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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Paolo Veneziano/The Crucifixion/c. 1340/1345,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed February 29, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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Originally, this painting had an arched top, the contour of which can still be traced in the different appearance of the gilding, which shows that the corners were added much later to transform the panel into a rectangle. Changes like this underscore the fact that early Italian paintings were experienced very differently by their contemporaries than by today’s museum-goers, who are accustomed to single, usually rectangular, paintings hanging by themselves on pristine walls. When artists made these works hundreds of years ago, most were part of altarpieces, and their gold surfaces would have been seen in the flicker of candlelight. Given its shape and small size (some 15 inches high), this panel was probably centered at the top of a triptych (see Reconstruction).

Paolo Veneziano (Venetian, active 1333 - 1358) was the most prominent painter in Venice in the 14th century and exerted a lasting influence there. He and his sons were commissioned to paint panels to cover the magnificent high altar called the Pala d’Oro in Saint Mark’s Basilica, one of the city’s greatest treasures. Concealed behind Paolo’s wooden altarpiece, the Pala—which consisted of gold and enameled plaques from Byzantium framed with pearls and jewels—was visible only on feast days; Church leadership needed something beautiful and instructive for parishioners to view the remainder of the year. Being awarded this important commission is an indication of the status of Paolo and his workshop.

Paolo’s art combined Byzantine and Western European elements in terms of the settings and biblical narratives he chose and in his artistic style. This panel, for example, shows the Crucifixion taking place before the crenellated walls of Jerusalem. Fluttering angels collect Christ’s blood, and the skull of Adam lies buried beneath the rock of Golgotha. All of these details are found in Byzantine representations. The swooning Virgin and kneeling Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, are derived from Western European depictions. In terms of style, Paolo’s painting straddles the two traditions, combining the abstraction of Byzantine icons with the softer modeling and more dynamic poses found in the art of the West.  


The Crucifixion is enacted in front of the crenellated wall of the city of Jerusalem. The cross is flanked above by four fluttering angels, three of whom collect the blood that flows from the wounds in Christ’s hands and side. To the left of the Cross, the Holy Women, a compact group, support the swooning Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the Cross, caressing Christ’s feet with her hands. To the right of the Cross stand Saint John the Evangelist, in profile, and a group of soldiers with the centurion in the middle, distinguished by a halo, who recognizes the Son of God in Jesus.[1] The painting’s small size, arched shape, and composition suggest that it originally belonged to a portable altarpiece, of which it formed the central panel’s upper tier [fig. 1].[2] The hypothesis was first advanced by Evelyn Sandberg-­Vavalà (originally drafted 1939, published 1969), who based it on stylistic, compositional, and iconographic affinities between a small triptych now in the Galleria Nazionale of Parma [fig. 2] and a series of small panels now in the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts [fig. 3]. Sandberg-­Vavalà recognized the latter as fragments of the shutters of a triptych [fig. 4] very similar to the one now in Parma.[3] Thus, as in the example at Parma, the dismantled triptych would have represented on the exterior Saints Christopher and Blaise ([fig. 1], panels a and e). When opened, the left shutter would have shown Saints Michael Archangel and John the Baptist at the top, and in the lower register Saints George and Francis; the Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene would have appeared at the top of the right shutter, and below it Saints Barbara and Anthony Abbot (in the Parma triptych, the place of Saint Barbara is taken by Saint Ursula). The Washington Crucifixion therefore may be assumed to have formed part of the centerpiece of a triptych, probably placed, as at Parma, above an image of the Madonna and Child. The measurements of the fragments[4] would seem to confirm that the painting in the National Gallery of Art and the fragments in Worcester belonged to the same altarpiece. Other scholars later independently proposed the same conjectural reconstruction of the complex.[5] It was further developed by the suggestion that it could be completed with the triangular gable panels depicting the Angel of the Annunciation and the Virgin Annunciate now in the J. Paul Getty Museum at Los Angeles [fig. 5],[6] and with the Madonna and Child now in the Musée du Petit Palais at Avignon [fig. 6],[7] proposed as the lower register of the central panel of which our Crucifixion formed the upper part. Not all authorities have found these proposals convincing, and some have rejected them,[8] but at least the common origin of the panels now in Avignon, Washington, and Worcester seems quite plausible.[9]

As for the hand that painted the panel in Washington, apart from the first tentative attributions to Nicoletto Semitecolo [10] and to Lorenzo Veneziano (an artist who belonged to a younger generation and was probably a disciple of Paolo Veneziano, but someone to whom early twentieth-century art historians frequently attributed Paolo’s paintings) [11] made during the time when it was still on the art market, Paolo’s authorship is now almost universally recognized.[12] Uncertainties concern not so much the painting’s attribution as its chronological position in Paolo’s oeuvre. This is variously assessed depending on the chronological sequence of the master’s paintings proposed in the literature. Roberto Longhi, followed by many, argued for an execution toward the middle of the fourteenth century,[13] but other art historians have preferred an earlier dating, proposing the 1340s,[14] the years around 1340,[15] the fourth,[16] or even the third decade.[17] In the absence of secure points of reference, it may be assumed that the panel in the National Gallery of Art should precede the polyptych with the Crucifixion and saints now in the Museum of the Cathedral of Rab, or the painted cross in the church of Saint Dominic at Dubrovnik (both in Croatia), works generally and convincingly dated after the mid-fourteenth century.[18] In their conspicuous elongation of the figures’ proportions, their more realistic treatment of the anatomy of the body of Christ, their measured language of gesture and less dynamic linear rhythms, these works have undeniable affinities with paintings securely dated to the artist’s last creative phase. On the other hand, a terminus post quem for our painting can be deduced from the Crucifixion in one of the panels of polyptych no. 21 in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, a work that the more recent literature tends to place within or not long after the fourth decade of the fourteenth century. With its more animated and crowded composition and its more schematic description of the slender body of Christ, it can undoubtedly be assumed to belong to a phase preceding the Washington version of the subject.[19]

If, as seems to me plausible, we accept that the painting discussed here belongs to the same complex of which the fragments in the Worcester Museum and the Madonna in Avignon formed part, the scope for comparisons and for formulating more precise chronological parameters is widened. The Saint Francis of the Worcester Museum seems more slender than the corresponding image of the saint in the Museo Civico in Vicenza, dated 1333,[20] and should be later in date. Conversely, a period of some length must have elapsed between the figure of the Baptist in the Worcester Museum and that in the polyptych in the church of San Martino at Chioggia in 1349: there, the Baptist, a very tall, aristocratic personage who turns with timorous discretion to the Christ child on his mother’s knee in the central panel, reveals characteristics rather different from those of the Worcester Baptist.[21] The slight hanchement of the Worcester Saint George, holding his lance between his fingers with inimitable nonchalance, seems to repeat in a very similar way, though perhaps with an even more studied quest for elegance, the pose of another warrior saint, the Saint Theodore in the Pala feriale of 1343–1345.[22] As for the Madonna in Avignon, the liveliness of the Christ child’s gesture, his arms outspread, and the slender figure of Mary, with her wan face and melancholic gaze, invite comparison with the panel dated 1340 in the Crespi collection in Milan and, even more persuasively, with the Madonna now in the Museo Diocesano in Cesena with a provenance from Carpineta, dated 1347.[23]

To these stylistic observations we may add some comments on the iconography and costumes worn by the figures in the panels. Bearing in mind that iconographic changes may depend on the requirements of particular patrons and that their use as criteria for dating a work of art should be evaluated with a great deal of caution, I do not think it accidental that in the Madonna of Carpineta and in Paolo’s later representations of the same subject Mary is always shown with a dress sumptuously decorated with floriated motifs in gold and that the child, instead of wearing the traditional long tunic, is represented nude (even if draped in a mantle) or is shown wearing a transparent chemise that leaves his legs exposed. This motif, of Byzantine origin, soon spread in Tuscan painting,[24] but it apparently enjoyed less success, or made less rapid headway, in northern Italy. Rare in Venetian paintings of the early fourteenth century, it is still not present in Paolo’s Crespi Madonna (1340), though it appears in his later works and also in the panel of the Madonna in Avignon. The conclusion that the triptych in question might have been executed within the 1340s seems further corroborated by the costume of Saint Barbara in Worcester. Her dress is characterized by a conspicuous manicottolo (a long sleeve whose upper fitted part reaches down to the elbow, where it sharply widens and then hangs down in a loose flap to the mid-thigh).[25] This dernier cri of fourteenth-century court dress, a fashion by no means confined to ladies, appears here in a less evolved form than in the dresses that adorn the Saint Ursula of the polyptych of San Severino Marche (1358) [26] or the Dancing Salome in the mosaic of the baptistery of San Marco (c. 1350),[27] but in a far wider (and presumably later) variant than in the elegant dresses of the female saints depicted in the laterals of the triptych of Saint Clare in the Museo Civico of Trieste, executed by Paolo within the third decade.[28] From the sum of these observations, it seems possible to deduce that the triptych of which the Washington Crucifixion formed part should date to the early 1340s, soon after the triptych in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma, which it follows in composition and, in large part, iconography.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


upper center: I.N.R.I. (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews)


(Italian art market, probably Venice), by 1902.[1] Achillito Chiesa, Milan, early twentieth century;[2] (Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, Florence); sold July 1934 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1939 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The painting, executed on a single piece of wood with vertical grain, has triangular additions of relatively recent date at the upper corners.[1] Narrow strips of wood have been attached to the vertical edges of the panel, which has been thinned and cradled at least twice. The paint is applied on a gesso ground; there is a layer of red bole under the gilded areas. The x-radiographs reveal two pieces of fabric under the gesso, which were probably applied to conceal flaws in the panel. An incised line marks the inner periphery of the now lost original frame. The paint was applied thinly with green underpaint beneath the flesh tones. The halos are punched, and the soldiers’ armor is embellished with mordant gilding. 

The panel has numerous old wormholes and some small cracks along the bottom edge. A light overall abrasion can be observed on the painted surface, which has two significant paint losses: one on Christ’s torso, and the other on his left arm. Other, smaller losses are present in Christ’s loincloth, Mary Magdalene’s nose, and in the face and torso of the lower right-hand angel. The right half of the gold background has been regilded. The dark outer contours have been reinforced in some areas. Stephen Pichetto removed a discolored varnish and inpainted the panel when he cradled it in 1934–1935.[2]


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Preliminary Catalogue of Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1941: 147, no. 254.
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 244, repro. 163.
Frankfurter, Alfred M. The Kress Collection in the National Gallery. New York, 1944: 73-74, repro. no. 84
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Laclotte, Michel. De Giotto à Bellini: les primitifs italiens dans les musées de France. Exh. cat. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, 1956: 19.
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Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 28, repro.
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Gamulin, Grgo. "Di un libro su Paolo da Venezia." Arte veneta 24 (1970): 266.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 158, 291, 645, 660.
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European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 260, repro.
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Kiel, Hanna. "Das Polyptychon von Paolo und Giovanni Veneziano in Sanseverino Marche." Pantheon 35 (1977): 107, 108 n. 8, fig. 4.
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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 portable triptych by Paolo Veneziano

Panel A
Saint Christopher (reverse of panel B)

Panel B
a. Angel of the Annunciation (Entry fig. 5)
b. Saint Michael Archangel (Entry fig. 3)
c. Saint John the Baptist (Entry fig. 3)
d. Saint George (Entry fig. 3)
e. Saint Francis (Entry fig. 3)

Panel C
a. The Crucifixion
b. Madonna and Child (Entry fig. 6)

Panel D
a. Virgin Annunciate (Entry fig. 5)
b. The Ecstasy of Saint Mary Magdalene (Entry fig. 3)
c. Saint Barbara (Entry fig. 3)
d. Saint Anthony Abbot (Entry fig. 3)

Panel E
Saint Blaise (reverse of panel D)

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