In this panel the young Virgin, perhaps three or four years old, takes leave of her parents, Anna and Joachim, to enter the temple, where she would live until age 14. Anna and Joachim were elderly and had prayed to God that they might not remain childless. When Anna did conceive, she promised to raise her child in the temple, dedicated to God’s service. In the painting, Mary pauses on the steps and looks back at her parents, but when she approached the altar inside, according to one legend, “she danced with her feet, so that all the House of Israel rejoiced with her and loved her.”
This is one of three small paintings by Andrea di Bartolo at the National Gallery of Art that depict scenes from the life of the Virgin (see also
The three panels in the National Gallery of Art collection (this work,
No. 55.148; 46 × 34 cm. The painting, its provenance unknown, was purchased by Cardinal János Simor, perhaps in Rome, for the museum in Esztergom between 1867 and 1878; see Miklós Boskovits et al., Christian Art in Hungary: Collections from the Esztergom Christian Museum (Budapest, 1965), 52. Its original gold ground was evidently removed at an early date, and it, like the Washington panels, was regilded during a nineteenth-century restoration.
On the role of Joachim in Italian cycles of the childhood of Mary, cf. Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne, Iconographie de l’enfance de la Vierge dans l’Empire byzantin et en Occident, 2 vols. (Bruxelles, 1964–1965), 2:154–159; Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 6 vols. (Gütersloh, 1966–1990), 4, pt. 2: 38–54.
As an example we may cite the vita-icon, name piece of the Master of San Martino in the Museo Nazionale in Pisa, in which the main image at the center is flanked on either side by six superimposed stories from the life of the Virgin. See Enzo Carli, Il Museo di Pisa (Pisa, 1974), 41–43 and fig. 48.
Cf. the retable of Bernat de Puig in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, repro. in Josep Gudiol and Santiago Alcolea i Blanch, Pintura gótica catalana (Barcelona, 1986), fig. 57.
As in the polyptych commissioned from Bartolo di Fredi for the church of San Francesco at Montalcino; cf. Gaudenz Freuler, Bartolo di Fredi Cini: Ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts (Disentis, 1994), 188–221.
The Annunciation is placed at the center of an illuminated page with scenes from the childhood of Mary, executed by the Bedford Master, in a Book of Hours in the Oesterreichisches Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, cod. 1855; Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 6 vols. (Gütersloh, 1966 – 1990), 4, pt. 2: pl. 467. The scene of Pentecost occupies a central position in the cycle of frescoes by the young Bartolo di Fredi in the church of Sant’Agostino at San Gimignano. See Gaudenz Freuler, Bartolo di Fredi Cini: Ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts (Disentis, 1994), 32 – 45.
An image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar, abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum. The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history. —Alexander Nagel, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
A horizontal band, cut from a single plank, below the main panels of an altarpiece. The appearance of the predella can be seen as part of the development of the altarpiece from a single panel to a large, multilevel polyptych. The small figures or scenes painted on the predella formed part of the integrated program of the altarpiece, providing a visual commentary on the major images above and at the same time physically raising the main panels, thus improving their visibility. —Ronald Baxter, Grove Art © Oxford University Press
On the structural characteristics of the predella in late medieval altarpieces in Tuscany, see Monika Cämmerer-George, Die Rahmung der toskanischen Altarbilder im Trecento (Strasbourg, 1966), 93−94; Christoph Merzenich, Vom Schreinerwerk zum Gemälde: Florentiner Altarwerke der ersten Hälfte des Quattrocento (Berlin, 2001), 55.
Cesare Brandi formulated this hypothesis, and various scholars accepted it, in Cesare Brandi, Quattrocentisti senesi (Milan, 1949), 243.
Joanna Dunn of the National Gallery of Art conservation department tells me that, judging from the cracks lining up, it seems a “strong possibility” that The Nativity of the Virgin was placed above The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple. However, the x-radiographs do not show the wood grain clearly enough to prove this.
On the typology of vita-icon in Tuscany, see Victor M. Schmidt, “Tipologie e funzioni della pittura senese su tavola,” in Duccio: Siena fra tradizione bizantina e mondo gotico, ed. Alessandro Bagnoli et al. (Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2003), 541 – 544; Rita Sauer, “ ‘. . . so be ye holy in all manner of conversation’: The Vita Retable,” in Kult Bild: Das Altar- und Andachtsbild von Duccio bis Perugino (Petersberg, 2006), 131 – 176. For vita-icons with horizontally arranged scenes, see Taddeo di Bartolo’s panel San Geminianus Enthroned and Eight Stories of His Legend, or Andrea di Bartolo’s panel with the Crucifixion at the center and eight scenes from the life of Christ and of saints to the sides, formerly in the Stoclet collection in Brussels. Cf. Raimond van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, vol. 2, The Sienese School of the 14th Century (The Hague, 1924), fig. 354; Pierre Bautier, “I primitivi italiani della collezione Stoclet a Bruxelles,” Cronache d’arte 4 (1927): 315 and fig. 6.
Taddeo di Bartolo’s San Geminianus dossal (see note 10 above) has been transferred to a modern panel support with a vertical wood grain and so cannot be adduced for comparison.
A mixture of finely ground plaster and glue applied to wood panels to create a smooth painting surface. —Grove Art © Oxford University Press
The scenes from the life of the Virgin painted by Andrea are based on an apocryphal text called De Ortu Beatae Mariae et Infantia Salvatoris, attributed to the evangelist Matthew. Later sources enriched this narrative with additional episodes. According to the legend, the marriage of Joachim (father of the Virgin Mary) and Anna remained childless for many years, a state that was interpreted by the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem as punishment for grave sins. Therefore, Joachim’s offering of a sacrificial lamb was rejected, and he was expelled from the temple. The scene represented in this work is usually identified as Joachim and the Beggars but refers instead to a previous episode in the life of Mary’s parents. A version of the legend, evidently familiar in Tuscany, recounts that Joachim and Anna lived in a particularly charitable way, dividing all their worldly goods into three parts: a third was allocated to the poor, another third to the temple, and only a third was kept for their own needs.
The narrative of the Pseudo-Matthew was supplemented with other episodes by a German priest named Wernher in the mid-twelfth century. His Driv liet von der maget (Three Books on the Virgin) is the first source to mention the story of the division of Joachim’s worldly goods for charitable purposes; see Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 6 vols. (Gütersloh, 1966 – 1990), 4, pt. 2: 54 – 55; W. J. Hoffman, “Wernher,” in Marienlexikon, ed. Remigius Bäumer and Leo Scheffczyk, 6 vols. (St. Ottilien, 1994), 6:716 – 717.
At this point in the sequence, other episodes usually illustrated in cycles of the childhood of Mary are likely to have followed: namely, the Angel’s Annunciation of the Birth of Mary both to Joachim and to Anna, and the Return of Joachim to the City, linked with the Meeting of Husband and Wife at the Golden Gate. In the following scene of the Nativity of the Virgin, Andrea faithfully followed the model proposed by his father, Bartolo di Fredi, in the cycle of frescoes in the church of Sant’Agostino at San Gimignano and elsewhere:
The scene frescoed by Bartolo in Sant’Agostino at San Gimignano was repeated with small variations by the same painter in the predella fragment, part of the altarpiece commissioned from Bartolo for the church of San Francesco at Montalcino and now in the local Museo Civico. See Gaudenz Freuler, Bartolo di Fredi Cini: Ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts (Disentis, 1994), figs. 34, 37. The young Andrea probably collaborated in the execution of this part of the Montalcino altarpiece.
Reproduced in Gaudenz Freuler, Bartolo di Fredi Cini: Ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts (Disentis, 1994), fig. 27.
This lost cycle on the façade of the Ospedale della Scala is now known only from descriptions in the sources. Various scholars have proposed the involvement in it not only of the Lorenzetti brothers but also of