The painter we know as Lorenzo Monaco was probably called Piero di Giovanni by his friends and family. Names of Renaissance artists can be confusing: is it “Leonardo” or “da Vinci”? It’s Leonardo. In fact surnames were largely an aristocratic preserve during most the Middle Ages and Renaissance; most people were identified by their father’s name, their town, or some distinguishing characteristic. In this case, Piero took the name Lorenzo when—already an accomplished and well-respected artist—he entered a Camaldolese monastery in Florence, in 1391; and his surname Monaco is Italian for “monk.”
The painting presents Mary with her son according to an original version of the
Terms that refer broadly to the study of subjects and themes in works of art. Iconology, which is based on the results of iconography, is the more wide-ranging and comprehensive. One of the principal concerns of iconography is the discovery of symbolic and allegorical meanings in a work of art. —Willem F. Lash, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
On the iconography of the Madonna of Humility, see cat. 22, n. 7.
Dorothy C. Shorr, The Christ Child in Devotional Images in Italy during the XIV Century (New York, 1954), 28, observed that “the frontal posture of the Child standing on his mother’s knee is not seen before 1315, when it is represented by Simone Martini,” alluding to the Maestà in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena dating to that year. However, albeit in a not entirely frontal pose and not blessing but supporting himself on his mother’s shoulder in a way very similar to what we see in Lorenzo Monaco’s painting, the Christ child is represented standing in the left lateral of a triptych by Duccio in the Royal Collection of England, Hampton Court, Surrey, painted within the first decade of the fourteenth century; see Luciano Bellosi, in Duccio: Siena fra tradizione bizantina e mondo gotico, ed. Alessandro Bagnoli et al. (Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2003), 188–195.
The motif of the standing child appears in the Madonna of Humility of the Perkins bequest in the treasury of the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, probably still dating within the first decade of the fifteenth century, and hence in works more chronologically advanced — such as the panel no. 1123 formerly in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin; that of the abbey of Cava de’ Tirreni (Salerno); or that formerly in the Schaeffer Galleries in New York, in which the Madonna of Humility is transformed into a celestial vision set against the gold ground and appearing to a group of saints.
Ever since its first appearance in the art historical literature (Sirén 1905), the panel has been commonly recognized as an autograph work by Lorenzo, with the sole exceptions of Marvin Eisenberg (in Shapley 1966, citing Eisenberg verbal communication; and Eisenberg 1989) and Bruce Cole (1980).
Osvald Sirén, Don Lorenzo Monaco (Strasbourg, 1905), 88–89, 169, 186; Fern Rusk Shapley, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII–XV Century (London, 1966), 89; Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 172–173; Bruce Cole, Sienese Painting from Its Origins to the Fifteenth Century (New York, 1980), 69–70.
Marvin Eisenberg, The Origins and Development of the Early Style of Lorenzo Monaco (PhD diss., Princeton University, 1954), 313 n. 31; Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 173.
Bruce Cole, Sienese Painting from Its Origins to the Fifteenth Century (New York, 1980), 69 – 70.
A layer of paint that covers original paint.
In particular, Marvin Eisenberg’s observation that “a technique visible in the Kress panel that is foreign to Lorenzo Monaco is the modeling in light and shade of the Virgin’s face and the entire head of the Child” raises the suspicion that he was deceived by the skillful inpainting that has altered the painting’s original effect in these areas. Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 173.
While the presence of a barbe, and thus of engaged frame moldings, around the entire perimeter of the image might suggest that the Washington Madonna was an independent devotional work, its size and its tall and narrow proportions differ considerably from those of other self-standing images of the Madonna and Child painted by Lorenzo. The painted surfaces of the latter generally measure just under one meter high, while their width, in contrast to that of the Washington Madonna, generally exceeds half the panel height. There are therefore good reasons for supposing that our panel originally formed part of a relatively small
A picture consisting of three parts. The term denotes both the object itself and its compositional form. As an object, the triptych may vary in size and material, but usually consists of a central panel flanked by wings (or shutters), which may be hinged; as a compositional form it is a tripartite structure, often with an emphasized central element. Although its imagery was, until the 19th century at least, predominantly religious, the object as such was not tied to a specific function. —Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
On the Krakow panel, see Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 92, fig. 153.
Although the dark blue of the Virgin’s mantle has now altered, almost to the point of looking black, the delicate palette of the painting is still striking and testifies to Don Lorenzo’s total emancipation from tradition in his choice of colors: the customary red dress of the Virgin is here abandoned in favor of a lilac damask, while the transparent white veil is transformed into azure. To this is added the delicate salmon red of the child’s tunic, combined with the light blue of his long undergarment (matching that of the Madonna’s veil), the deep golden yellow of the lining of her mantle, and the pale green of the marble pavement on which the Virgin’s cushion is placed.
It is difficult to know what color the Virgin’s dress and the Christ child’s tunic would have been originally, because the pigments, especially the red lake pigments, have faded considerably. The green of the pavement was heavily restored by Mario Modestini but seems to follow surviving traces of the original color.
See Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 163 – 165, where the polyptych was considered a product of Lorenzo’s bottega and dated c. 1412 – 1414. In my view, it is a substantially autograph painting that should be dated only slightly later than the polyptych in the Accademia.
About 1413, at the time he painted the Washington Madonna, the artist not only accentuated the slenderness of his figures and the aristocratic elegance of their movements but also simplified the design and added spaciousness to his compositions. Angularities and brusque changes in direction of the contours are now eliminated, and a smoother, more placid rhythm is given to the outlines, here and there enlivened by the small curlicues or serpentine undulations of the hems. The figures, moreover, at least in part, are now delineated directly against the gold
The layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint.
Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 160 – 161; Daniela Parenti, in Lorenzo Monaco: Dalla tradizione giottesca al Rinascimento, ed. Angelo Tartuferi and Daniela Parenti (Florence, 2006), 202 – 203.
Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 146 – 147, with a dating to c. 1422 – 1423; Miklós Boskovits and Serena Padovani, The Thyssen–Bornemisza Collection: Early Italian Painting 1290 – 1470 (London, 1990), 114 – 119, with a dating to 1415 – 1420. Angelo Tartuferi rejected the latter proposal, but his argument puzzles me, in particular when he compared the painting now in Madrid with what can be regarded as the paradigm of Don Lorenzo’s final period, namely the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, Florence. Cf. Angelo Tartuferi, in Lorenzo Monaco: Dalla tradizione giottesca al Rinascimento, ed. Angelo Tartuferi and Daniela Parenti (Florence, 2006), 224 – 226.
See Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 136, (as workshop of Lorenzo Monaco, c. 1418 – 1420), whose opinion was also confirmed by C. E. de Jong-Janssen and D. H. van Wegen, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings in the Bonnefantenmuseum (Maastricht, 1995), 66 – 67. The Maastricht painting, which has in the past suffered various maltreatments, is no longer easy to assess, but in my view there are no cogent reasons to attribute it to a hand other than Don Lorenzo himself or to detach it from the group of paintings being discussed here.
See Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 93, with a dating to c. 1418. Tartuferi recognized that the Edinburgh panel was earlier than the Thyssen-Bornemisza Madonna in Lorenzo Monaco: Dalla tradizione giottesca al Rinascimento, ed. Angelo Tartuferi and Daniela Parenti (Florence, 2006), 226.
Among the various paintings belonging to the same phase as the Washington Madonna of Humility, I would like to cite at least the magnificent group of four patriarchs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They are also typical products of the phase of transition between Don Lorenzo’s initiation in the late Gothic style and that more simplified in design but more probing in expression that began towards the end of the second decade. Art historical assessment of these panels has varied: Marvin Eisenberg suggested a date of c. 1408 – 1410, and Laurence Kanter also substantially accepted that suggestion, adding to the group the Saint Peter formerly in the Feigen collection in New York (recently the painting has passed into the Moretti collection in Florence). This latter hypothesis, though well argued, does not entirely convince; the Saint Peter, which is also iconographically inconsistent with the figures of patriarchs, could be a slightly later work than the four panels in New York, which seem to me datable to c. 1410 or shortly after. See Marvin Eisenberg, Lorenzo Monaco (Princeton, 1989), 151 – 153; and Laurence B. Kanter, in Lorenzo Monaco: Dalla tradizione giottesca al Rinascimento, eds. Angelo Tartuferi and Daniela Parenti (Florence, 2006), 186 – 190.
The stylistic data that characterize the panel in the Gallery and the Madonna painted two years later in the Pisan church thus represent valuable points of reference for a correct historical evaluation of the abovementioned works, which, in contrast to what is sometimes affirmed, ought not to be far removed in date from the middle of the second decade. They are the results of a phase in which the charged tension of design and harshness of modeling are gradually abandoned. At the same time, the distinctive features of Lorenzo’s late style are slow in appearing: an emphasis on smooth sweeping lines, crescent- or sickle-shaped drapery folds, and extreme lightness of modeling that dematerializes the physical substance of flesh. Nor do we yet find in the paintings of this phase the unusual combinations of pale pastel shades privileged by the artist in the latter years of his life.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016
on the Child's scroll: EGO S[UM...]; across the bottom: AVE.G[RATIA?] ... AN[N]O.D[OMINI]. M.CCCC.XIII
 Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings, 2 vols., Washington, DC, 1979: 1:274, reads “EGO S[UM LU]X M[UNDI],” i.e., the words of John 8:12, but what actually remains of the inscription does not allow more than an informed conjecture about the original text. In Don Lorenzo’s Monteoliveto altarpiece of 1410, now in the Accademia in Florence, and in the more or less contemporary altarpiece in the Galleria Comunale at Prato, the scroll reads “EGO SUM VIA VERITAS ET VITA” (John 14:6).
Masson collection, Amiens, by 1904. (Édouard Larcade, Paris), by 1927. (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonacossi, Florence), by 1938; sold September 1939 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York; gift 1943 to NGA.
- Possibly Musée du Louvre, Paris, early 1900s.
- Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, 2006, unnumbered catalogue.
Exhibition History Notes
 Adolphe Giraudon's photograph (Giraudon number 6491) is annotated with the information that the painting was in the Musée du Louvre, Paris; perhaps it was temporarily exhibited there.
The painting was executed on a single-member panel with vertical grain; the wood was lined with fabric below the white
A mixture of finely ground plaster and glue applied to wood panels to create a smooth painting surface. —Grove Art © Oxford University Press
The layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint.
Attaching a woodent grid to the reverse of a panel to prevent the panel's warping.
Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings, 2 vols. (Washington, DC, 1979), 1:274. Stephen Pichetto also might have trimmed the edges at this time.
An initial layer of paint applied to a ground that begins to define shapes and values.
The painting has suffered from neglect and also from deliberate vandalism: deep vertical gouges are present in the figure of Christ and in the face of the Virgin. In addition, many of the pigments have faded.
The NGA scientific research department analyzed the painting using FORS spectral analysis, x-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF), reflectance spectroscopy, luminescence spectroscopy, and infrared reflectography at 0.4 to 2.5 microns. Infrared reflectography was performed using a Santa Barbara Focalplane SBF187 InSb camera with H, J, and K astronomy filters and a Sony XC77 Si-CCD camera (see report dated October 27, 2010, in NGA conservation files).
In describing the painting, Osvald Sirén noted that “die Farbenstimmung dürfte dadurch gelitten haben, dass das Bild bis zum Herbst 1904 mit einer verhärteten Schicht von Schmutz und Firnis bedeckt gewesen ist” (the appearance of the color suffered because until the autumn of 1904 it was covered with a hardened layer of dirt and varnish). Osvald Sirén, Don Lorenzo Monaco (Strasbourg, 1905), 89. This is the situation apparently shown by the Giraudon photo no. 6491.
Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings, 2 vols. (Washington, DC, 1979), 1:274, reported that Mario Modestini cleaned, restored, and varnished it.
Application of restoration paint to areas of lost original paint to visually integrate an area of loss with the color and pattern of the original, without covering any original paint.
- Sirén, Osvald. Don Lorenzo Monaco. Strasbourg, 1905: 88-89, 169, 186.
- Suida, Wilhelm. "Lorenzo Monaco, Don." 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: 23(1929):391, 392.
- Sirén, Osvald. "Opere sconosciute di Lorenzo Monaco." Rassegna d’arte 9 (1909): repro. 36.
- Marle, Raimond van. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 19 vols. The Hague, 1923-1938: 9(1927):162.
- Pudelko, Georg. "The Stylistic Development of Lorenzo Monaco, 2." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 74 (1939): 76-77, repro.
- National Gallery of Art. Book of Illustrations. Washington, 1941: 133 (repro.), 244.
- Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 112, no. 514.
- Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 250, repro. 136.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1945 (reprinted 1947, 1949): 22, repro.
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