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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Lorenzo Monaco/Madonna and Child/1413,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed February 21, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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Lorenzo Monaco's delicate and elegant style can be found in a wide range of artistic formats. In addition to paintings on panel and fresco decorations he created manuscript illuminations (the National Gallery of Art owns two: Christ Giving the Keys to Saint Peter and Praying Prophet), a medium particularly well-suited to his graceful manner. Notice the curve of Jesus’s body as he leans in to his mother, lifting her veil, and the sinuous line of her head and torso. The hem of her blue mantle curls in a rhythmic, calligraphic line. Lorenzo also had a delicate touch with color, and was not afraid to substitute the pastels he preferred for more traditional hues. In place of the red dress more commonly seen in images where the Virgin holds the infant child, Lorenzo has clothed Mary in a fine, light dress embroidered with gold—a splendid garment more common in pictures that present her coronation in heaven.

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 iconography of the Madonna of Humility.[1] Here, instead of being suckled by the Virgin in a recumbent or seated position, the child stands on Mary’s knees, turning towards the spectator while supporting himself with one hand on her shoulder in an affectionate gesture and holding her veil with the other.[2] Clearly, the artist, though using an iconographic type very common by then in Florence, wished to place the emphasis not so much on the humility of Mary as on her grace, the elegance with which she presents her divine son to the faithful. It was probably her much elongated and slightly curving torso — ​the line of the curve continued in her bowed head — ​that suggested the idea of representing the Christ child standing, his body slightly inclined towards her; this permitted the painter to fuse mother and child together in a single harmonious group [fig. 1]. Lorenzo Monaco was perhaps the first to combine the motif of the standing Child, widespread in Florentine painting of the period in representations of the Madonna and Child Enthroned, with the iconographic scheme of the Madonna of Humility. He did so in paintings dating for the most part to the phase of his full maturity.[3]

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).[4] The former scholar, initially (1954) inclined to accept the authorship of the Camaldolese artist, later judged the painting “scarcely worthy of Lorenzo” and finally concluded (1989) that “the painter of the National Gallery Madonna would seem to have been a distinctive assistant to Lorenzo Monaco who used the design of the master for the principal contours of the Virgin, but introduced an opposing rhythm and a less traditional technique.”[5] Cole (1980), while recognizing that the quality of the painting is very high, decided, for reasons not otherwise explained, to classify it as a product of Lorenzo’s bottega.[6] In actual fact, the execution of the panel shows all the customary accomplishment and finesse of Lorenzo’s technique, diminished only by the damage and overpainting it has undergone; Eisenberg’s opinion might have been influenced by the painting’s compromised condition.[7]

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 triptych, destined for the altar of a side chapel in a church. We may presume that the Madonna and Child would have been flanked by paired saints on either side, as in the triptych dated 1404 in the Pinacoteca of Empoli, whose central panel similarly presents an image of the Madonna of Humility. A possible candidate as the left lateral of the National Gallery of Art panel could be the panel of Saints Catherine and John [fig. 2] now in the Princes Czartoryski Foundation Collections in Krakow.[8]

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.[9] Precedents for the composition can be identified in such works as the central panels of polyptychs no. 468 in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, dated 1410, and that in the Galleria Comunale at Prato,[10] perhaps slightly later in date. In both panels we also encounter the tendency to prefer suffused colors that have been combined with great delicacy. Both are images of the Madonna and Child Enthroned accompanied by angels, in which one of the painter’s preoccupations seems to have been to fill all the available space, either with the architectural structure of the throne or with the figures of angels and the cloth of honor they support. In the color scheme of both paintings a decisive role is assigned to Mary’s blue mantle, always complemented and enlivened — ​as in our painting — ​by the sudden flash of the brilliant yellow silk lining exposed by its undulating hems.

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 ground and invested with a more monumental character. In this phase, the artist seems to have preferred colder hues; he thus matched the blues of varying intensity with delicate green. We find this combination also in the Madonna of Humility dated 1415 in the church of Sant’Ermete at Putignano (Pisa)[11] and in the versions of the Madonna Enthroned in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid,[12] the Bonnenfantenmuseum in Maastricht,[13] and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh,[14] to cite some of the more significant examples of paintings produced in or around the middle of the second decade.[15]

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...];[1] across the bottom: AVE.G[RATIA?] ... AN[N]O.D[OMINI]. M.CCCC.XIII

Inscription Notes

[1] 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.[1] (Édouard Larcade, Paris), by 1927. (Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, Florence), by 1938;[2] sold September 1939 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1943 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Possibly Musée du Louvre, Paris, early 1900s.[1]
Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), Galleria dell'Accademia, Florence, 2006, unnumbered catalogue.

Exhibition History Notes

[1] 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.

Technical Summary

The painting was executed on a single-member panel with vertical grain; the wood was lined with fabric below the white gesso ground. Red bole preparation was applied to the areas to be gilded. The original frame is lost, and the panel has been trimmed along all the edges, though the presence of a barbe around its entire profile indicates that the image remains intact. Stephen Pichetto treated the painting between 1940 and 1941, at which time the panel was thinned and cradled.[1] The flesh is painted over a green underpainting. Initially the artist painted the blue veil to cover Mary’s forehead, but later he changed his design to allow her red-gold hair to reappear beneath her cloak. The pale blue of the veil is still visible where her hair is parted. The halos, panel border, and cushion were decorated with incised and punched designs. Mordant gilding was used to create the gold designs on the clothing and the inscription.

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.[2] In 1905, it was reported to be much darkened by dust and opacified varnishes. This state is probably shown by a Giraudon photograph revealing the paint film worn and much darkened, with small, scattered paint losses and scratches both in the figures and in the gold ground. A reproduction published in 1909 likely illustrates an undocumented treatment that took place in the meantime.[3] After Pichetto’s 1940 – ​1941 treatment, the painting was treated again in 1956 by Mario Modestini.[4] Inpainting is especially heavy in the faces of the Madonna and child, as well as in the green pavement.


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.
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Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 33, repro. 28.
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