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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes/The Mourning Madonna/c. 1270/1275,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 20, 2024).

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The Virgin Mary bows her head and rests her cheek on her hand in a universally recognized gesture of grief. This panel and one depicting Saint John the Evangelist were originally part of a large, painted crucifix (see Reconstruction). The two mourners would have appeared at the ends of the cross’s lateral arms—Mary on the left, John on the right.

The large crucifix had long been a common part of church decoration in the West, usually suspended high above the main altar or attached to the screen that separated the altar and other areas reserved for the clergy from the nave. However, the look of the crucifix changed dramatically in the early 13th century. Earlier, it had been the living Christ who appeared on the cross, triumphant over death, often crowned. The imagery we are familiar with today--Christ’s body slumped and lifeless, his face marked by the pain he endured--is owed largely to the Franciscans and to the artists, like the anonymous master of this Madonna, who worked for them. The members of this new order of mendicant preachers sought a deeply personal and emotional connection to Christ. Looking to Byzantine models, as the magnificent patterning and gold striations in the drapery show, they developed a new powerful image that pushed viewers to identify directly with Jesus’s suffering, to become--like the Virgin and Saint John--mourners at the cross.  


Because of their relatively large size, this panel and its companion, The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist, have been considered part of the apron of a painted crucifix.[1] As their horizontal wood grain suggests, they undoubtedly formed the lateral terminals of a painting of this type, probably that belonging to the church of Santa Maria in Borgo in Bologna (now exhibited at the Pinacoteca Nazionale of that city), as Gertrude Coor was the first to recognize [fig. 1].[2] Another fragment of the work, a tondo with the bust of the Blessing Christ [fig. 2], was in the possession of the art dealer Bacri in Paris around 1939.[3]

The two panels represent, respectively, the mother of Jesus and his favorite disciple in the typical pose of mourners, with the head bowed to one side and the cheek resting on the palm of the hand.[4] As is seen frequently in Italian paintings of the late thirteenth century, Mary is wearing a purple maphorion over a blue robe,[5] and Saint John a steel-blue garment and purple-red mantle.[6] In publishing them (1922), Osvald Sirén noted the stylistic affinity of the two panels with the Bolognese crucifix [fig. 3]. He inserted them in the catalog of the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes,[7] a painter of mixed Umbrian-­Pisan culture of the second half of the thirteenth century, whose oeuvre he himself had reconstructed. For his part, Raimond van Marle (1923) considered the fragments works of an Umbrian artist of the school of the Master of San Francesco.[8] Robert Lehman, in compiling the catalog of his father’s collection (1928), accepted Sirén’s opinion but proposed the date of c. 1250 for the two fragments.[9] In 1929, Evelyn Sandberg-­Vavalà undertook a far more thorough examination of the problem of the two fragments and their stylistic affinities. Emphasizing the Umbrian component in the painter’s figurative culture, she stated that he was active in the years close to 1272 [10] and had worked extensively in Emilia-Romagna.

While most art historians have accepted Sirén’s view and the conventional name he coined for the master,[11] advocates of a contrary thesis have not been lacking. There are those who support the thesis that the two fragments are Pisan in derivation, or even propose Giunta Pisano as the master of the crucifix.[12] Other art historians insist that the painter was Bolognese and exclude from his oeuvre the paintings of Umbrian provenance.[13] Today, however, there seems no good reason to deny the common authorship of the oeuvre mainly consisting of crucifixes first assembled by Sirén, or to reject the name he attached to it, Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes.[14]

The chronological sequence of the works attributable to the anonymous master is still under discussion. Useful clues can be deduced, however, from a comparison between some passages, such as the figure of the mourning Saint John, that frequently recur in his paintings. In my view, the pictorial treatment of the apostle in the crucifixes in the Treasury of the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, the Pinacoteca of Faenza, the bank in Camerino, and the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna not only confirm that these works were all painted by the same master but also suggest that their order of execution must have been that listed above. In the four versions of the image of Saint John, the design seems to gain in fluidity and the contours in movement, while the forms become more segmented, or ruffled, by the increasingly close-set alignment of the drapery folds. At the same time, the pose of the apostle gradually assumes the hanchement so dear to Gothic taste. These changes are present, of course, in the works of other contemporary artists and provide points of reference for the dating of our two panels. Thus, the figure of Saint John in the painting in Assisi seems to be close in style to that executed by the Master of Santa Chiara between 1253 and 1260 (crucifix in the Basilica of Santa Chiara at Assisi),[15] while the version of the same image now in the National Gallery of Art seems more closely comparable, both in elegance of proportions and in pose, to the mourning Saint John by the Master of San Francesco, part of the painted crucifix in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, dated 1272.[16] The period of time indicated by these works ought also to circumscribe the years of activity of the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes. On the other hand, the more lyrical manner of this master in comparison with the Umbrian masters cited above suggests that during the years spent in Umbria he was especially in contact with such painters as the Master of San Felice di Giano, the master of the crucifix (no. 17, unfortunately undated) in the Pinacoteca of Spoleto.[17] His style clearly differs from that of the Bolognese followers of Giunta Pisano,[18] and this circumstance in itself seems to rebut the hypothesis that he had been trained in the Emilian city. Yet it cannot be excluded that the artistic climate of Bologna could have stimulated successive developments in his career, especially the town’s vital and increasingly sophisticated tradition of producing miniatures for illuminated manuscripts, along with the influence of the sculpted Arca in the church of San Domenico, completed not long before the crucifix under discussion.[19]

That the two fragments formed part of the crucifix now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna must remain a hypothesis that only proper scientific and technical analysis of the panels could corroborate. Yet the dimensions and pictorial treatment of the panels now divided among the galleries of Bologna and Washington and a private collection provide strong arguments to support the view that they originally belonged together. As for the measurements, the two panels in the Gallery, slightly cropped to the sides, are very similar in size to the upper terminal of the Bolognese crucifix [fig. 4].[20] A virtual identity can also be seen in the pictorial treatment of these works. They all reveal the same search for a stylistic balance between Giuntesque formulae and a tendency towards the new needs of elegance and softness in the modeling of the figure. The similarity between the rapid brushstrokes that create the forms in the figures of the Madonna [fig. 5] and Saint John and in the crucifix in Bologna seems to me evident. All three panels, moreover, reveal the same manner of producing relief effects by sudden flashes of light, using the same technique of applying delicate touches of white to the green underpaint preparation. The effect of this pictorial freedom and of the graceful and humanizing rendering of the figures would not fail to stimulate the Bolognese miniaturists active in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.[21]

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


The two fragments (NGA 1952.5.13 and .14) were originally lateral terminals of a painted Crucifix presumably made for the church of San Francesco, Bologna, sometime after 1254 and before 1278;[1] the Crucifix is known to have been in the Lombardi Malvezzi Chapel in that church in 1577,[2] and was transported to the Bolognese church of Santa Maria in Borgo in 1801 (perhaps by which time its two lateral terminals might have been removed);[3] purchased, probably in Italy, by Osvald Sirén [1879–1966], Stockholm, by 1922.[4] Philip Lehman [1861–1947], New York, by 1928; purchased June 1943 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[5] gift 1952 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 808.
The Treasury of Saint Francis of Assisi, Petit Palais, Paris; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998-1999, no. 3/1, repro., as The Mourning Virgin by Master of the Blue Crucifixes (shown only in New York).
Duecento: Forme e colori del Medioevo a Bologna, Museo Civico Archeologico, Bologna, 2000, no. 50, repro.

Technical Summary

Both this painting and its companion, The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist, were executed on wood panels formed from at least three members with horizontal grain.[1] The joins in both paintings line up with one another. One of the joins runs through the panels at the heights of the figures’ hips and another slightly below their knees. A third join or check runs through the top of the figure’s head in both panels, though it is more prevalent in Saint John the Evangelist. The panels were prepared with gesso, and the backgrounds of both panels are gilded. Incised lines demarcate areas to be gilded from those to be painted, and the gilded areas were prepared with red bole. The paint was applied with bold, deliberate brushstrokes. The halos are delineated by incised lines and decorated with punched dots and freely inscribed curvilinear motifs. The decorative gold borders on the Virgin’s robe are mordant gilded. 

The panels are in fair state. During a treatment by Stephen Pichetto in 1944, they were thinned and attached to secondary panels with auxiliary cradle supports. The panels (together with their secondary support and cradle) are now 4.5 cm thick. Strips of wood have been attached to the edges of the panels, probably during the 1944 treatment. The fact that the halos of both figures are slightly truncated at the top and the Madonna’s robe cut off at the bottom suggests that the painted surface has been slightly cropped above and below in both panels. It is possible that the panels were trimmed on the other sides, too. Several large checks can be seen in the figure of the Virgin, at the height of her right arm, and below the lowest join line in the lower part of her robe. The painted surface is somewhat worn in both panels, with darkened inpainting evident along some of the joins. The gold ground is badly abraded, especially around the edges, more so in the Madonna panel than in that of Saint John. The Madonna’s robe and much of Saint John’s clothing have been heavily glazed or overpainted, most likely during an undocumented treatment carried out probably when the two panels appeared on the art market sometime before 1922.[2] The varnish applied in 1944 has discolored slightly.


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Altarpiece Reconstruction

Click on any panel in the altarpiece reconstruction below to see an enlarged version of the image. Color reproductions in the reconstruction indicate panels in the National Gallery of Art collection.

Reconstruction of a painted crucifix, formerly in San Francesco, Bologna, by the Master of the Franciscan Crucifixes:

a. Painted Crucifix with the Madonna between Two Angels (above) and the Kneeling Saint Francis (below), and Saint Helen (added by Jacopo di Paolo) (Entry fig. 3)
b. The Mourning Madonna
c. The Mourning Saint John the Evangelist
d. Bust of the Blessing Christ (Entry fig. 2)

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