The iconographyTerms that refer broadly to the study of subjects and themes in works of art. Iconology, which is based on the results of iconography, is the more wide-ranging and comprehensive. One of the principal concerns of iconography is the discovery of symbolic and allegorical meanings in a work of art.
—Willem F. Lash, Grove Art © Oxford University Press of the Coronation of the Virgin, the concluding stage of the glorification of the mother of Christ, developed relatively late in Italian art. The iconographic theme of Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven by her son developed from the concept of her bodily Assumption, recalled in ancient Christian literature from the fourth century onward, but first appearing in pictorial representations no earlier than the twelfth century. The iconography began to spread in Italy from the late thirteenth century, in tandem with the development of theological trends that considered Mary the personification of the Church, mystic bride of Christ. In the following centuries, it is often encountered as the main subject of altarpiecesAn 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. In Florence, the model most frequently followed was that established by Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337) in the Baroncelli chapel polyptych in Santa Croce, but a throng of saints was not always placed at the sides of the central representation of the Coronation, as in Giotto’s altarpiece. What remained constant in the iconography was the presence of a group of angels, often playing musical instruments, in the foreground of the central panel, and of at least two pairs of saints in the lateral panels.
There seems no reason to doubt that Agnolo Gaddi likewise followed this scheme, even if attempts to identify other panels of the multipart altarpiece of which the Washington painting would have formed the center thus far have not led to convincing results. The present writer previously had argued (Boskovits 1975) that the polyptych of which the Washington Coronation of the Virgin formed the central panel also comprised three small gable panels representing the Blessing God the Father, the archangel Gabriel, and the Virgin Annunciate, formerly in the Cook collection in Richmond. Erling Skaug (2004) rightly rejected this hypothesis, suggesting instead that these three panels formed part of Agnolo Gaddi’s Nobili triptych from Santa Maria degli Angeli, now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin (no. 1039). More recently, Sonia Chiodo (2005) suggested that a figure of Saint Bartholomew (private collection) and two predellaA 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 panels respectively representing stories of Saint Andrew (Richard L. Feigen collection) and stories of Saint Sylvester (Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art) were originally the companion panels of the Washington Coronation. The stories of Saints Andrew and Sylvester undoubtedly were parts of the same predella and are securely attributed to Agnolo Gaddi, but given their size (respectively, 31.8 × 40 and 28 × 37.5 cm) they could hardly have been placed in a predella below a lateral panel that had the same dimensions as Saint Bartholomew (92.2 × 28.9 cm without its frame). This latter panel would seem rather too small to have fitted alongside the Washington Coronation, bearing in mind the customary proportional relation between central and lateral panels in other polyptychsType of object with several panels, usually an altarpiece, although it may also fulfil other functions. The polyptych normally consists of a central panel with an even number of side-panels, which are sometimes hinged to fold. Although in principle every object with two panels or more may be called a polyptych, the word is normally used as a general term for anything larger than a triptych. As with diptychs and triptychs, the size and material can vary.
—Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press by Agnolo Gaddi. It may now be conjectured, albeit cautiously, that Gaddi’s panel representing Saints Julian, James, and Michael now in Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Agnolo Gaddi, Saints Julian, James, and Michael, c. 1390, tempera on panel, Yale University Art Gallery, University Purchase from James Jackson Jarves. Image: Yale University Art Gallery, might have belonged to the same altarpiece, both on account of its close stylistic affinity and the presence of no less than three saints in a single panel. The presence of more than two saints in a lateral panel that has a width less than that of the central panel is rare, but this does occur in the laterals of Coronation scenes; see, for example, the four saints on each side in a triptych by Giovanni dal Ponte (Musée Condé, Chantilly). Admittedly, the hypothesis is difficult to verify because of the Yale panel’s fragmentary nature and poor state of conservation.
As for the artist who painted The Coronation of the Virgin, scholars have been unanimous, with the exception of an attribution to Orcagna(Orcagna; Orgagna; Arcagnuolo)
(born 1315–20; died Florence, 1368)
Painter, sculptor, and architect, thought to have also been active as a poet. He was trained as a painter and referred to himself as “pictor” on the tabernacle in Orsanmichele. Details of his training are not known, but his first surviving works reveal various influences, especially of Maso di Banco and Taddeo Gaddi.
—G. Kreytenberg, Grove Art © Oxford University Press in the sale catalog of 1934, in identifying the master as Agnolo Gaddi ever since Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti first published it in 1937. On the other hand, views differ concerning the panel’s dating. It is placed in the period c. 1370–1380 by the older literature and, with the exception of Fern Rusk Shapley (1979), by the catalogs of the National Gallery of Art. Beginning with Miklós Boskovits (1968), the date now generally accepted is somewhat later than this, c. 1380–1390; Bruce Cole, in turn, suggested the period c. 1388–1393, pessimistically adding, “There is no way to make further or finer positional distinctions.” Despite such misgivings, some attempt to clarify the sequence of works produced in Gaddi’s bottega in the last years of his life will perhaps not be entirely futile.
We may begin by examining the composition that Gaddi adopted for the groups of angels that appear in the foreground in front of the throne of Mary in various altarpieces. In Agnolo’s Berlin triptych, datable to 1387, as in the triptych in Washington (see Saint Andrew and Saint Benedict with the Archangel Gabriel [left panel]; Madonna and Child Enthroned with Twelve Angels, and with the Blessing Christ [middle panel]; Saint Bernard and Saint Catherine of Alexandria with the Virgin of the Annunciation [right panel]), the three music-making angels on the left side seem virtually mirror images of the group facing them on the opposite side — in composition, pose, gesture, and details; the only variation is in the musical instruments in the hands of the pair of angels in the foreground. As it can be argued that the Berlin and Washington paintings are chronologically close, we can perhaps infer that this trait is characteristic of a moment in Gaddi’s career. The Coronation discussed here, however, differs from this scheme in various respects. Though the number of angels remains the same, their arrangement and pose differ, each reacting in a different way to the scene of the Coronation [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Detail of angels, Agnolo Gaddi, The Coronation of the Virgin with Six Angels, c. 1390, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection. Even their physique is different: their bodies are longer and more slender; the oval of their faces is more elongated; and their aristocratic features and ecstatic expressions are wholly attuned to and absorbed in the music they play. In comparison with the two above-cited triptychs, their garments, moreover, seem more simplified in design, their draperies less minutely ruffled than before; articulated with deep folds, they confer a certain grandeur on these secondary eyewitnesses of the scene.
In the Gallery’s panel, not only the groups of music-making and chorister angels but also the central protagonists themselves, and the very composition of the scene, display innovative features in comparison with the triptych of 1387. The bodies of Christ and his mother [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Detail of Christ and Mary, Agnolo Gaddi, The Coronation of the Virgin with Six Angels, c. 1390, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection, enthroned side by side in close juxtaposition and bowing their heads to each other, form a single monolithic bloc, integrated below by the two choirs of angels. The closely interwoven group of Mary and Christ recalls the Coronation frescoed by Agnolo Gaddi in the chapel of the Sacro Cingolo in Prato Cathedral, at least with respect to their close proximity and the arrangement of the wide, undulating folds that furrow their mantles. However, comparison to the cycle of frescoes in Prato, realized with the participation of many studio assistants and, apparently, completed in considerable haste, does not do justice to the far higher quality of the panel being discussed here —the delicate chiaroscuro that models its forms; the subtlety of its color combinations; or the elegance of its facial features, characterized by high cheekbones, elongated pointed noses, and narrow almond eyes. These are characteristics that recall works of the artist’s final phase, in particular such passages as that of the mourning saint John the Evangelist in the crucifix of the Pieve di San Martino at Sesto Fiorentino or the two full-length panels of Saints Giovanni Gualberto and Miniato in the Cappella del Crocifisso in San Miniato al Monte in Florence. The latter comparison is especially telling, since that altarpiece was begun in 1394 and probably completed only in the immediate aftermath of the artist’s death in 1396.
To judge from the stylistic evidence, The Coronation of the Virgin in Washington ought to be placed in the phase of Gaddi’s career in which he embarked with ever greater determination on the pursuit of the elegance of form, preciousness of color, and decorative richness typical of the late-Gothic style that was becoming increasingly fashionable in Florence; the panel’s surface patterning and elaborate tooling are also indicative of this. Yet the Washington panel shows that Agnolo Gaddi cannot have remained unaware of the alternative current of Florentine painting headed by Niccolò Gerini, which in the years 1385–1400 tried to revive motifs and forms associated with painters of the school of Giotto in the first half of the century. It seems to me reasonable, therefore, to suggest that the Washington Coronation is close in date to the San Miniato altarpiece, dating to c. 1390 or shortly after.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016