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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Byzantine 13th Century/Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne/c. 1260/1280,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed March 02, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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This painting and the Enthroned Madonna and Child are the oldest paintings on the National Gallery of Art’s walls. They may have been created by the same anonymous artist in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), then the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Panels such as these were highly influential in the development of Italian painting. They stand at the very beginning of the history of panel painting in Italy. Painting on wooden panel had not been common in medieval Europe as church decorations were mostly on the walls themselves, in fresco or mosaic. Painting on canvas came even later.

Around the 13th century, however, a confluence of events profoundly affected painting in Italy. Focus shifted to a new kind of freestanding imagery: the painted altarpiece. Italy experienced an influx of painted wood panels—and panel painters—from the Byzantine Empire. Following the Fourth Crusade in 1204, many icons (paintings of a sacred personage used as an object of veneration) were brought to Italy from Byzantine sanctuaries in Greece. Byzantine icon painters also left Greece to work in Italy, bringing their techniques and styles with them.

We can see the abstracted style of Byzantine icons here. The gold striations that define folds in clothing, the round volume of Mary’s veiled head, and the frontal pose of Jesus—who looks more like a miniature adult than a child—are all part of the Byzantine tradition. Because their subject is not the temporary appearance of the physical world but a holy and infinite presence, icons avoid direct references to earthly reality and to specific times or places. Instead, their backgrounds are dematerialized with shimmering gold, and figures appear timeless and unchanging.


The painting shows the Madonna seated frontally on an elaborate, curved, two-tier, wooden throne of circular plan.[1] She is supporting the blessing Christ child on her left arm according to the iconographic tradition of the Hodegetria.[2] Mary is wearing a red mantle over an azure dress. The child is dressed in a salmon-colored tunic and blue mantle; he holds a red scroll in his left hand, supporting it on his lap.[3] In the upper corners of the panel, at the height of the Virgin’s head, two medallions contain busts of two archangels [fig. 1] [fig. 2], with their garments surmounted by loroi and with scepters and spheres in their hands.[4]

It was Bernard Berenson (1921) who recognized the common authorship of this work and Enthroned Madonna and Child and who concluded — ​​though admitting he had no specialized knowledge of art of this cultural area — ​​that they were probably works executed in Constantinople around 1200.[5] These conclusions retain their authority and continue to stir debate. Of the various alternative proposals expressed thus far, only those that have considered them the products of a thirteenth-century Roman or Venetian painter have been definitively abandoned.[6] Berenson’s opinion of the purely Byzantine figurative culture of the two panels still commands wide support,[7] even though the dating of the paintings is in general placed slightly later, c. 1250 or within the second half of the thirteenth century.[8] George Martin Richter’s view that the master who painted them was a Greek active at the time of the Norman kings in Sicily remains isolated.[9] But a Sicilian origin is still supported by those scholars who follow the opinion of Viktor Lazarev that the Kahn and Mellon Madonnas were painted in Sicily during the last quarter of the thirteenth century, by artists who had come from Byzantium or by their local disciples.[10] Some authorities on Byzantine art doubt, however, that the two Madonnas in the National Gallery of Art could have been executed by masters of Byzantine origin.[11] In their view, also endorsed by some experts of Italian medieval painting, the characteristics of the two panels pre­suppose patrons with liturgical needs, iconographic precedents, and cultural traditions consistent with those of the Latin West. Further, they have asserted that the two paintings probably were executed in Tuscany.[12] Other scholars have supported the thesis that the two panels were painted in Cyprus or in Thessaloniki.[13]

Opinions thus vary widely regarding the cultural origin of this painting and the Enthroned Madonna and Child, but significant convergences can be ascertained on some points. It seems generally recognized, for example, that the Kahn Madonna is the earlier of the two images and that it was painted by an artist trained in Byzantium, although possibly at work far from his homeland, and for patrons of Western culture. The close stylistic affinities between the two panels are also commonly recognized, even if the Mellon Madonna is often indicated as the work of a different hand. In more recent years, however, various scholars have again proposed their common authorship.[14]

The sudden appearance of the two panels in tandem and their common provenance from a small Spanish town have been considered strange;[15] indeed, their alleged provenance from a church in Calahorra is authenticated, as far as I know, by no document. On the other hand, the fact that at least in 1912 the two paintings were reported together on the Madrid art market supports a Spanish provenance or at least makes it probable that they were purchased in Spain, perhaps even from the same owner. It would seem strange, in any case, to invent a provenance from Calahorra for paintings allegedly executed by Cimabue or by Cavallini. Various reasons have been adduced to cast doubt on whether both panels could have been executed by the same artist. Roger Fry was the first to emphasize the different structure and pictorial treatment of the two thrones.[16] Many years later, Hans Belting cited the results of technical examinations by Ann Hoenigswald in support of his thesis that “most of the analogies which link the Mellon Madonna to the Kahn Madonna must​ . . . ​be interpreted as a deliberate attempt by the artist of the former to imitate the latter or a similar work.”[17] Several scholars have accepted Belting’s conclusions, although it is fair to say that, in order to exclude the use of different technical procedures by the same painter, one would first need the evidence of systematic analyses — ​​hitherto unavailable — ​​of the pictorial technique of a particular painter in various phases of his career. How can we exclude a priori the possibility of an artist having developed, or having experimented with, new solutions, or different technical procedures, in the course of his career?[18] While we may freely admit that there are some technical differences in the execution of the two Madonnas in the Gallery, we cannot infer from this that they are the work of different hands. Still less can any such conviction dispense us from a careful stylistic analysis of the two images.

The claim is made occasionally that modern restoration drastically altered the Mellon Madonna. A comparison of photographs taken c. 1920 with those taken in more recent times proves indeed that modern conservation measures have been extensive. Yet many parts of the painting that are still clearly legible disclose close resemblances with Enthroned Madonna and Child. The affinities concern not only the formal treatment of such details as the faces of the two images of Mary [fig. 3] [fig. 4] or the delicately poetic interpretation of the main personages, but also the high, sustained qualitative level of the execution of both panels, the skilful use of chrysography to articulate and give relief to the bodies,[19] and some peculiar incongruities in the perspective of the thrones. In the Kahn Madonna the artist proposes a rectangular wooden throne with a very elaborate structure and tries to make it illusionistically credible, not only by the three-dimensional modeling of the individual components but also by making the right rear leg visible through the perforations. But he fails to remove incongruities in perspective: while the throne itself is seen from the left, the four legs are represented as if seen from the other side. In the Mellon Madonna, apart from the painter’s difficulty in convincingly rendering the foreshortening of the circular seat, it may be noted once again that the two front legs are seen from opposite directions: one from the left, the other from the right. It is difficult to think that all this is merely the consequence of the painter’s effort to follow his model, not least because the Mellon Madonna is decidedly not a copy of the other. The two images are in fact different in type and perhaps also in function. Their common provenance seems to suggest that they were executed for the same patron but belong to two different phases of the artist’s career and were intended to satisfy different needs.[20]

Of the comparisons hitherto proposed, the one indicated by Otto Demus, of the Madonna of the Deesis in the southern gallery of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul [fig. 5], a mosaic probably executed immediately after the Byzantine reconquest of Constantinople in 1261,[21] seems particularly significant in support of the Constantinopolitan culture of the artist of the two paintings. However, other images too, whether in the form of frescoes, panels, or miniatures,[22] seem to suggest a similar origin of the two Madonnas, the execution of which is unlikely to have been much later than the Deesis in Hagia Sophia. None of the works hitherto compared with the Byzantine panels in the Gallery in fact seems so close to them as this mosaic in Hagia Sophia, both in facial type and in the extreme delicacy of the modeling; this close kinship represents, in my view, the confirmation — ​​despite frequent denials — ​​of the common authorship of the two paintings.[23]

It is understandable that some decorative forms used in the panels — ​​for example, the elaborate incised decoration of the halos of the Kahn Madonna and the type of throne — ​​should have suggested the artist’s contact with Tuscan figurative culture. But closer analysis will show that the decorative motifs of the halos,[24] as well as the wooden thrones of the Washington paintings, are well known in Byzantine art. The genre of the Madonna and Child Enthroned on a monumental scale, particularly popular in thirteenth-century Tuscany, was also well known in contemporary central and southern Italian painting and in that of the Venetian and Adriatic area.[25] Influenced, in its realistic elements, by icons imported from the various centers of Byzantine art and by products of so-called Crusader art,[26] these large images were at times commissioned from artists of Byzantine origin and training: this seems to me the case of the Madonna in the Basilica of San Nicola at Bari.[27] It seems plausible to suggest a similar origin for the Kahn and Mellon Madonnas, though these are distinguished from the icon in Bari by the particular accomplishment of their execution and by their stylistic kinship with works having at least a probable Constantinopolitan origin. In conclusion, therefore, while admitting that the origin of these paintings will probably long remain a bone of contention, the present state of our knowledge suggests that they were produced in a workshop culturally bound to Constantinople in years not long before or not long after 1261, the presumed date of the image they most closely resemble, the mosaic in Hagia Sophia.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Said to have come from a church, or convent, in Calahorra (province of La Rioja, Spain). Gabriel Dereppe, Madrid;[1] purchased 11 September 1919 by (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[2] Carl W. Hamilton [1886-1967], New York, early 1920s;[3] (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[4] sold 15 December 1936 to The Andrew W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh;[5] gift 1937 to NGA.

Exhibition History

The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era A.D. 843-1261, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997, no. 262, repro.
The Mother of God: Representations of the Virgin in Byzantine Art, Benaki Museum, Athens, 2000-2001, no. 68, repro.
Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, no. 286, repro.

Technical Summary

The wooden support consists of two linden (tiglio)[1] boards with vertically aligned grain. The panel has been thinned, and three horizontal battens have been attached to its back. Wooden margins at the top and two sides show that an engaged frame may have formed part of its original structure. The gilding is modern, laid over a red bole with gesso and fabric discontinuous from that beneath the rest of the painting.[2] Although the technique of execution is essentially similar in this painting and in the Kahn Madonna, some discrepancies have been observed in the painting procedure; Ann Hoenigswald (1982) considered this evidence of “a difference in the training or traditions of the artists” who painted them.[3] The painted surface has been extensively damaged along the crackle lines and is generally worn and considerably inpainted. Inpainting can also be observed in particular in the faces, in the child’s hair, in the acorn-shaped decorations at the top of the throne, in the chrysography of the draperies, in the borders and red ground of the medallions, in the green ground plane at the foot of the throne, and along the join between the two boards forming the support (which runs vertically between the figure of the Christ child and the face of the angel to the right). A first treatment of the painting c. 1920, probably including restoration of the wooden support, must have been followed by a further treatment, shortly before 1928.[4]


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Marle, Raimond van. La peinture Romaine au Moyen-Age. Strasbourg, 1921: 227-228, fig. 115.
Marle, Raimond van. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 19 vols. The Hague, 1923-1938: 1(1923):503-505, fig. 292.
Mayer, August L. "Correspondence." Art in America 12 (1924): 234-235.
Toesca, Pietro. Il Medioevo. 2 vols. Storia dell’arte italiana, 1. Turin, 1927: 2:1035 n. 39.
Cecchi, Emilio. Trecentisti senesi. Rome, 1928: 12, 125, pl. 1.
Berenson, Bernard. Studies in Medieval Painting. New Haven, 1930: 4-16, figs. 2-4.
Byron, Robert, and David Talbot Rice. The Birth of Western Painting. London, 1930: 101 n. 1.
Schweinfurth, Philipp. Geschichte der russischen Malerei im Mittelalter. The Hague, 1930: 377-379.
Fry, Roger. "Mr Berenson on Medieval Painting." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 58, no. 338 (1931): 245.
Marle, Raimond van. Le scuole della pittura italiana. 2 vols. The Hague and Florence, 1932-1934: 1(1932):519, 522-523, 521 fig. 346.
Lazarev, Viktor Nikitič. "Early Italo-Byzantine Painting in Sicily." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 63 (1933): 283-284, pl. 2a.
Sandberg-Vavalà, Evelyn. L’iconografia della Madonna col Bambino nella pittura italiana del Dugento. Siena, 1934: 43 no. 115, pl. 26b.
D’Ancona, Paolo. Les primitifs italiens du XIe au XIIIe siècle. Paris, 1935: 46-47, fig. 18.
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Duveen Brothers. Duveen Pictures in Public Collections of America. New York, 1941: no. 1, repro., as The Madonna and Child Enthroned by Constantinople School.
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Richter, George Martin. "The New National Gallery in Washington." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 78 (June 1941): 177, pl. 2a.
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Demus, Otto. The Mosaics of Norman Sicily. London, 1949: 363, 365 n. 27.
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Shapley, Fern Rusk. Early Italian Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number Three in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 12, color repro., as Enthroned Madonna and Child.
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Swoboda, Karl Maria. "In den Jahren 1950 bis 1961 erschienene Werke zur byzantinischen und weiteren ostchristlichen Kunst." Kunstgeschichtliche Anzeigen 5 (1961-1962): 148.
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Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 297, repro., as Madonna and Child Enthroned.
Pallucchini, Rodolfo, ed. La pittura veneziana del Trecento. Venice, 1964: 71-73.
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Stubblebine, James H. "Two Byzantine Madonnas from Calahorra, Spain." The Art Bulletin 48 (1966): 379-381, fig. 2.
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Castiñeiras, Manuel. "Un nuovo contesto per la Madonna Kahn? Michele VIII, l'unione delle Chiese e la sconcertante connessione con Calahorra." Arte Medievale serie 4, 10 (2020): 261-282, figs. 2a, 2b, and 4.

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