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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Andrea di Bartolo/The Nativity of the Virgin/c. 1400/1405,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 18, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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This painting presents the birth of the Virgin as a domestic tableau. Behind the parted red curtain of her bed, Mary’s mother, Anna, rests after giving birth. Her husband, Joachim, sits outside the bedchamber; his is no ordinary child, and he appears lost in thought, unaware of his companion. The infant Mary stands on sturdy legs supported and admired by two serving women, as another pours water from a pitcher so Anna can wash her hands. A fourth woman enters through the doorway, bringing a roasted chicken to the new mother. She looks out of the picture directly, drawing us into the scene. The emphasis on the human and the familiar—that chicken is almost in the center of the painting—made the Virgin and her family approachable to viewers and brought sacred events into the sphere of their own experience.

This and two other small paintings by Andrea di Bartolo at the National Gallery of Art, Joachim and Anna Giving Food to the Poor and Offerings to the Temple and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, were all part of one altarpiece. They depict scenes from the childhood of the Virgin, and must have been joined originally by many other panels—now lost—illustrating episodes from Mary’s life. Because the surviving panels share vertical wood grain, scholars have theorized that they were probably all connected, one on top of another. We do not know what was featured on the center panel; it might have been an Annunciation, Mary’s coronation as Queen of Heaven, or another subject (see Reconstruction).


The three panels in the National Gallery of Art collection (this work, Joachim and Anna Giving Food to the Poor and Offerings to the Temple, and The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple) form part of a larger series of scenes from the childhood of Mary, of which a fourth component is also known: Joachim Leaving Jerusalem now in the Keresztény Múzeum at Esztergom in Hungary [fig. 1].[1] Since two of the episodes, Joachim and Anna Giving Food to the Poor and Offerings to the Temple and Joachim Leaving Jerusalem, are seldom found represented in art, there are good reasons to assume that the sequence would have originally comprised at least four other, more commonly illustrated scenes, namely, the Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, the Annunciation to Joachim (and / or to Anna), the Meeting at the Golden Gate, and the Betrothal of the Virgin.[2] These (and possibly other) scenes would have accompanied a central image of the Madonna and Child,[3] or of Saint Anne with the Madonna and Child,[4] a Coronation of the Virgin,[5] or a theme such as the Annunciation or Pentecost.[6] It is difficult, therefore, to reconstruct the dismembered and dispersed altarpiece of which our three panels would have formed part, also because we do not know exactly how the surviving scenes from the life of the Virgin were related to the main image of the altarpiece. The fact that the grain of the wooden support is vertical would seem to exclude the proposition that they are fragments of a predella,[7] and the hypothesis advanced in the past, that our panels could be fragments of a reliquary cupboard, seems to have no foundation.[8] They could have been fragments of a vita-icon type panel, with a whole-length figure of the Madonna and Child flanked by a vertically arranged series of scenes of her life.[9] Such an image, however, would appear decidedly old-fashioned in Siena after the mid-fourteenth century. A more likely alternative format is suggested by the cases in which Sienese painters of the late fourteenth century, such as Taddeo di Bartolo or Andrea di Bartolo himself,[10] produced paintings in a form similar to thirteenth-century dossals, with a large-scale representation at the center, flanked by narrative scenes in two superimposed orders [fig. 2] (see also Reconstruction). A round-arched termination, enriched on the inside with cusped moldings, would be very appropriate for this kind of altarpiece. In Siena in this period, and in Tuscany in general, the wood grain of the support in a vertical panel is invariably aligned vertically, and in a horizontal panel horizontally. It cannot be excluded, of course, that the painting was realized during the artist’s stay in Venice or in the Marche and not in Siena, as Laurence Kanter, in correspondence, suggests. He points out that carpentry practice in the Venetian territories frequently aligned panels parallel to the shorter axis, so in the case of a horizontal altarpiece the wood grain would run vertically.[11] He further notes that the incised profiles of the original frame moldings on our panels argue for a Venetian provenance. In Tuscany, engaged frames were applied before the panels were gessoed or gilt. In Venice, they were added afterward, and their profiles are often found inscribed on the picture surface as a guide to the painter.

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.[12] In the panel at the Gallery, we see, to the left, Joachim distributing loaves of bread to the poor, while his wife is presiding over the delivery of sacks of grain to the temple, where a priest receives them. This episode would have been followed by the lost scene of the priest’s rejection of the offering of a sacrificial animal and the Expulsion from the Temple, the premise for Joachim’s Abandonment of the City, which is described in the painting now in Esztergom.

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:[13] in the foreground at the center we see a young woman seated on the ground, supporting with one arm the newborn child who stands on her lap, back turned to the viewer, while another woman, also crouched on the ground, is gesturing with both hands towards the child, as if inviting the baby girl to come to her arms. Further in the background we see two standing women: one is just entering the room through a door in the rear wall, bearing a bowl of food in her hands; the other is pouring water into a basin for the child’s mother to wash her hands. Anna is shown reclining on the skillfully foreshortened bed to the right, its curtain drawn back. On the other side of the scene, Joachim and another elderly man are seated in a barrel-vaulted loggia adjacent to the room of the childbirth, awaiting news of the event. The following scene, The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, also resembles the corresponding fresco by Bartolo in San Gimignano,[14] but in this case both paintings reveal the influence of a celebrated prototype frescoed by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti on the facade of the Ospedale della Scala in Siena.[15] The scene represents the episode of the three-year-old Mary being taken by her parents to the temple; the child spontaneously ascends the flight of steps to the temple, where she would reside until the age of fourteen. By painting the temple at an angle to the picture plane, displaced to the right side of the composition, Andrea seems, however, more faithful to his father’s more dynamic and “modern” composition than to the Lorenzettian model.

After initial attempts to attribute the three panels to Bartolo di Fredi,[16] art historians in general accepted them (and also the fourth now in Esztergom) as the work of Andrea.[17] The generally accepted date for them is c. 1400 or shortly thereafter.[18] A proposal to insert them into the catalog of Giorgio di Andrea[19] has found no acceptance in the literature. G. Fattorini described the three Washington panels as akin to the Adoration of the Magi in the Salini collection (Castello di Gallico, near Asciano, Siena), which he dated to the first decade of the fifteenth century.[20]

From a stylistic point of view, the scenes from the childhood of Mary can be compared with such paintings as the six stories of Saint Galgano now divided between the Museo Nazionale in Pisa and the National Gallery in Dublin (these, too, most likely originated as parts of a panel in the form of a dossal);[21] various portable triptychs in the museums of Altenburg,[22] Philadelphia,[23] Prague,[24] and Siena;[25] or the paintings on a casket in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.[26] Unfortunately, none of these paintings is securely dated. Since the only documented works of the painter have been lost, the one secure point of reference for the chronology of his career remains the fragmentary polyptych in the Church of the Osservanza at Siena, dated 1413.[27] The lack of other secure points of reference explains why the chronological reconstruction of Andrea’s works remains so beset by uncertainty. For example, his signed Assumption of the Virgin (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond) sometimes is considered to belong to his early period, and sometimes to his full maturity.[28] Some clues for a reconstruction of the artist’s career can, I believe, be deduced from the miniatures painted by Andrea for the choir-books of the Eremo di Lecceto near Siena, probably during the 1390s.[29] The strong compositional simplification and charged color of these miniatures reveal significant affinities with the scenes from the life of the Virgin being discussed here, and thus seem to confirm that they belong to a relatively precocious phase in Andrea’s career.

Comparisons of the Gallery’s panels with the figures of saints in the Church of the Osservanza in Siena (1413), on the other hand, show that the latter belong to a more advanced phase in the artist’s career. Some lateral panels of polyptychs, such as that in Tuscania Cathedral, of which the predella has also survived, are easier to compare with the Osservanza saints. In contrast to the tall and slender saints of the Osservanza, who wear draperies furrowed by long, close-set, sharply undercut folds, those of Tuscania are more robust in physique and more placid in expression; their statuesque figures seem to indicate an earlier date of execution, somewhat closer in style to the group of miniatures Andrea probably realized in the last decade of the fourteenth century.[30] If this conclusion is correct, and if therefore the crowded scenes thronged with corpulent and largely immobile figures in the predella in Tuscania testify to Andrea’s art around 1405 – ​1410, it seems reasonable to propose a dating to the very first years of the Quattrocento for the Gallery’s scenes from the life of the Virgin. The compositions in these panels are reduced to essentials, and no signs are yet visible either of the more spacious layout of the scenes or of the greater liveliness of the figures that can be seen in the stories of Christ in the now dispersed predella that should probably be connected with the Assumption in Richmond and in other altarpieces reasonably considered later than the Osservanza saints.[31]

The closest stylistic affinities of the Gallery’s panels therefore are with works whose figures are more robust and more sedate in character. Paintings that fall into this category — ​​apart from the polyptych in Buonconvento and the altarpiece now in the museum in Murano, both datable to the last decade of the fourteenth century — ​​include the fragment with the Virgin Annunciate formerly in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the fragmentary Saint Michael Archangel in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena (no. 63), for both of which Laurence Kanter (1986) proposed a provenance from the same altarpiece of which the Gallery’s panels originally formed a part.[32] Apparently, during these years — ​​that is, the first fifteen years of the fifteenth century — ​​Andrea especially painted small-scale works for private devotion, such as the abovementioned portable triptych no. 133 in the Pinacoteca of Siena; this resembles our scenes from the life of Mary not only in the proportions and physiognomic types of the figures but also in its peculiar compositional devices.[33] In another triptych datable to this period, that of the Lindenau-­Museum in Altenburg, the cloak of the young female saint of the left leaf is closely comparable with that of the majestic Saint Anne of The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple. Another comparable work [34] is the Adoration of the Magi now in the Salini collection, which recalls the Washington panels both in the statuesque pose of its figures and in the characteristics of its architectural backdrop.[35]

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


This panel, along with NGA 1939.1.41 and 1939.1.43, are stated to have come from the collection of a contessa Giustiniani, Genoa;[1] (Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, Rome); sold July 1930 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[2] gift 1939 to NGA.

Technical Summary

This painting, along with its companions The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and Joachim and Anna Giving Food to the Poor and Offerings to the Temple, was executed on a single-member poplar panel with vertical grain.[1] The edges of the three panels probably were cropped slightly. Wooden strips measuring 0.6 – ​0.8 cm wide have been attached to the edges along all four sides of each painting. The x-radiographs show three round marks along the bottom of The Presentation and The Nativity, which may be the sites of old holes from nails that attached a horizontal batten.

The paintings most likely were executed on a gesso ground. The x-radiographs of The Presentation suggest the presence of a fabric interlayer beneath the ground, but such a layer is not evident in the x-radiographs of the other two paintings. Infrared reflectography (Vidicon)[2] proves the presence of extensive underdrawing, particularly in the draperies of the figures and the placement of the architectural forms. Incised lines were used, on the other hand, to delineate the main contours of the figures, of architectural details, and of the original frame, now lost, against the gold.

Stephen Pichetto thinned and cradled the panels shortly after their acquisition by Samuel H. Kress in 1930.[3] X-radiographs made prior to the attachment of the cradles show extensive worm damage, as well as structural damage in the form of a large crack in the central area of each panel. A large knot may have caused the vertical split in The Presentation. The cracks of The Presentation and The Nativity line up, if the latter is positioned above the former. However, this could be purely coincidental and may not relate to the original positions of the panels. The painted surface contains only very small losses, but all panels have been generously retouched and partially regilded. The inpainting is disturbing, especially in the faces of the three figures at the center of The Nativity. The frames are modern. Photographs made at the time of the paintings’ donation to the National Gallery of Art show the panels unframed. A note in the Gallery’s curatorial files mentions their reframing in 1944. Before this intervention the spandrels originally covered by the frame had been regilded and appear as such in the photos published in the 1941 catalog of the Gallery.[4] The cusped inner molding of the present frames follows approximately the incised lines for the original framing. Pichetto removed discolored varnish and inpaint during his 1930 treatment of the paintings. In 1955 Mario Modestini again treated The Nativity and Joachim and Anna.[5]


National Gallery of Art. Book of Illustrations. Washington, 1941: 51 (repro.), 236.
Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 3, no. 153.
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 242, repro. 53.
Brandi, Cesare. Quattrocentisti senesi. Milan, 1949: 243, pl. 9.
Ferguson, George. Signs and Symbols in Christian Art. 2nd ed. New York, 1955: pl. 21.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 36, repro.
Mojzer, Miklós. "Vier sienesische Quattrocento-Tafeln des Christlichen Museums zu Esztergom." Pantheon 22 (1964): 1, 2 (repro.), 6 n. 5.
Boskovits, Miklós, Miklós Mojzer, and András Mucsi. Das Christliche Museum von Esztergom (Gran). Budapest, 1965: 44.
Boskovits, Miklós, Miklós Mojzer, András Mucsi, Alfréd Schiller, Elizabeth Hoch, and Susanna Horn. Christian Art in Hungary: Collections from the Esztergom Christian Museum. Budapest, 1965: 52.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 7.
Boskovits, Miklós. Early Italian Panel Paintings. Budapest, 1966: 40.
Schiller, Gertrud. Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst. 6 vols. Gütersloh, 1966-1990: 4, pt. 2:64, 65, 71, 246, 316, fig. 520.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century. London, 1966: 65-66, fig. 176.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools. 3 vols. London, 1968: 1:8.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 1, repro.
Carli, Enzo. I pittori senesi. Siena, 1971: 138, fig. 123.
Os, Hendrik W. van. "Andrea di Bartolo’s Assumption of the Virgin." Arts in Virginia 2 (1971): 4.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 7, 300, 645.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 12, repro.
Mucsi, András. Katalog der Alten Gemäldegalerie des Christlichen Museums zu Esztergom. Budapest, 1975: 42.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:4-5; 2:pl. 3.
Carli, Enzo. La pittura senese del Trecento. 1st ed. Milan, 1981: 238, fig. 279.
Il gotico a Siena: miniature, pitture, oreficerie, oggetti d’arte. Exh. cat. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Florence, 1982: 313, 317.
Kasten, Eberhard. "Andrea di Bartolo." In Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker. Edited by Günter Meissner. 3 vols. Leipzig, 1983-1990: 2(1986):974, 976.
L’Art gothique siennois: enluminure, peinture, orfèvrerie, sculpture. Exh. cat. Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon. Florence, 1983: 280, 284.
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 82, no. 38, color repro.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 18, repro.
Kanter, Laurence B. "Giorgio di Andrea di Bartolo." Arte cristiana 74 (1986): 21-22, 24, repro. 26.
Maderna, Valentina, ed. Il polittico di Andrea di Bartolo a Brera Restaurato. Exh. cat. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. Florence, 1986: 17.
Gurrieri, Francesco, and Luciano Bellosi, eds. La Sede storica del Monte dei Paschi di Siena: vicende costruttive e opere d’arte. Florence, 1988: 276.
Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta. "Andrea di Bartolo." In Enciclopedia dell’arte medievale. Edited by Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana. 12 vols. Rome, 1991-2002: 1(1991):595.
Kasten, Eberhard. "Andrea di Bartolo." In Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon: Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker. Edited by Günter Meissner. 87+ vols. Munich and Leipzig, 1992+: 3(1992):512, 514.
Lorentz, Philippe. "De Sienne a Strasbourg: posterité d’une composition d’Ambrogio Lorenzetti, la Nativité de la Vierge de l’Hôpital Santa Maria della Scala à Sienne." In Hommage à Michel Laclotte: Etudes sur la peinture du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance. Edited by Luciano Bellosi, Pierre Rosenberg, Cécile Scailliérz, and Dominique Thiébault. Milan and Paris, 1994: 125 (repro.), 126, 127, 130-131 n. 45.
Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta, Alessandro Angelini, and Bernardina Sani. Sienese Painting From Duccio to the Birth of the Baroque. New York, 1997: 200-201.
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: 200.
Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 69.
Bellosi, Luciano, et al., eds. La collezione Salini: dipinti, sculture e oreficerie dei secoli XII, XIII, XIV e XV. 4 vols. Florence, 2009, 2015: 1(2009):238.
Boskovits, Miklós. Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2016: 14-25, color repro.

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Altarpiece Reconstruction

Click on any panel in the altarpiece reconstruction below to see an enlarged version of the image. Color reproductions in the reconstruction indicate panels in the National Gallery of Art collection.

Reconstruction of a dispersed altarpiece by Andrea di Bartolo:

a. Joachim and Anna Giving Food to the Poor and Offerings to the Temple
b. Expulsion of Joachim (?), lost
c. Joachim Leaving Jerusalem (Entry fig. 1)
d. Annunciation of the Birth of Mary (?), lost
e. Lost
f. Meeting at Porta Aurea (?), lost
g. The Nativity of the Virgin
h. The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple
i. Marriage of the Virgin (?), lost

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