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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Byzantine 13th Century/Enthroned Madonna and Child/c. 1250/1275,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 16, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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The composition of this Virgin and Child is loosely based on the Hodegetria, one of the more powerful and enduring icon types of the Orthodox Christian church. The Virgin gestures toward the child to show him as the “way” (hodos in Greek), the source of salvation. The throne and her red shoes present her as the Queen of Heaven, and the archangels in the roundels beside her hold imperial regalia, which are typical attributes of archangels. The first of this type, housed in the Hodegon monastery in Constantinople, was an active part of civic and religious life in the Byzantine capital. Said to produce miracles daily, it was taken out of the monastery every Tuesday so the public could see it. It was invoked against plague and carried by imperial armies as a talisman in battle.

Expert opinion differs about the origin of this painting (known as the Kahn Madonna after an earlier owner) and the National Gallery of Art’s Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne, also of Byzantine origin. The soft shadows of this Virgin’s face and her tender expression are paralleled in a mosaic of Mary in the great basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople).

Byzantine art made a powerful impact on 13th- and 14th-century Italian painting, which emphasizes the spiritual world of Paradise, with elongated and weightless figures, more like spirits than physical human beings, skies of heavenly gold, and flat, stylized patterning of drapery. The gold striations that define folds in clothing, the round volume of Mary’s veiled head, and Jesus’s frontal pose—looking more like a miniature adult than a child—are all part of the Byzantine tradition.


The painting shows the Virgin seated on an elaborate wooden throne with openwork decoration. She supports the blessing Christ child on her left arm, according to the iconographic tradition of the Hodegetria.[1] Mary [fig. 1] is wearing a purple dress and a deep blue mantle highlighted with brilliant chrysography. Bearing a scroll in his left hand, the child [fig. 2] is wearing a red tunic fastened around his waist with a blue fabric belt supported by straps that encircle his shoulders. This motif perhaps alludes to his sacerdotal dignity.[2] In the upper corners of the panel, at the level of the Virgin’s head, are two circular medallions containing busts of archangels [fig. 3], each wearing a garment decorated with a loros and with scepter and sphere in hand.[3]

Art historians have held sharply different views on not only the attribution of the painting but also its origin and even its function. Apart from Osvald Sirén’s attribution to Pietro Cavallini (1918),[4] the critical debate that developed after its first appearance at a sale in New York in 1915 (where it was cataloged under the name of Cimabue) almost always considered the painting together with Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne. For a discussion of the problems surrounding both panels and some further proposals, see the catalog entry for the latter painting.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Said to have come from a church, or convent, in Calahorra (province of La Rioja, Spain);[1] (art market, Madrid), in 1912. (Herbert P. Weissberger, Madrid).[2] (Emile Pares, Madrid, Paris, and New York); (his sale, Anderson Galleries, New York, 18-19 February 1915, 2nd day, no. 306, as by Giovanni Cimabue); (Emile Pares, Madrid, Paris, and New York);[3] sold 26 November 1915 to (F. Kleinberger & Co., New York).[4] Otto Kahn [1867-1934], New York, by 1917;[5] by inheritance to his widow, Addie Wolff Kahn [d. 1949], New York;[6] gift 1949 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Loan Exhibition of Italian Primitives, F. Kleinberger Galleries, New York, 1917, no. 69, repro., as The Madonna and Child by Pietro Cavallini.

Technical Summary

The support is a three-member poplar panel [1] with the grain running vertically. Thinned and cradled during an undocumented treatment,[2] the panel is still set in part of its original engaged frame, which has probably been reduced from its original width. The studs decorating the frame molding are original, although they have been overpainted. The white gesso ground [3] is applied over a fabric that covers not only the painted surface but also the engaged frame.[4] The gold leaf was laid over an orange bole. Incised lines were used to outline the figures, and a green underpainting is visible in the flesh tones. The incised decoration of the halos apparently was executed freehand, and the additional decoration of the halos was created by dripping a resinous material onto the gold, as opposed to punchwork. The panel has a convex warp. A vertical crack runs from the top of the painting to the Virgin’s nose. Two additional cracks appear on the left side of the panel, running through the bust of the angel on the left. The join of the two boards on the right side, passing through the face of the angel, has opened from the top to the bottom. Worm tunneling is evident both on the surface of the panel and in the x-radiographs. The painting is in a generally fair state, although there is inpainting in the various small losses in the gilding overlaying the damages of the wooden support, as well as some lacunae in the Virgin’s cloak. The head and dress of the angel to the right and the area of gold ground above the Virgin’s head are also inpainted. In addition, the inpainting extends to the cloak covering the Madonna’s head.


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