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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Simone Martini/The Angel of the Annunciation/c. 1330,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 17, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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This small, rich panel was originally the left side of a diptych, which, along with a right-hand panel depicting the Virgin Mary (now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg), depicts one image of the Annunciation—the moment when the archangel Gabriel brings Mary the news that she will give birth to the Son of God.

The picture in the collection of the National Gallery of Art is marked by Simone’s characteristic refinement and elegance in the elongated, delicate figure of the angel, and the sumptuously decorated and patterned surfaces throughout. The curve of Gabriel’s wing frames his kneeling figure and echoes the curves in his halo and palm branch. Simone devised new ways to recreate the look of luxurious brocaded fabrics. After covering the panel with a layer of red clay, he gilded the entire surface (except for the hands and face). He next painted the angel's robe in delicate pinks, shadowed with darker tones to define folds and the body. Following the brocade pattern, he scraped away areas of paint to reveal the gilding below, which was then textured with tiny punches. This sgrafitto ("scratched") technique may have been inspired by Islamic ceramics decorated in a similar fashion and widely popular in Italy.

A few years later, Simone brought both figures together again in an Annunciation that is the subject of a single splendid altarpiece originally for the Siena cathedral (now in the Uffizi, Florence). Details of execution link the two works: the same punches were used to decorate the gold and the same technique was applied to Gabriel’s robe. The Annunciation had been represented on large altarpieces by small busts of Mary and the angel set in the background (see, for example, The Assumption of the Virgin with Busts of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation), but Simone seems to have been the first to make it the primary focus of a major work.


The painting represents the archangel Gabriel, who announces the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary.[1] It clearly presupposes a complementary image of the Virgin Annunciate in a separate panel, which in fact has always been recognized in the Virgin Annunciate now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg [fig. 1]. The latter, identical to the Washington panel in format and in its ornamental punched decoration, comes from the Roman collection of Count Gregory Stroganoff (1829–1910) and entered the Hermitage after the collector’s death.[2] The two halves of the diptych probably were separated in the nineteenth century, given that the very similar state of conservation of the two panels suggests a similar fate: the paint surface of both was ruined by drastic overcleaning, probably at the time of their separation in the mid-nineteenth century, when they appeared on the Italian art market.

In 1901, when it was still in the Stroganoff collection in Rome,[3] Giovanni Bernardini recognized the Virgin Annunciate now in Russia, albeit with some uncertainty, as an autograph work by Simone Martini. It was almost unanimously [4] recognized as a work by the Sienese master after its display at Mostra dell’antica arte senese in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena in 1904. Lionello Venturi then identified the image of the Angel of the Annunciation as the companion panel of the former Stroganoff Virgin Annunciate in 1935.[5] Venturi’s opinion was confirmed in manuscript opinions by Adolfo Venturi, F. Mason Perkins (both without date), Giuseppe Fiocco, and Wilhelm Suida (both dated 1938).[6] The first catalog of the National Gallery of Art (1941) also accepted the attribution to Simone Martini, citing a written expertise by Roberto Longhi, who confirmed Simone’s authorship, and the opinion of Bernard Berenson, who rejected the attribution.[7] In the subsequent literature opinions were divided: numerous publications accepted the attribution to Simone,[8] even if many scholars preferred to speak of a product of the artist’s shop or at any rate showed some uncertainty about its autograph status.[9] Some even proposed alternative names for its artist.[10]

Rarely, however, has the problem of the diptych now divided between St. Petersburg and Washington been addressed in any systematic or analytic fashion. Art historians have mainly limited themselves to brief and categorical statements, without carefully weighing the evidence. In my view, it is precisely this superficial examination of the two panels, combined with the difficulties of evaluating them because of the marked abrasion of their paint surfaces, which accounts for the uncertainties in their attribution and date. 

Almost all those who have cited the small panel in the Gallery and its companion, irrespective of their opinion regarding the attribution of the work, have agreed in assigning the two paintings to the years of Simone’s residence in Avignon. But its Avignonese origin has been asserted rather than proved, as if the profusion of gold, elaborate punched ornamental decoration, and refined elegance of poses were in themselves sufficient evidence that the two paintings belonged to the final phase in the art of Simone Martini—that is, to the period of his maximum exposure to the tendencies of the transalpine Gothic in such a flourishing cultural center as Avignon was at the time. Sometimes, however, pertinent observations apparently contradicting such an interpretation have been made. Fern Rusk Shapley (1966), for example, concluded her comment on the Gallery's painting by declaring, “The style is, in any case, very close to that of Simone’s Annunciation of 1333, in the Uffizi”; and Andrew Martindale (1988), one of the few scholars to dedicate a thorough analysis to the style and form of the panels that concern us here, observed that the immensely elegant and elongated figure of Mary had more in common with the Virgin of the San Ansano altar (that is, the Annunciation in the Uffizi, Florence) than with that of the Holy Family (Christ Discovered in the Temple, dated 1342) in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and that “the images [of the St. Petersburg-­Washington diptych]​ . . . ​lack the robustness which spans the differences even between the Avignon frescoes, the Ambrosiana Virgil and the Liverpool Holy Family.”[11] Some objective data should also be taken into account: for example, as Brigitte Klesse (1967) pointed out, the pattern of the brocaded robe of the angel in the panel in the Gallery recurs in that of the corresponding figure in the Uffizi Annunciation.[12] Also, the punches used in the diptych divided between St. Petersburg and Washington frequently recur in the Annunciation now in Florence and in even earlier works, paintings that date to Simone’s period in Orvieto, for example, but are seldom found in works that date to his Avignon period.[13]

To these observations, which prompt a reconsideration of the usual dating of the diptych, we can add others that similarly suggest that the two panels are indeed earlier than usually claimed. Let us first consider the St. Petersburg panel of the Virgin Annunciate. Of course, the elimination of the Virgin’s throne especially would have been prompted by the need to press the figure of Mary, like the angel she confronts, into the foreground and bring her as close as possible to the spectator. But the swiveled pose of her body clearly echoes that of the Madonna of the Annunciation in the Uffizi (apparently the model that other Sienese paintings, such as the Virgin Annunciate formerly in the Stoclet collection, imitate)[14] and not that of the small panel in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp.[15] The same may be said of the motif of the book held half-open by Mary, her finger inserted between its pages as an improvised bookmark, and of the proportions of the Virgin herself. Her figure is characterized by the pronounced elongation of the bust and a smooth and placid contour formed of a succession of long, slightly crescent lines, carefully avoiding any disturbing agitation of the hem of her dress. A restless jagged cadence, by contrast, is a typical aspect of the panels now divided among the museums in Antwerp, Berlin, and Paris; of the illuminated frontispiece of the Virgil codex in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana;[16] and of Christ Discovered in the Temple, a panel signed and dated 1342, in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.[17]

Rather similar observations can be made about the Washington panel of the archangel Gabriel. In particular, the emphasis placed on the magnificent gold embroidered robe, as on the proud pose of the heavenly messenger, kneeling but only slightly bending forward as he proffers the olive branch with the tips of his fingers to the Virgin, underlines the resemblance of the image to its counterpart in the Uffizi. The face, with its mysterious expression accentuated by delicate slit eyes that create the impression that the archangel is looking furtively and yet probingly at Mary, and with his firmly clenched lips, may recall the face of the child Jesus in the Liverpool panel; however, the fluid cadence of the draperies, their large and sweeping folds animated only by the fluttering hem, seem to me to betray rather different intentions than those that inspired the artist during his period in Avignon. In the Angel of the Annunciation in Antwerp, for example, the artist no longer seeks to dazzle the spectator with the glitter of the exotic oriental silk brocade worn by Gabriel but prefers instead to play with the matching of delicate tones of pink and pale purple, highlighting the mantle with the archaic medium of chrysography, which articulates the folds and underlines the forms more distinctly than the transparent lacquers painted on gold. These aspects, together with the extraordinary elegance of the drawing, seem to me to confirm that the Gallery panel and its companion panel in St. Petersburg (which, as far as it is possible to judge from their existing state, were painted by the same hand) [18] belong to the catalog of Simone’s autograph works, though to a phase preceding his journey to Avignon. That phase can be placed between the works executed in the early 1320s for Orvieto and the dated Uffizi Annunciation of 1333.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Charles John Canning, 2nd Viscount Canning and later 1st Earl Canning [1812-1862]; by bequest to his sister, Harriet Canning de Burgh [1804-1876], Marchioness of Clanricarde; by inheritance to her daughter, Margaret Anne de Burgh Beaumont [1831-1888]; probably by inheritance to her son, Wentworth Canning Blackett Beaumont, 1st Viscount Allendale [1860-1923];[1] said to have been in the collection of Henry George Charles Lascelles, 6th earl of Harewood [1882-1947], Harewood House, Leeds, Yorkshire;[2] Lionello Venturi [1895-1961], New York;[3] sold 1936 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[4] gift 1939 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The support is a single, vertically grained poplar panel [1] on which fine fabric has been applied on both sides. Both the obverse and the reverse were prepared with a gesso ground on which a thin layer of red bole was laid; this in turn was overlaid on the obverse by gold leaf. The main lines of the figure were incised in the gesso preparation. The designs of the brocade were realized with sgraffito technique; the halo and the decorative borders were punched. The paint, with the exception of the flesh, was laid over the gold leaf.[2] The feathers of the angel’s wings were articulated with incised lines. The flesh tones were applied over a green underlayer. The reverse, also decorated by punch marks [fig. 1], was originally gilded with silver.[3] The panel exhibits a very slight convex warp and is damaged by a crack running downward from the center of the top edge for approximately 10 cm. The engaged frame of the panel is lost, and the part of the wooden support it covered is exposed on all sides. There are small losses in the gold ground and in the painted surface along the edges. The paint and glazes are generally very abraded. Inpainting can be noted in the angel’s right hand, in his face, and in the red floor. The painting is said to have been “cleaned, restored slightly and varnished” by Stephen Pichetto in 1936.[4] Photographs made between 1937 and 1955 show it, however, in heavily repainted state [fig. 2]. Mario Modestini removed the overpaint and restored the panel again in 1955.[5]


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