inscription is original.

Provenance

Antonio Dal Zotto [1841–1918], Venice.[1] Dr. J. Carl [or Carlo?] Broglio, Paris;[2] purchased jointly 27 July 1950 by (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London) and (Rudolf Heinemann, New York); Agnew share sold to (Rudolf Heinemann, New York); (M. Knoedler and Co., New York);[3] purchased February 1952 as by Paolo Veneziano by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[4] gift 1952 to NGA.

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2007
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2009
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Technical Summary

The painting was executed on a two-member, vertically grained poplar panel.[1] Mario Modestini thinned and cradled the panel during a restoration treatment in 1953.[2] The x-radiographs reveal that four knots were cut out of the panel and replaced with insets, and the areas were covered with pieces of fabric. The artist applied the paint on a moderately thick gesso ground, apparently without the help of a preparatory underdrawing. The main lines of the draperies were incised into the gesso, but they do not correspond to the gilded highlights of the mantles of Christ and of the Virgin in the painting. The artist used green underpaint in the flesh tones and mordant gilding on top of the paint to decorate the draperies. The upper part of the painted area terminates in a mixtilinear arch placed within an ogival arch with crocketed ornament. The spandrels to its side, forming the upper angles of the wooden support, were originally covered by the frame and therefore were not gilded or painted but only gessoed. In these areas the artist sometimes wiped his brushes and, on the left side, sketched a pinnacle-shaped form (perhaps a detail of the original frame), discovered after the removal of the surviving remainder of the frame. The painted surface is generally in fair condition. A considerable number of small scattered losses appear in the central part of the gold ground as well as in the draperies (especially in the Virgin’s mantle), whereas along the bottom edge of the panel the paint is irregularly fractured, obliterating the riser of the dais. An old photograph, taken in the late nineteenth century [fig. 1],[3] shows the picture covered with dirt and darkened varnish. Another photo [fig. 2], made before the 1953 treatment, proves that in the meantime the painting was probably treated.[4] During the last recorded treatment, another discolored varnish was removed and the losses were inpainted.

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 dispersed polyptych by the Master of the Washington Coronation:

a. The Coronation of the Virgin
b. Two Apostles and the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (?) (Entry fig. 2)