This panel is part of a portable triptych in the form of a tabernacle with gabled central panel and closing shutters that was clearly intended for private devotion. The external decoration of the lateral panels is purely ornamental, conforming to Tuscan tradition [fig. 1]. When the shutters are opened, the composition is more unusual, since the central image of the Madonna bearing the child in her arms (Madonna and Child, with the Man of Sorrows [middle panel]) is presented as a three-quarter-length standing figure, whereas the two saints by whom she is flanked (this panel and Saint John the Evangelist [right panel]) are full length. This combination, found in some cases in Sienese Trecento art, is rare in Florentine painting. It is seen in some works of Bernardo Daddi (active by 1320, died probably 1348) dating to the years 1335–1340. The presence of the Man of Sorrows in the trefoil at the top of the tabernacle is also very uncommon.
On publishing the painting with an attribution to Nardo di Cione (which is unanimously accepted), Richard Offner (1924) noted its affinities with the frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence. He considered it to have been executed by the mid-1350s, among other reasons because he detected in it vivid reminiscences of Bernardo Daddi, an artist who had died in 1348. Later, in the volume of the Corpus of Florentine Painting dedicated to Nardo, Offner seems to have preferred an earlier dating, c. 1345–1350. In the National Gallery of Art catalogs, without any convincing motivation, the tabernacle was invariably dated to c. 1360, a view accepted by Fern Rusk Shapley (1966), Andrew Ladis (1982), Serena Skerl Del Conte (1995), John O. Hand (2004), and Federica Baldini (2008). A dating to the 1350s was proposed, in turn, by Gyorgy Gommosi (1927–1928), Hans Dietrich Gronau (1937), Barbara Klesse (1967), Olga Pujmanova (1984), and Stefano Petrocchi (1997). Erling S. Skaug (1994), Gert Kreytenberg (1996, 2000), and Angelo Tartuferi (2001) have preferred a relatively late dating, placing the small triptych after 1360, in the last years of the artist’s life.
In his remarkable analysis of the triptych, then in the Goldman collection, Offner did not disguise his great admiration for this painting: he praised it for the “gemlike solidity” of its colors, the “introspection, greater warmth and simpler humanity” of its protagonists, and in particular the “passionate tenderness” of Mary’s face [fig. 2]. Offner saw in this triptych an expression of the “lyrical rumination” that distinguished Nardo’s work as a whole. He also praised the finished workmanship of its technique, “in which sharpness and honesty of execution become a kind of preciosity.” Indeed, the present-day observer cannot but be enchanted by the extreme accomplishment of its execution, which its exceptionally fine state allows us to appreciate fully. We may observe, for example, such details as the exquisite painting of the child’s transparent, almost invisible, close-fitting shirt, revealing the delicacy of the small body below it; or that of the silky beard of Saint John [fig. 3] that overlaps the dense folds of his mantle; or the naturalness with which Mary’s hands support the child, their tapering fingers penetrating the folds of the gold-embroidered brocade that envelops the lower limbs of the infant Jesus.
Yet, in spite of its excellent condition and extremely high level of quality, the former Goldman triptych now in the National Gallery of Art does not seem to have particularly drawn the attention of scholars in the half century since Offner wrote his appreciative essay. The reason for this can perhaps be found in its extremely simple and clear composition and its stylistic character so manifestly Nardesque that it cannot leave any doubts about its authorship. If any doubts persist, they concern not the triptych’s attribution but its date. Yet the chronology of the apparently rather brief artistic trajectory of Nardo di Cione is a very intricate question and, after Offner, few other scholars have attempted to tackle it. Our only secure points of reference for ordering Nardo’s works are the triptychs dated 1365 and the probable date of 1356–1357 for the frescoes in the Strozzi Chapel. On this basis it can be maintained with some confidence that, as Offner astutely observed, the execution of the Gallery painting must be situated closer to the Strozzi frescoes, even though it is difficult to establish whether it should precede or postdate them. In the chronological reconstruction of Nardo’s career proposed in Offner’s monograph dedicated to the artist (1960), the triptych was placed in a group of paintings that also included the triptych formed by The Coronation of the Virgin in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the laterals in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, another triptych now in the National Gallery in London, and the polyptych in Bojnice Castle (Slovakia). Though none of these paintings are dated, they do seem to anticipate problems that the artist would successfully resolve in the mural cycle in the Strozzi Chapel. Yet some clues perhaps suggest a slightly later date for the painting discussed here.
In the London Coronation, the artist does not appear to be interested in placing his figures in a three-dimensional space: Jesus and his mother sit on a virtually invisible throne, and, both by their position in profile and by the preference shown for wide expanses of color, testify to the artist’s wish to reduce the plasticity of forms to the surface plane. In the two groups of five saints of the laterals now in Munich, the regilding of parts of the ground and the retouching of the draperies have altered the paintings’ original appearance, but the soft modeling of the faces, the delicate tonal passages that define the strongly simplified forms, and the decoration of the halos seem to confirm the common origin of the three panels and their relatively precocious date.
An aura of grandeur is conferred on the polyptych now in Bojnice by its relatively squat and ponderously solemn figures who yet seem more free in their movements, and who wear mantles constructed of deep and broad folds [fig. 4]. Here, too, the artist dispenses with an architectural throne (Mary’s seat is created by a sumptuously embroidered gold cloth, on which the various planes are suggested by nothing more than the shifting intensity of light), but—in contrast to the panels in Munich—he accentuates the plasticity of the bodies in various ways. The saints are mainly presented frontally, but the chiaroscuro is denser and the expressive power of their gestures is heightened by their foreshortened arms, which seem to project outward from the surface plane of the painting towards the spectator. The precious brocaded stuffs of some of the female saints’ garments here are no longer surface planes, as in the Saint Julian in the Alte Pinakothek, but instead follow the volumetric substance of the forms: they not only envelop but also model the bodies. In the halos of this polyptych, the incised foliated motifs are largely replaced by punch marks, although these are made to stand out against the granulated ground, as in the halos in the triptych now divided between London and Munich. The same kind of gold tooling recurs in the triptych discussed here, although here the decoration impressed in the gold ground consists exclusively of punched motifs, in part reworked.
Aspects of the gold tooling and of the ornamental motifs of the gilded stuff that envelops the child underline the Washington triptych’s affinity with the Bojnice polyptych and the Madonna and Child in the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Yet several features of our painting reveal a change of direction in Nardo’s style. We may note, for instance, the more slender proportions of the figures and the tendency to give an almost geometrical regularity to the drapery folds, which here assume angular forms and at times brusquely interrupt with sudden projections the placid fluidity of the contours. Moreover, the rather frowning seriousness of the faces of the two saints, modeled with more marked chiaroscuro and few but deep wrinkles, or their thick hair and wiry-looking beards [fig. 5], seem more in keeping with the paintings of Nardo’s full maturity than with those hitherto cited or with the murals in the Strozzi Chapel. In the Goldman Madonna, in short, Nardo, without abandoning the grace and delicacy of his previous works, begins to draw close to the severe essentiality of form pursued by his brother Andrea until the mid-1350s. Similar developments can be observed in his triptych now in the National Gallery in London, or the frescoes in the Cappella di Sant’Anna in the cloister (Chiostro dei Morti) at Santa Maria Novella — that is, in works probably dating to the early 1360s, but at any rate earlier than the two altarpieces dated 1365.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016