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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Nardo di Cione/Madonna and Child, with the Man of Sorrows [middle panel]/c. 1360,” 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 panel is part of a small triptych by one of the most sought-after artists in Florence: Nardo di Cione (Florentine, active from c. 1340; died 1365/1366). It must have been a prized possession. The triptych was made to be used by its owner in private devotion, at home or even away: its size and folding wings made it portable. Because the wings, which close like shutters over the central image of the Virgin and Child, protected the painted surfaces, Nardo’s artistry has survived in excellent condition. We are able to appreciate to an unusual degree the lyrical delicacy of his style and the gemlike quality of his colors.

Also apparent is the high level of Nardo’s technical skill. Notice, for example, the diaphanous quality of Jesus’s shirt and Mary’s veil. Such effects were not easily achieved using the tempera paints employed by Nardo and his contemporaries. Tempera paints, made with pigment and egg yolk, were quick-drying and could not—like oils—be blended or built up in translucent layers on the surface of the panel. Instead, delicate, opaque brushstrokes—all but invisible—were set side by side. Shading was accomplished by light hatching or by juxtaposition of differing tones. Early tempera paintings are sometimes said to have a “linear” quality. In part, this derives from the hard contours that circumscribe painted objects and the lack of convincing tonal gradation from light to dark. By contrast, Nardo’s paintings demonstrate a delicate modeling of light, intermediate, and dark tones to grant his figures the impression of three-dimensional volume.


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].[1] When the shutters are opened, the composition is more unusual, since the central image of the Madonna bearing the child in her arms [2] is presented as a three-quarter-length standing figure, whereas the two saints by whom she is flanked (Saint Peter [left panel] and Saint John the Evangelist [right panel]) are full length. This combination, found in some cases in Sienese Trecento art,[3] is rare in Florentine painting. It is seen in some works of Bernardo Daddi (Florentine, active by 1320, died probably 1348) dating to the years 1335–1340.[4] The presence of the Man of Sorrows in the trefoil at the top of the tabernacle is also very uncommon.[5]

On publishing the painting with an attribution to Nardo di Cione (which is unanimously accepted),[6] 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.[7] Later, in the volume of the Corpus of Florentine Painting dedicated to Nardo, Offner seems to have preferred an earlier dating, c. 1345–1350.[8] 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).[9] 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).[10] 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.[11]

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].[12] Offner saw in this triptych an expression of the “lyrical rumination” that distinguished Nardo’s work as a whole.[13] He also praised the finished workmanship of its technique, “in which sharpness and honesty of execution become a kind of preciosity.”[14] 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,[15] another triptych now in the National Gallery in London,[16] and the polyptych in Bojnice Castle (Slovakia).[17] 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.[18] 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 [19] seem to confirm the common origin of the three panels and their relatively precocious date.[20]

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.[21] 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.[22] 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],[23] 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 [24]—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


on base of the frame: AVE.GRATIA.PLENA.DO[MINUS TECUM] (Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; from Luke 1:28)


Gustav Adolf Wilhelm von Ingenheim [1789-1855], who acquired it in the first half of the nineteenth century, probably in Italy;[1] Ingenheim family, Schloss Reisewitz, Silesia; sold 1922 to (A.S. Drey, Munich); sold 1923 to Henry Goldman [1856-1937], New York;[2] sold January 1937 to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[3] sold 1937 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[4] gift 1939 to NGA.

Exhibition History

L'eredità di Giotto. Arte a Firenze 1340-1375, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, 2008, no. 36, repro.

Technical Summary

The triptych including this work, Saint Peter [left panel], and Saint John the Evangelist [right panel] is one of the few early Italian panels in the collection that has not been cradled. The wooden support of the central panel is vertically grained. A knotty section of the left side of the panel was replaced by the insertion from the front side of eleven rectangular blocks of wood, before the application of the cloth interleaf and the gesso layer. The frame and base of the triptych are original. The inscription is on a horizontally grained piece of wood that was set into the base. The wings are formed of single boards with vertical grain; it is unclear whether the spiral colonnettes by which they are joined to the main panel are original—repaired and regilded—or modern. The back of the wings are covered by paint imitating porphyry, with an ornamental decoration at the center that feigns the effect of inlaid work [fig. 1]

The figures and some of the drapery folds were delineated with incised lines. Infrared reflectography at 1.1 to 2.5 microns reveals underdrawing and hatchmarking, which is more prevalent in the Madonna and Child than in Saint John and Saint Peter.[1] The areas of flesh were prepared with a green underpaint, which was not modeled. Discrete paint strokes are visible in the clothing, but the paint is well blended in the flesh tones. Mordant gilding was used to form the gold decorative borders of the Virgin’s and saints’ robes. The lining of the Madonna’s robe was originally brocade, probably with silver gilding and green paint.[2] Punched designs decorate the figures’ halos, the border of each panel, the brocade swaddling cloth, the carpet, and the gable.

The central panel has a slight convex warp. Probably in an effort to flatten the wood, the back of the panel was scored from the top right corner approximately to the center, at an angle that follows the wood grain. The back of the panel is covered by a layer of modern reddish brown pigment. The base, including the area around the blue paint of the inscription, has been regilded; the upper frame members retain their original gilding, which has been locally repaired. The painted surface is generally very well preserved. There is inpainting in the bust of the Man of Sorrows, in the gable trefoil, and in Christ’s swaddling cloth. The brocade lining of the Madonna’s robe has been overpainted. The painting was treated by Stephen Pichetto in 1937 and again by Mario Modestini in 1955.


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Marle, Raimond van. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 19 vols. The Hague, 1923-1938: 3(1924):655.
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