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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Paolo di Giovanni Fei/The Assumption of the Virgin with Busts of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation/c. 1400/1405,” 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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It was 1950 before the Catholic Church accepted the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven as official dogma, but the notion had long been part of her legend and a subject for artists. One of the earliest large-scale depictions of this event in Italy was a rose window in the cathedral of Siena, designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319) around 1288. No doubt Paolo di Giovanni Fei (Sienese, c. 1335/1345 - 1411) would have seen Duccio’s work many times. Paolo’s panel, on the other hand, was used for private devotion. The representation of the Annunciation with images of Mary and the archangel Gabriel in small roundels suggests that it stood on its own, without flanking panels.

Paolo’s Virgin is serene, enthroned on a cloud and looking similar to the young Mary that Paolo painted in The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. The artist’s real interest, though, seems to be in the reactions of the apostles, communicated especially through their gestures. At the end of Mary’s time on earth, clouds transported all the apostles from the places where they taught to her bedside. When she died, Jesus appeared to escort her soul to heaven and returned three days later for her body. Here, 11 apostles crowd around Mary’s sarcophagus. Each expresses his wonderment at the miraculous appearance of flowers where a body should have been. In the center of the group, one jostles in to get a closer look. Apart from the others is Thomas, kneeling on the Mount of Olives. Questioning these events, he prayed to Mary for a further sign, and she handed down the girdle (belt) from her robe. His body, arms flung wide and head thrown back dramatically, conveys the measure of his awe.


Although the bodily Assumption of the Virgin did not officially become the dogma of the Catholic Church until 1950,[1] it began to be represented in art in the eleventh century (with some isolated examples even earlier than that).[2] In Italy, one of the first large-scale images of the Assumption is found in Siena, in the great rose window of the cathedral, based on a cartoon by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319) and dating to c. 1288. Here Mary is sitting in a mandorla of light, supported by angels in flight, with her hands joined in prayer, in the pose in which she would be frequently portrayed in the following centuries.[3] The image of Mary borne up to heaven by angels would then be enriched with further details in the course of the fourteenth century. In particular, it would be accompanied (as in the present panel) with a scene of the apostles with expressions of wonder and awe gathered around the Virgin’s tomb, which is filled with flowers only,[4] and with the figure of Saint Thomas, who is shown kneeling on the Mount of Olives, separated from his companions and praying to Mary. He was asking for a sign of her bodily Assumption, and the Virgin answered his prayer by throwing down her girdle,[5] a relic that is now venerated in Prato Cathedral.

The panel in the National Gallery of Art might originally have been a self-sufficient devotional image and not part of a larger complex. This is suggested by the two medallions with the Angel of the Annunciation and the Virgin Annunciate in its upper spandrels; in polyptychs and portable triptychs, this extremely concise narrative of the Annunciation usually appears on the two outer sides in the upper tier [fig. 1].[6]

The attribution of the painting has never been in doubt: ever since Robert Langton Douglas (1904) introduced it to the art historical literature, its ascription to the Sienese master Paolo di Giovanni Fei has been unanimously accepted.[7] Greater uncertainties surround its date, even though most art historians agree that it should be ascribed to a relatively advanced phase in Paolo’s career. There is also widespread recognition of its high artistic qualities.[8] Both opinions can be confirmed, though it should be premised that the earliest of Paolo’s securely datable paintings dates to 1387, and hence the first two decades of his career still remain obscure. Nevertheless, research over the last half century, and in particular the studies of Michael Mallory, have helped to establish the sequence of the paintings dating to the painter’s maturity and offer sufficient evidence to confirm that the present panel was painted within the first decade of the fifteenth century.

Paolo di Giovanni Fei’s stylistic development can be briefly summed up as follows. In works presumably dating to the 1370s, the artist proposed solemn and static compositions. The figures are virtually immobile and symmetrically distributed. Reserved, even impassive, in expression, they are enveloped in thick starched draperies with the consistency of leather, barely ruffled by a few broad folds. After this phase, exemplified by such paintings as the versions of the Madonna in the Atlanta Art Association and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Saint Lawrence formerly in the Matthiesen Gallery in London,[9] Paolo modified his style, while largely maintaining his spacious and symmetrical compositions. In such paintings as the fragmentary polyptych in the Museo d’Arte Sacra in Asciano and the portable triptych no. 137 and the diptych no. 146 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, all dating to around 1380, the characterization of the protagonists becomes more animated and the description of their gestures and reactions to the events taking place more circumspect.[10] The paintings of this period are distinguished by their very detailed narratives, and the scenes are more complex and crowded. Although the faces remain almost impenetrable to human emotions, the expressiveness of the gestures seems ever more meticulously observed and effective. The artist also reveals a growing interest in the spatial setting of his figures. Results of these developments, dating to the mid-1380s, can be seen in such paintings as the altarpiece of the Birth of the Virgin in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena and various other large-format works including a polyptych and a painted crucifix executed for the hospital complex of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, the latter unfortunately the victim of a restorer’s excessive zeal.[11] The painting discussed here can no doubt be placed in the last decades of Paolo’s career, presumably in the intermediate years between The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple painted for Siena Cathedral (1398 – ​1399) and now in the Gallery and the triptych [fig. 2] in the Cathedral of Naples (1407–1408).[12]

As in other paintings dating to the first years of the fifteenth century, the artist skillfully exploits the background of his compositions to enlarge the space of the action and tries in various ways to give a realistic character to the episodes. In the panel now in Washington, each of the figures reacts in his own personal way to the miracle of the flowers that bloom in profusion in the sarcophagus in place of the body of Mary [fig. 3]. In contrast to the version proposed by Taddeo di Bartolo in his Montepulciano Cathedral polyptych (1401), which also shows the Assumption at the center,[13] Paolo does not try to reunite the apostles in a compact group but distributes them freely around the sarcophagus. His scene is striking both for its spaciousness and for the realistic effects in characterizing the apostles’ reactions: their gestures are spontaneous, not over-dramatic in expressing surprise. An example of the artist’s pursuit of verisimilitude is the conduct of the youth at the center, who thrusts himself forward between two companions. Supporting himself with one hand on the shoulder of Saint Bartholomew [14] and with the other on the edge of the sarcophagus, he leans forward eagerly, with head bowed, to see better what is happening. His sharply foreshortened face is also typical of the innovations associated with this phase in the painter’s career. An even bolder effect of foreshortening is achieved in the backwards-bent head of Saint Thomas, casting his gaze up to the Virgin. In contrast to other contemporary representations of the theme, Saint Thomas is seen at some distance from the rest of the apostles (his figure, indeed, is smaller); he kneels on a rock outcropping, evidently intended to represent the Mount of Olives. The foreshortened sides of the sarcophagus also help to accentuate his distance; not only do they “measure” the depth of the space in which the action is taking place, but they lead the observer’s gaze backwards to the apostle invoking the gift of the girdle. Also worth pointing out is the trouvaille of depicting the Madonna of the Assumption not, as usual, in a mandorla of light or in a similar oval form of seraphim, but surrounded only by the rays of light incised in the gold ground and seated on a throne of clouds, whose step has the consistency of cotton-wool and is supported with great delicacy by two fluttering angels. These details suggest for the Gallery’s Assumption, as Mallory already pointed out, a date more advanced than Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, datable to 1398 – ​1399. On the other hand, Mallory’s proposal that the date be deferred to the last years in the artist’s life seems questionable.[15] The very elongated proportions of the figures in the Neapolitan triptych, the accentuated hanchement of their poses and the multiplication of the folds in their draperies that introduce a more restless movement into these latter paintings, together with the exaggerated pathos of their facial expressions, seem to me to indicate a further development, a step in the direction of the artistic ideals of the International Gothic. These developments had evidently not yet been made at the time of the painting of our Assumption.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Marchese Bonaventura Chigi Zondadari [1841-1908], Siena, by 1904;[1] his heirs; (Alberto Riccoboni, Italy), by 1947 or 1948;[2] (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence); sold 1948 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1961 to NGA.

Exhibition History
Prima mostra Nazionale Antiquaria. Quattrocento Pitturi inedite, Organizzazione Manifestazioni Artistiche, Venice, 1947, no. 23, fig. 12.
Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. 6 vols. Edited by Robert Langton Douglas (vols. 1-4) and Tancred Borenius (vols. 5-6). Vol. 3, The Sienese, Umbrian, and North Italian Schools. London, 1903-1914: 3(1908):125 n. 2, 131 n. 3.
Douglas, Robert Langton. "The Exhibition of Early Art in Siena." The Nineteenth Century and After 57 (1904): 763.
Perkins, Frederick Mason. "Paolo di Giovanni Fei." 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: 26(1932):211.
Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. A New History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. 3 vols. Edited by Edward Hutton. Vol. 2, Sienese School of the Fourteenth Century; Florentine School of the Fifteenth Century. London and New York, 1908-1909: 2(1909):74.
Berenson, Bernard. The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance. 2nd ed. New York, 1909: 167.
Perkins, F. Mason. "Depinti senesi sconosciuti o inediti." Rassenga d'Arte 1 (1914): 99.
Marle, Raimond van. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 19 vols. The Hague, 1923-1938: 2(1924):529, 531.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and their Works with an Index of Places. Oxford, 1932: 184.
Marle, Raimond van. Le scuole della pittura italiana. 2 vols. The Hague and Florence, 1932-1934: 2(1934):578, 581.
Berenson, Bernard. Pitture italiane del rinascimento: catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi. Translated by Emilio Cecchi. Milan, 1936: 159.
Riccoboni, Alberto, ed. Prima Mostra Nazionale Antiquaria. Quattrocento pitture Inedite. Exh. cat. Venice, 1947: x, xxi, repro. 5.
Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 29.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1945-1951. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1951: 40, no. 8, repro.
Berenson, Bernard. The Italian Painters of the Renaissance. London and New York, 1952: fig. 267.
Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. 2nd ed. New York, 1955: pl. 26.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 37, repro.
Campolongo, Elizabetta. "Fei, Paolo di Giovanni." In Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Edited by Alberto Maria Ghisalberti. 82+ vols. Rome, 1960+: 46(1996):17.
Mallory, Michael. "Towards a Chronology for Paolo di Giovanni Fei." The Art Bulletin 46 (1964): 530.
Mallory, Michael. Paolo di Giovanni Fei. PhD diss. Columbia University, 1965. Ann Arbor, MI, 1973: 177-191, 241, fig. 84.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 49.
Mallory, Michael. "An Early Quattrocento Trinity." The Art Bulletin 48 (1966): 86, fig. 1.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century. London, 1966: 61, fig. 160.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools. 3 vols. London, 1968: 2:130.
Degenhart, Bernhard, and Annegrit Schmitt. Corpus der italienischen Zeichnungen 1300-1450, 1: Süd- und Mittelitalien. 4 vols. Berlin, 1968: 1, pt. 1:200, fig. 281.
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 41, repro.
Mallory, Michael. "A Lost Madonna del Latte by Ambrogio Lorenzetti." The Art Bulletin 51 (1969): 42, n. 14.
Os, Hendrik W. van. Marias Demut und Verherrlichung in der sienesischen Malerei: 1300-1450. The Hague, 1969: 164, 166, 208, fig. 112.
Os, Hendrik W. van. "Andrea di Bartolo’s Assumption of the Virgin." Arts in Virginia 2 (1971): 10, 11, fig. 13.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 60, 307, 647.
"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.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 126, repro.
Grimm, Claus. Alte Bilderrahmen: Epochen, Typen, Material. Munich, 1978: 46, fig. 22.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: 1:177-178; 2:pl. 123.
Sutton, Denys. "Robert Langton Douglas. Part I." Apollo 109 (April 1979): 314 [68] fig. 42, 315 [69].
Cole, Bruce. Sienese Painting from Its Origins to the Fifteenth Century. New York, 1980: 194, 195, fig. 103.
Carli, Enzo. La pittura senese del Trecento. 1st ed. Milan, 1981: 244, fig. 283.
Il gotico a Siena: miniature, pitture, oreficerie, oggetti d’arte. Exh. cat. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Florence, 1982: 296.
L’Art gothique siennois: enluminure, peinture, orfèvrerie, sculpture. Exh. cat. Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon. Florence, 1983: 278.
Brown, Howard Mayer. "Catalogus. A Corpus of Trecento Pictures with Musical Subject Matter, pt. 2." Imago Musicae 2 (1985): 196, 197.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 299, repro.
Ford, Terrence, compiler and ed. Inventory of Music Iconography, no. 1. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York 1986: 1.
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.
Newbery, Timothy J., George Bisacca, and Laurence B. Kanter. Italian Renaissance Frames. Exh. cat. Metropolitan Musem of Art. New York, 1990: 35.
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.
Thomas, Anabel. "Paolo di Giovanni Fei." In The Dictionary of Art. Edited by Jane Turner. 34 vols. New York and London, 1996: 24:28.
Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta, Alessandro Angelini, and Bernardina Sani. Sienese Painting From Duccio to the Birth of the Baroque. New York, 1997: 198, 200-201, repro.
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: repro. 200.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. "Virgin/Virginity." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:905.
Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 47, 70, 73, 94, 296, 318, 350, 379.
"Fei, Paolo di Giovanni." In Dictionnaire de la peinture. Edited by Michel Laclotte and Jean Pierre Cuzin. Paris, 2003: 315.
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: 34 n. 18, 51, 60.
Boskovits, Miklós, and Johannes Tripps, eds. Maestri senesi e toscani nel Lindenau-Museum di Altenburg. Exh. cat. Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, 2008: 82, 84, 85, 90, 129.
Technical Summary

The support is a single piece of wood with vertical grain, to which the engaged frame is affixed.[1] The round arch springing from corbels by which the composition is enclosed is enlivened on its inner side by a small pastiglia arcade. Further pastiglia decoration surrounds the painted medallions in the spandrels between the arch and the engaged frame. The painting was executed, as usual, on a white gesso ground, and the areas to be gilded were prepared by a layer of red bole. The outlines of some of the figures and all of the architecture were incised into the wet gesso for preliminary placement on the panel. The paint was applied very thinly, in minute striations. The frame, the border of the gold ground, and the halos are decorated with punch marks, and incised lines simulate rays of light surrounding the Virgin. The brocade fabrics were created using sgraffito.

The panel, which is now 2.5 cm thick, was cradled and probably thinned slightly by Stephen Pichetto in 1948. As the x-radiographs show, it has suffered from worm tunneling in the past. The painted surface is well preserved, apart from some scratches in the lower figure group. In 1949, Mario Modestini removed a discolored varnish, inpainted the scattered small paint losses, and applied a coating of varnish, now somewhat discolored.[2]