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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Tuscan 13th Century/Madonna and Child with Saint John the Baptist, Saint Peter, and Two Angels/c. 1290,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed April 13, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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This small painting is less than 10 inches across, and it was surely made for the private devotions of the person who owned it. That the owner was of modest means is suggested not only by the painting’s size but also by the limited use of gilding. The area of the gold background is relatively small, and the frame, which is carved from the panel, is not gilded at all. Instead, it is painted red and bears a simple decoration of daisies linked in a chain. Daisies were sometimes symbolic of the blessed souls in heaven or of Christ’s Incarnation.

The painting’s execution is quick, even cursory. The artist, whose identity remains unknown, has used a shorthand technique for rendering the mouths of the Virgin and the blessing Christ, as well as the subsidiary figures, using only dark lines at the corners. The folds of Jesus’s robe have an almost metallic angularity. Nevertheless, the Virgin’s eyes convey wistfulness as she considers the future of her son, whom she presents to the spectator; and the wildness of John the Baptist, on the left, is lively and direct. The artist probably trained in the orbit of Cimabue, who softened the abstraction and stylization inherited from Byzantine art.

The composition is a variant of the type of the Hodegetria Virgin, a type that originated in Byzantium and is found in many of the Gallery's Madonnas of this period (the Byzantine Enthroned Madonna and Child and Lippo Memmi’s Madonna and Child with Donor are just two). The Virgin, “She Who Points the Way,” does not point towards her Son as “the Way,” as in the Byzantine prototype. In presenting him to the viewer instead, her affectionate maternal role has priority over her more impersonal function within the Church.


The enthroned Madonna supports her son, seated on her left knee, with both hands. The child, in a frontal position, blesses with his right hand, holding a roll of parchment in his left. The composition is a variant of the type of the Hodegetria Virgin; in the present case, she does not point towards her son, as in the Byzantine prototype, but instead presents him to the spectator.[1] Her affectionate maternal pose is thus given precedence over her more ritual and impersonal role. But Mary’s pose perhaps has another sense: she seems to be rearranging her son’s small legs to conform them to the cross-legged position considered suitable for judges and sovereigns in the Middle Ages.[2]

The panel is painted in a rapid, even cursory manner. The artist omits the form of the throne’s backrest, which remains hidden by the cloth of honor, supported by angels and decorated with bold motifs of popular taste (an interlocking pattern of quatrefoils and octagons). He designs the form of the throne itself in an incongruous manner, apparently semicircular at the seat and rectangular at the base. According to a convention widespread in Tuscany in the second half of the thirteenth century, the painter presents the seat of the Madonna as if it were seen not frontally but from the left.[3] This is suggested not only by the position of the step but also by the fact that while the figure of the Baptist is seen in its entirety, that of Saint Peter to the right is partially hidden by the throne. That the patron must have been a person of modest means is suggested both by the cursory execution and by the eschewal of gilding on the frame; instead, the artist adopts the unusual expedient of painting it red and decorating it with a frieze of daisies.[4]

Carlo Lasinio’s attribution of the painting to Cimabue, accepted in the sale catalog of 1835, remained ignored in the art historical literature until the panel reappeared at Patterdale Hall in the Lake District in 1934, and even then it did not meet with approval.[5] Following the panel’s purchase by the Florentine dealer and collector Alessandro Contini-­Bonacossi, however, several connoisseurs of late medieval Italian art concurred with the Cimabuesque authorship of the work in their correspondence with its then owner.[6] Roberto Longhi, on publishing the painting in 1948, confirmed this view, dedicating a brief but penetrating comment to the painting; in his opinion the image was a product of Cimabue’s first period of residence in Pisa.[7] Luigi Coletti, in 1941, took a different view and argued that the panel was better placed in the circle of the Magdalen Master.[8] Subsequently, once the Madonna had entered the Kress Collection in 1948, the attribution to Cimabue would continue to be supported,[9] but most scholars preferred to leave it in anonymity or ascribed it to Cimabue’s shop.[10] The present writer (1976) tentatively associated the panel with the group of paintings that he had gathered around the name of Gaddo Gaddi,[11] and Luciano Bellosi (1998) suggested an attribution to the Florentine Azzo di Mazzetto;[12] no certain works by either of these painters have come down to us. It is worth pointing out, in this regard, that documents record a painter by the name of Azzo who worked for the comune of San Gimignano in the years between 1288 and 1293 and who painted “cameram novi palatii comunis” (the room of the new municipal palace) in that town in 1291.[13] The subject of his paintings is not recorded, but it seems plausible to link his name with the frescoes in the Palazzo del Popolo that commemorate the privileges granted to San Gimignano by Charles of Anjou and bear an inscription with the date 1292. The massive, fleshy figures in these frescoes, often hesitant in movement, only vaguely recall the style of the delicate little panel in the National Gallery of Art.[14]

The attribution of the work to Gaddo Gaddi was based on a tradition handed down by Vasari, according to whom this master was responsible for the mosaic of the Coronation of the Virgin on the inner façade of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. The authenticity of this tradition was accepted down to recent times, until art historians gradually began to perceive that the figurative style of the mosaic appears not to have been that of an artist of the generation of Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337), as Gaddo Gaddi would have been, according to the evidence of documents, but that of a somewhat older master. In recent times, in fact, the identification of Gaddo with the Giottesque Master of Saint Cecilia has been proposed, while the Coronation of the Virgin on the inner façade of the Duomo has been either cited with the traditional attribution or attributed to Francesco Pisano, an artist belonging to Cimabue’s generation, or given to the so-called Penultimate Master of the mosaics in the baptistery in Florence.  

Some of the paintings formerly associated with the name of Gaddo still seem to me stylistically homogeneous, even if not easy to refer to a particular artist. It is with this group of works that the panel now in Washington should, I believe, be most profitably compared. The agile, nervous figures, with their jerky movements, flashing eyes, and beaklike noses, which Longhi described so brilliantly, invite comparison both with the figures painted in the portable cross in the Fogg Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and with those in the large painted crucifix in Santo Stefano a Paterno in Florence.[15] In this latter painting, in particular, the grieving Madonna [fig. 1] recalls the protagonist of the painting in the Gallery [fig. 2], while the severe and ascetic blessing Christ in the cimasa is comparable to the Baptist in the panel in Washington, bearing in mind, of course, the differences in pictorial technique deriving from their very different dimensions. Drapery forms in these paintings, enlivened by sudden darting highlights and furrowed by sharp, deeply undercut folds so that they seem made of twisted sheet metal instead of fabric, also compare closely. A further observation may be made about the presence of the rare frieze of daisies on the hem of the Madonna’s cloak in a painting now in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio (inv. no. 1945.9). Generally referred to an anonymous follower of Duccio or of Cimabue, recently (Boskovits 2007) it was attributed to the Master of the Cortona-­Loeser Crucifixes.[16] That artist’s use of the same motif decorating the frame of the Washington Madonna suggests that he too belonged to the ambience of the painter of our panel. Unfortunately, the comparisons listed here do not help us to establish the date of the Gallery's panel, but they do, more generally, permit its insertion into the context of Florentine painting at the close of the thirteenth century.[17]

The Pisan provenance of the panel, small and easily transportable, does not imply that it was executed in that city. The master who painted it must have been trained under the influence of Cimabue, and probably at the time of his fresco decoration of the upper church of San Francesco in Assisi. In particular some figures of angels that populate the right transept of that church, with their tense, frowning faces and ruffled garments, suggest that the execution of the panel in the National Gallery of Art should be placed around 1290.  

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


on the scroll held by Saint John the Baptist: E[C]CE / AGNU[S] / DEI:[ECCE] / [Q]UI [TOLLIT PECCATUM MUNDI] (from John 1:29)


Church of San Francesco, Pisa; Carlo Lasinio [1759-1838], Pisa;[1] possibly Francis Douce [1757-1834], London, by 1829;[2] Mrs. Fanshaw; (sale, Christie & Manson, London, 21 March 1835, no. 80).[3] (country sale, Patterdale Hall, Ullswater, near Penrith, Cumbria, 8 August 1934); (P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London); sold 8 April 1935 to (Gualtiero Volterra, Florence);[4] (Count Alessandro Contini-Bonaccossi, Florence), by 1935; sold 1948 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[5] gift 1952 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The support consists of a single wooden panel with vertical grain, which was thinned and cradled in 1948. The frame was carved in one with the panel and remains intact. Possible evidence of hinges on both sides is visible in the x-radiograph, indicating that the panel may have been the center of a triptych. The panel was prepared with a white gesso ground. Green underpaint was used under the flesh tones, and the gold leaf was laid over a reddish orange bole. The halos are decorated with incised foliate ornament. Paint and gold leaf losses are scattered throughout the painted surface; some flaking damage in the gold leaf has remained unretouched. Mauro Pelliccioli restored the painting, probably by the mid-1930s, and Stephen Pichetto treated it again in 1948.[1] Inpainted passages are especially evident in the cloth of honor and in the Virgin’s cloak, as well as in the left side of the right-hand angel’s face, the left side of Saint Peter’s face, and the child’s hair. The figures’ eyes and mouths have been reinforced. Inpainting also is evident in the frame, especially in the lower left and upper right corners.


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