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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Paolo di Giovanni Fei/The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple/1398-1399,” Italian Thirteenth and Fourteenth Century Paintings, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/46103 (accessed August 26, 2016).

 

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Overview

This engaging narrative scene was the center panel of an altarpiece commissioned in 1398 for the Chapel of Saint Peter, near the high altar of the cathedral in Siena. It would have been flanked, in all probability, by standing saints—one of them Peter—and surmounted by other saints shown half-length. Originally, the structure would have been gabled at the top, with elaborate gold moldings framing each section.

According to legend, the Virgin entered the temple in Jerusalem at age three and remained until she was 14. In this depiction, she stands at the top of the long stair with a last sidelong look at her parents, yet she remains fearless and strong. Like those of the high priest who receives her, Mary’s robes are splendid gold brocade. These were created with a technique called sgraffito, in which paint is scraped away in patterns to reveal gilding below that is then textured with tiny punches. Equally lavish is the interior of Solomon’s temple, which is treated as a Gothic church. The complex space is easily read, airy with lots of light and a brilliant palette—cool blues, salmony pinks, and glassy greens. A gallery at the right is filled with the girls who will be Mary’s companions. One, at the back, seems to be on tiptoe, trying hard to see this girl who would be fed each day by an angel. On the other side, near Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, another onlooker cranes for a glimpse and a woman kneels, her face half hidden by a pillar. Such rich details enliven and humanize a sacred event, making it more accessible to a contemporary viewer.

Entry

The legend of the childhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, had been formed at a very early date, as shown by the apocryphal Gospel of James, or Protoevangelium of James (second – ​third century), which for the first time recounted events in the life of Mary before the Annunciation. The iconography of the presentation of the Virgin that spread in Byzantine art was based on this source. In the West, the episodes of the birth and childhood of the Virgin were known instead through another, later apocryphal source of the eighth – ​ninth century, attributed to the Evangelist Matthew.[1] According to this account of her childhood, Mary, on reaching the age of three, was taken by her parents, together with offerings, to the Temple of Jerusalem, so that she could be educated there. The child ascended the flight of fifteen steps of the temple to enter the sacred building, where she would continue to live, fed by an angel, until she reached the age of fourteen.[2] The legend linked the child’s ascent to the temple and the flight of fifteen steps in front of it with the number of Gradual Psalms.[3] The image of so long a flight of steps does not in general appear in fourteenth-century Sienese painting, which instead follows other details of the narrative of the Pseudo-­Matthew: it describes the surprise of those present on seeing the infant girl spontaneously ascend the steps on her own and shows the high priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist (haloed), welcoming the child.[4] The other girls who are being brought up in the temple are represented in a separate zone. One endeavor to which Sienese painters, on the other hand, paid constant attention was that of expressing the splendor of Solomon’s Temple, generally represented as a grand and complex building. The importance of the event was further underlined by the presence of ever more numerous onlookers.

The painting now in the National Gallery of Art appeared in the London exhibition in 1928 as a work by Bartolo di Fredi, an attribution perhaps proposed by Bernard Berenson, who privately confirmed it in 1951.[5] William Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley accepted this opinion in their catalog of the Kress Collection (NGA 1956), commenting that “the attribution to Bartolo​ . . . ​is not likely to be doubted.”[6] That attribution was reaffirmed in the 1959 catalog of the Gallery and by Jaqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne (1965).[7] As early as 1951, however, Millard Meiss broke ranks, identifying the hand of Paolo di Giovanni Fei in the painting.[8] All the more recent literature, apart from the above-cited exceptions, recognizes Meiss’s proposal as correct, including Berenson’s own posthumous edition of Italian Pictures (1968).[9] Confirmation of the attribution came with the discovery that the panel now in Washington comes from Siena Cathedral; documents of 1398 – ​1399 record payments made to Paolo di Giovanni Fei that undoubtedly refer to this painting.[10] The various inventories of the cathedral later described it as “tauola dipenta colla Ripresentationi al Tempio di Nostra Donna et di sancto Pietro et di sancto Pauolo et di più altri sancti e sancte” (a painted panel with the Presentation of Our Lady and with Saint Peter and Saint Paul and many other saints).[11] It remained on the altar of the chapel of San Pietro at least until 1482 and probably until the early 1580s (see Provenance).

The composition of Paolo’s altarpiece would have followed the scheme prescribed for the altarpieces of the various chapels in the cathedral, a church dedicated to the Virgin: namely, a scene representing a Marian feast at the center, flanked by full-length, standing saints in the lateral panels, including the titular of the altar. As we know from the example of other polyptychs with a provenance from the cathedral, the saints were portrayed one on each side. Moreover, the polyptychs, in contrast to the present appearance of The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, were always enriched with gables comprising half-figure images of other saints above the main register. Though none of these components of Paolo’s altarpiece have yet been identified, there seems no reason to doubt their existence.[12]

The documents, therefore, not only confirm the attribution of the panel in the National Gallery of Art to Paolo di Giovanni Fei but also reveal that it is the fragment of a larger complex. It remains uncertain, however, whether Paolo was the sole author of the dispersed polyptych. According to another piece of documentary evidence dating to 1393, in fact, another painter, Bartolo di Fredi, received a payment “per la tavola d’altare di San Pietro che fa.”[13] According to some, this means that the execution of the polyptych had already begun in 1392 – ​1393, but for some reason Bartolo’s work was not completed. So the commission was then apparently transferred to Paolo. It was believed in the past that the lost laterals of our Presentation could be identified in two panels by Bartolo di Fredi representing Saint Peter and Saint Paul, but the hypothesis was then shown to be mistaken.[14] So, in this case, the problem of the collaboration between the two Sienese painters still remains open.[15]

Paolo’s painting in Washington has always met with a flattering reception from art historians. Millard Meiss (1951) hailed it as an “important panel”; Enzo Carli (1979), as one of the masterpieces of late-fourteenth-century Sienese painting (“uno dei capolavori della pittura senese del tardo Trecento”); while the Dutch expert on Sienese painting, Henk van Os (1990), described it as “a magnificent painting.”[16] Michael Mallory (1965) was the first to recognize its identity with the documented panel by Paolo di Giovanni Fei in Siena Cathedral. He also subjected it to a meticulous stylistic and iconographic analysis. He observed inter alia that “the series of spaces that the artist has opened up beyond the figures is more complex than anything that he attempted in the Nativity [that is, in the other polyptych by the artist similarly having a scene thronged with figures at the center, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena] or in the Visitation [that is, in the scene frescoed by Paolo in the church of San Francesco, also in Siena], and at the same time the architecture is rendered accurately enough so that we can understand the plan of this church with its polygonal apse and vaulted chapels.” The Washington Presentation, Mallory concluded, “is the most ambitious and successful Sienese painting of the late Trecento as regards interior setting.”[17]

To illustrate the scene of the entry of the child Mary into the temple, Paolo must have followed an illustrious model, now lost: the one painted by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti as part of a Marian sequence on the facade of the Ospedale della Scala, opposite the cathedral, in 1335.[18] We do not know whether Paolo had been contractually obliged — ​​as Sano di Pietro would be a half-century later [19] — ​​to reproduce the Lorenzettian composition in his panel. Many elements that it holds in common with Sano di Pietro’s version of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana),[20] and with the many other variations on the theme produced by Sienese painters in the second half of the fourteenth century and early fifteenth century,[21] do suggest that he followed the same prototype, albeit with some liberties. The model in question showed Mary at the top of the flight of stairs within an elaborate architectural structure, frontally placed, with one or two priests welcoming her. The child’s arms were humbly crossed over her breast, but she was shown looking backward towards her mother. Behind the priests, at the center, an altar with a golden ciborium (presumably intended to represent the Ark of the Covenant) could be glimpsed in the background, while further to the right was placed the group of girls who would be Mary’s companions during her years in the temple. Placed in the foreground to the left were Mary’s mother and a group of women, and on the other side a group of men including two elderly bearded Jews disputing with each other.[22] Another model that the artist must have had in mind in his work was The Presentation of Christ in the Temple [fig. 1] painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti for the altar of San Crescenzio in Siena Cathedral (now in the Uffizi, Florence).[23] In conformity with this latter work, Paolo gives the Temple of Jerusalem a different appearance from that seen in the various versions of the theme painted by other Sienese painters. Following the lost fresco on the hospital facade, those painters describe the temple as a circular-plan building, whereas Paolo shows it as an imposing Gothic church with a nave and two aisles: an innovative feature that shows his intention — ​​and capacity — ​​to renovate the tradition.

Perhaps the most original aspect of his composition, however, is its color: in contrast to the mainly dark colors enlivened by large splashes of deep red proposed by his predecessors, Paolo has adopted an altogether brighter, sunnier palette to represent the light-flooded interior of the temple, its polygonal apse pierced by a ring of double-lancet windows, its blue-gray stonework articulated with pink stringcourses. The colors of the architecture are matched by those of the various groups of onlookers that throng the interior, almost all of them wearing light-colored clothing: salmon pink, light blue, sage green. On the other hand, Paolo is parsimonious in his use of brilliant colors such as cinnabar red. It should also be pointed out that in his scene the middle distance is as densely inhabited as the foreground; it contains not only the principal group of Mary and Zacharias but also the crowd of girls assembled in a kind of raised singing gallery at the right [fig. 2]. Other innovative features of Paolo’s scene are some apparently minor inventions, such as the two foreshortened heads closing off the back of the composition at either side — ​​the heads of young women standing in the background and craning their necks in order to better view the sacred event — ​​thus emphasizing the spaciousness of the scene. The detail — ​​as spontaneous as a snapshot — ​​of the kneeling woman seen from the back in the foreground to the left, half-hidden by the pillar against which the Solomonic column of the lost original frame would have been superimposed, develops a motif with which the painter had already experimented, for example in The Birth of the Virgin in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.[24] The trouvaille of placing two children in the foreground, silhouetted against the light-flooded flight of steps, with the evident function of providing a kind of repoussoir, also anticipated a motif of which the International Gothic painters of the following generation would be fond. Not even in this phase of his full maturity, however, was the painter apparently willing to forego the solemn, dreamy, and in general impenetrable facial masks that usually characterize his paintings. Yet he skillfully exploits the expressive potential of the large and nervous hands of his figures to express the resolution, wonder, or doubt of his protagonists. In conclusion, it can be said that the scene proposed by the painter epitomizes and at the same time renews the experiences of a whole century of Sienese figurative culture, projecting them towards what was about to be born in the new century.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016

Provenance

Commissioned in 1398[1] for the chapel of San Pietro in Siena Cathedral,[2] where it remained at least until 1482.[3] It is probable, however, that the altarpiece was removed only between 1580 (when a new, richly decorated marble altar was commissioned for the chapel) and 1582 (when the decoration of the new altar was completed). At this time it was then either consigned to the cathedral’s storerooms or sold.[4] H.M. Clark, London, by 1928.[5] Edward Hutton [1874-1969], London.[6] (Wildenstein & Co., New York), by 1950;[7] sold February 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[8] gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1928
Daily Telegraph Exhibition of Antiques and Works of Art, Olympia, London, 1928, no. X1, as by Bartolo di Fredi.
Bibliography
1928
The Daily Telegraph at Olympia, ed. The Daily Telegraph Exhibition of Antiques and Works of Art. Exh. cat., Olympia, London, 1928: 162.
1951
Meiss, Millard. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. Princeton, 1951: 28, fig. 165.
1956
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Colllection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1951-56. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley. National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1956: 28, repro., as by Bartolo di Fredi.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 35, repro., as by Bartolo di Fredi.
1960
Campolongo, Elizabetta. "Fei, Paolo di Giovanni." In Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Edited by Alberto Maria Ghisalberti. 82+ vols. Rome, 1960+: 46(1996):15, 16.
1964
Lafontaine-Dosogne, Jacqueline. Iconographie de l’enfance de la Vierge dans l’Empire byzantin et en Occident. 2 vols. Bruxelles, 1964-1965: 2:30 n. 1.
1964
Mallory, Michael. "Towards a Chronology for Paolo di Giovanni Fei." The Art Bulletin 46 (1964): 529-535, figs. 1, 3, 4.
1965
Mallory, Michael. "Paolo di Giovanni Fei." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, New York, 1965. Ann Arbor, MI, 1973: 3, 116-141, 237, fig. 50.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 49
1966
Mallory, Michael. "An Early Quattrocento Trinity." The Art Bulletin 48 (1966): 86, fig. 2.
1966
Schiller, Gertrud. Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst. 6 vols. Gütersloh, 1966-1990: 4, pt. 2:71.
1966
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century. London, 1966: 62, fig. 159.
1967
Denny, Don. "Simone Martini’s The Holy Family." Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 30 (1967): 139 n. 4.
1967
Klesse, Brigitte. Seidenstoffe in der italienischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts. Bern, 1967: 250.
1968
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools. 3 vols. London, 1968: 2:130, fig. 418.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 42, repro.
1969
Mallory, Michael. "A Lost Madonna del Latte by Ambrogio Lorenzetti." The Art Bulletin 51 (1969): 42 n. 14.
1969
Os, Hendrik W. van. Marias Demut und Verherrlichung in der sienesischen Malerei: 1300-1450. The Hague, 1969: 6, fig. 4.
1971
Carli, Enzo. I pittori senesi. Siena, 1971: 22, 133, fig. 115.
1972
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 69, 300, 647.
1972
"Paolo di Giovanni Fei." In Dizionario Enciclopedico Bolaffi dei pittori e degli Incisori italiani: dall’XI al XX secolo. Edited by Alberto Bolaffi and Umberto Allemandi. 11 vols. Turin, 1972-1976: 8(1975):315.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 126, repro.
1977
Bennett, Bonnie Apgar. Lippo Memmi, Simone Martini’s “fratello in arte”: The Image Revealed by His Documented Works. PhD diss. University of Pittsburgh, 1977. Ann Arbor, MI, 1979: 136, 143, 250 n. 24, fig. 76.
1977
Maginnis, Hayden B. J. "The Literature of Sienese Trecento Painting 1945-1975." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 40 (1977): 300.
1977
Torriti, Piero. La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena. I Dipinti dal XII al XV secolo. Genoa, 1977: 179, 180, 202.
1979
Carli, Enzo. Il Duomo di Siena. Genoa, 1979: 85-86.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:175-177; 2:pl. 122.
1981
Carli, Enzo. La pittura senese del Trecento. 1st ed. Milan, 1981: 241, fig. 282.
1982
Il gotico a Siena: miniature, pitture, oreficerie, oggetti d’arte. Exh. cat. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Florence, 1982: 295, 296, 298, 317.
1983
Carli, Enzo. Sienese Painting. New York, 1983: 48.
1983
Early Italian Paintings and Works of Art 1300-1480 in Aid of the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum. Exh. cat. Matthiesen Fine Art, London, 1983: 34.
1983
Frederick, Kavin. "A Program of Altarpieces for the Siena Cathedral." The Rutgers Art Review 4 (1983): 26-29, fig. 4.
1983
L’Art gothique siennois: enluminure, peinture, orfèvrerie, sculpture. Exh. cat. Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon. Florence, 1983: 277, 278, 284.
1984
Os, Hendrik W. van. Sienese Altarpieces 1215-1460. Form, Content, Function. 2 vols. Groningen, 1984-1990: 2(1990):135-137, repro.
1984
Torriti, Piero. "Un’aggiunta a Paolo di Giovanni Fei." in Scritti di storia dell’arte in onore di Roberto Salvini. Florence, 1984: 211-212.
1985
Boskovits, Miklós. The Martello Collection: Paintings, Drawings and Miniatures from the XIVth to the XVIIIth Centuries. Florence, 1985: 128.
1985
Cole, Bruce. Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance. Bloomington, 1985: 13, 14, fig. 8.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 299, repro.
1985
Freuler, Gaudenz. "Bartolo di Fredis Altar für die Annunziata-Kapelle in S. Francesco in Montalcino." Pantheon 43 (1985): 26.
1985
Os, Hendrik W. van. "Tradition and Innovation in Some Altarpieces by Bartolo di Fredi." The Art Bulletin 67 (1985): 52-54, fig. 3.
1985
Riedl, Peter Anselm, and Max Seidel, eds. Die Kirchen von Siena. 3 vols. Munich, 1985-2006: 1(1985), pt. 1:123, 124.
1986
Leoncini, Giovanni. "Fei, Paolo di Giovanni." In La Pittura in Italia. Il Duecento e il Trecento. Edited by Enrico Castelnuovo. 2 vols. Milan,1986: 2:570, repro.
1987
Christiansen, Keith. "The S. Vittorio Altarpiece in Siena Cathedral." The Art Bulletin 69 (1987): 467.
1987
Pope-Hennessy, John, and Laurence B. Kanter. The Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 1, Italian Paintings. New York, 1987: 38.
1988
Maginnis, Hayden B. J. "The Lost Facade Frescoes from Siena’s Ospedale di S. Maria della Scala." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 51 (1988): 190.
1991
Manacorda, Simona. "Fei, Paolo di Giovanni." In Enciclopedia dell’arte medievale. Edited by Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana. 12 vols. Rome, 1991-2002: 6(1995):133.
1992
Landi, Alfonso, and Enzo Carli (commentary). “Racconto” del Duomo di Siena (1655). Florence, 1992: 120-121, n. 30.
1993
Cséfalvay, Pál, ed. Keresztény Múzeum (Christian Museum Esztergom). Budapest, 1993: 222.
1993
Harpring, Patricia. The Sienese Trecento Painter Bartolo di Fredi. London and Toronto, 1993: repro. 112.
1994
Freuler, Gaudenz. Bartolo di Fredi Cini: ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts. Disentis, 1994: 341, 382.
1996
Freuler, Gaudenz. "Bartolo di Fredi Cini." In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. 34 vols. New York and London, 1996: 7:329.
1996
Gold Backs: 1250-1480. Exh. cat. Matthiesen Fine Art, London. Turin, 1996: 116, fig. 3.
1997
Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta, Alessandro Angelini, and Bernardina Sani. Sienese Painting From Duccio to the Birth of the Baroque. New York, 1997:198, 200-201.
1997
Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta. "La cosidetta crisi della metà del Trecento (1348-1390)." In Pittura senese. Edited by Giulietta Chelazzi Dini, Alessandro Angelini and Bernardina Sani. 1st ed. Milan, 1997: 200.
1998
Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 70, 98, 358, 379, 428.
1999
Norman, Diana. Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State. New Haven and London, 1999: 225, nos. 28, 43.
2000
Kirsh, Andrea, and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. Materials and Meaning in the Fine Arts 1. New Haven, 2000: 88, 90-91, figs. 89-90, color fig. 91.
2002
Tomei, Alessandro, ed. Le Biccherne di Siena: arte e finanza all’alba dell’economia moderna. Exh. cat. Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome. Azzano San Paolo [u.a.], 2002: 174.
2003
Norman, Diana. Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena (1260-1555). New Haven and London, 2003: 143 (repro.), 145.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 12, no. 7, color repro.
2004
Hiller von Gaertringen, Rudolf. Italienische Gemälde im Städel 1300-1550: Toskana und Umbrien. Kataloge der Gemälde im Städelschen Kunstinstitut Frankfurt am Main. Mainz, 2004: 140, 149, 151.
2005
Bagnoli, Alessandro, Silvia Colucci, and Veronica Radon, eds. Il Crocifisso con i dolenti in umiltà di Paolo di Giovanni Fei: un capolavoro riscoperto. Exh. cat. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, 2005: 11, 12, 32, 34 nos. 18 and 21, 49, 51, 53, 60, 62.
2006
Butzek, Monica. “Chronologie.” In Die Kirchen von Siena, 3: Der Dom S. Maria Assunta, 1: Architektur, pt. 1. Edited by Walter Haas and Dethard von Winterfeld. Munich, 2006: 102, 103 n. 1347.
2008
Boskovits, Miklós, and Johannes Tripps, eds. Maestri senesi e toscani nel Lindenau-Museum di Altenburg. Exh. cat. Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, 2008: 81, 84, 90.
2008
Fattorini, Gabriele. "Paolo di Giovanni Fei: una proposta per la pala Mannelli (con una nota sull’iconografia di San Maurizio a Siena)." Prospettiva 130/131 (2008): 176, 182 n. 40.
Technical Summary

The original wooden support, of an undetermined number of planks with vertical grain, was removed by William Suhr when the painting was transferred to hardboard and cradled in 1954.[1] Photographs taken before this treatment [fig. 1] show the painting in a nineteenth-century frame that follows the shape of the upper edge; since this format would have been most uncommon in a fourteenth-century altarpiece, it seems likely that the panel was cut out of a larger one of different shape, presumably provided with gables above. The wooden support may have been slightly cropped along all the edges. The panel was prepared with gesso followed by red bole in areas to be gilded. The brocade fabrics were created using sgraffito. The gilded areas were elaborately tooled with twelve different punch marks. Incised lines were used to indicate the contours of the architecture and the placement of the figures. Infrared reflectography at 1.5 to 2.0 microns shows underdrawing, which reveals that both the figures and the architecture were sketched in freely.[2] Paint was applied in the small, discrete brushstrokes typical of tempera, with green underpaint in the flesh areas.

When the panel was stripped of its original frame, the two wooden columns that would have divided the composition into three parts were dismantled and lost; during their removal, the painted columns of the architectural setting, which the framing columns had partially covered, suffered damage in the areas of the bases and capitals [fig. 2]. The paint layer in the areas beneath the two lateral arches is generally well preserved; that beneath the central arch is abraded, and scattered small losses there have been inpainted. There are additional paint losses along the lower edge and to the right side of the left inner column. Lacunae are also present along a crack extending from the center of the lower edge to the left hand of the high priest. Suhr removed a discolored varnish and inpainted the panel when he transferred it in 1954. By 1996, the varnish and inpainting applied by Suhr had discolored. The painting was treated again between 1996 and 1998 to remove this discolored varnish and inpainting.