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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Lippo Memmi/Madonna and Child with Donor/1325/1330,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 18, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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This work was the left side of a diptych that probably depicted the Crucifixion on the opposite panel. At the lower left, looking up at a looming vision of the Virgin and Child, is a small, kneeling figure in rapt devotion. Lippo Memmi (Sienese, active 1317/1347) has given us a portrait of a particular individual, unshaven, his ruddy skin slightly sagging below his tonsured curls, suggesting advanced age. He commissioned this painting and used it in his private devotions.

Lippo linked the two panels visually in multiple ways, beginning with our monk-donor’s gaze to the right. Mary places her finger against Jesus’s chest in a traditional gesture that recalls icons of the Hodegetria (as seen in the National Gallery of Art's Byzantine Enthroned Madonna and Child): she is pointing the way to salvation through Jesus and to his future suffering on the cross. The child’s tug at Mary’s veil is likely another reference to the Passion and to the death shroud that will cover him. With the pull and pucker of the cloth under their fingers, Lippo gives this symbolic sign a naturalistic touch.

The green-tinged faces in early Italian pictures sometimes discomfit modern viewers. What we are seeing, in fact, is the green earth pigment of the underpainting coming through as the colors on top have been abraded over time. This is not what the artist intended or what his contemporaries would have seen. The painting’s worn surface also gives us a good chance to see the red clay layer (bole) applied beneath all the gilt areas to give the gold a rich, warm tone.


The painting’s iconography is based on the type of the Hodegetria Virgin.[1] It presents, however, a modernized version of this formula, in keeping with the “humanized” faith and sensibility of the time; instead of presenting her son to the observer as in the Byzantine model, Mary’s right hand touches his breast, thus indicating him as the predestined sacrificial lamb. As if to confirm this destiny, the child draws his mother’s hand towards him with his left hand. The gesture of his other hand, outstretched and grasping the Madonna’s veil, can be interpreted as a further reference to his Passion and death.[2]

The painting probably was originally the left wing of a diptych. The half-length Madonna and Child frequently was combined with a representation of the Crucifixion, with or without the kneeling donor. In our panel, the donor, an unidentified prelate, is seen kneeling to the left of the Madonna; his position on the far left of the composition itself suggests that the panel was intended as a pendant to a matching panel to the right. In any case, the image was intended for the donor’s private devotion.[3]

Ever since its first public appearance at the London exhibition of Sienese painting in 1904, this panel has been recognized as a work by Lippo Memmi. The attribution to the fourteenth-century Sienese master has seldom been placed in doubt since that time.[4] If the painting’s attribution can be considered perfectly convincing, its date is open to question; the art historical literature has expressed various views on the dating. The date usually proposed for our Madonna and Child is c. 1330, but some authorities have pushed this either backward to the 1320s or forward to 1335.[5] The lack of any securely dated works by the artist before 1333 (apart, of course, from the great fresco of the Maestà in San Gimignano dated 1317, which hardly lends itself to stylistic comparison with small panels like ours) justifies this lack of certainty. It should be said, however, that the identification of Lippo with the so-called Master of the Triumph of Saint Thomas—that is, the master of the painting of the same name in the church of Santa Caterina at Pisa—has been revived and has begun to gain ground. If, as various clues suggest, this proposal is likely to be correct,[6] a further chronological point of reference for Lippo’s career would thus be obtained, for the Santa Caterina panel must have been painted in close proximity to the canonization of Thomas Aquinas in 1323. Another fact that should be borne in mind, in reflecting on the chronological sequence of Lippo’s works is a gradual enrichment of technique, particularly the tendency to pass “from a pictorial treatment of luminous and two-dimensional effect to a softer, more atmospheric, more richly charged modeling, also involving a more three-dimensional effect.”[7] Some art historians have viewed this change primarily as a consequence of Lippo’s adjustment to the manner of Simone Martini (Sienese, active from 1315; died 1344), but it would be more correct to speak of his gradual espousal of the ideals of Gothic elegance, not simply his dependence on his brother-in-law’s stylistic development.[8] The various punch marks used to decorate this painting include several that can also be recognized in paintings attributed to Simone and executed in the period between 1320 and 1333, or even later. Some of these punches recur in the Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas and in other panels attributable to the Pisan phase of Lippo’s activity, hence executed in the period 1320/1325.[9]

Given these observations, a date for the National Gallery of Art’s Madonna of slightly later than the Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas can be supported with some confidence. This conclusion is also reinforced by stylistic considerations, for the clear-cut and energetic design of the Pisan painting is still exempt from such features as the accomplished curvilinear rhythms and delicate chiaroscuro modeling proposed in the painting being discussed here. A terminus ante quem, on the other hand, is provided by the Madonna [fig. 1] in Berlin (Gemäldegalerie) dated 1333: its more elongated, aristocratic proportions and more spacious and refined compositional layout indicate the artist’s gradual adoption of a fully gothicizing manner. From these considerations, therefore, a date for the Washington Madonna in the period 1325/1330 can be deduced—a date that also holds good, in all probability, for a painting particularly close in style, namely the polyptych formerly in the church of San Niccolò at Casciana Alta, near Pisa.[10] Despite some archaizing aspects (such as the round-arched upper termination of the panels of the main register), the altarpiece seems, in its figural style, to belong to the same phase as our panel. Mary [fig. 2] is more lissome in physique and assumes a more composed and elegant pose than in previous paintings by Lippo, while the curly-headed child [fig. 3], who opens his lips to pronounce words of blessing, would seem closely akin to the idea proposed in the Gallery panel [fig. 4]. The fact that the face of Saint Thomas is more subtly naturalistic in its modeling than that of the same saint in the undated Pisan panel (c. 1323) suggests a slightly later date.   

Lippo, we may infer, embarked on a new stylistic phase in the years around 1325. This led him not only to dedicate ever-growing attention to reserved elegance of pose but also to refine his technique. He now tried to accentuate the realistic effects of his images. His efforts in this direction are testified by the acutely characterized portrait of the donor [fig. 5] in the Washington Madonna: the flaccid, unshaven features show evident signs of old age and poor health. But no less subtle and acute an observation is shown in the treatment of the child’s close-fitting blouse that wrinkles and puckers under the firm touch of Mary’s finger.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Private collection, Paris; purchased c. 1896 through (Thos. Agnew and Sons, Ltd., London) by Robert Henry [1850–1929] and Evelyn Holford [1856–1943] Benson, London and Buckhurst Park, Surrey;[1] sold 1927 with the entire Benson collection to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[2] purchased 15 December 1936 by The Andrew W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh;[3] gift 1937 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Exhibition of Pictures of the School of Siena, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1904, no. 19.
Loan Exhibition of the Benson Collection of Old Italian Masters, City of Manchester Art Gallery, 1927, no. 101.

Technical Summary

The panel is composed of a single piece of wood trimmed along the lower edge. At some point in the painting’s history, the original triangular gable was cut just above the Virgin’s halo. The gable was reconstructed with modern wood during an undocumented restoration, probably conducted in 1927–1928.[1] The wooden support was thinned to 5 mm and cradled, and the vertical edges covered by strips of modern wood, probably at the same time that the gable was added. The modern replacement of the missing top of the gable (c. 12–16 cm) has been gilded and its border decorated with punches that imitate the original ones along the vertical edges of the panel. The painting was executed on a white gesso ground, with gilding over a layer of red bole in the ground behind the figures. A green imprimatura can be seen under the flesh tones. The paint was applied in thin layers with little texture except for a discernible thickness in the Virgin’s blue cloak. A split about 6 cm long runs upwards from the center of the lower edge of the panel. There is a loss in the gilding at the upper left edge, and another loss is visible in the lower left corner. There is inpainting in the Virgin’s cloak and in the child’s robe, as well as in some scratches in the faces.


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