The Coronation of the Virgin marks the final episode of the legend of the mother of Jesus, that of her ultimate glorification after her bodily assumption into heaven. The episode first appears in medieval sources, but it was not until the thirteenth century that the scene in which Christ places the crown on his mother’s head is explicitly illustrated in monumental painting and sculpture. Mary usually is represented seated on the same throne as her son and to his right as he crowns her with his right hand. This scheme, which subsequently underwent some changes, especially in Tuscany, was faithfully followed by Venetian painters throughout the fourteenth century and beyond. The panel in the National Gallery of Art is one of the earliest representations of the subject that has come down to us from the Veneto region. An iconographicTerms that refer broadly to the study of subjects and themes in works of art. Iconology, which is based on the results of iconography, is the more wide-ranging and comprehensive. One of the principal concerns of iconography is the discovery of symbolic and allegorical meanings in a work of art.
—Willem F. Lash, Grove Art © Oxford University Press innovation introduced here, one that Paolo Veneziano (Venetian, active 1333 - 1358) subsequently revived, is the representation of the celestial spheres that can be seen behind the cloth of honor in the background.
The Coronation of the Virgin in Washington originally must have formed part of a larger complex. No evidence has yet been found of other panels with which it might have belonged. But there are good grounds for assuming that it would have been flanked by a series of stories of Christ or stories of the Virgin, arranged in two superimposed tiers, rather than by standing figures of saints, as found, for instance, in polyptychsType of object with several panels, usually an altarpiece, although it may also fulfil other functions. The polyptych normally consists of a central panel with an even number of side-panels, which are sometimes hinged to fold. Although in principle every object with two panels or more may be called a polyptych, the word is normally used as a general term for anything larger than a triptych. As with diptychs and triptychs, the size and material can vary.
—Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press of the full maturity of Paolo Veneziano. It may also be assumed that the Coronation would have been surmounted by a gable panel representing the Crucifixion and that standing figures of saints or prophets would have been placed at the two sides of the upper register [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Reconstruction of a dispersed polyptych by the Master of the Washington Coronation: a. The Coronation of the Virgin; b. Two Apostles and the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (?) (fig. 2) (see also Reconstruction). I think it probable, on grounds of style and measurements, that the panel of the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel and the busts of two Evangelists [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Master of the Washington Coronation, Two Apostles and the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (?), 1324, tempera on panel, formerly Vittorio Cini collection, Venice, formerly in the Cini collection in Venice and now in another private collection, belonged to this latter zone of the polyptych; the panel seems well suited to integrate the upper right-hand part of the polyptych, now lost, of which the Washington Coronation formed the center.
Who was the Master of the Washington Coronation? As regards his possible identification with Martino da Venezia, we can only speak of a working hypothesis suggested by the stylistic affinities between the painting here discussed and those of Paolo, son of Martino, and also bearing in mind the undisputed ascendancy that Paolo’s bottega rapidly succeeded in winning in early fourteenth-century Venetian painting. The fact remains that the artistic profile of the Master of the Washington Coronation remains very uncertain. Art historians now generally agree on the need to exclude his works from the catalog of Paolo Veneziano, to whom they were almost unanimously attributed for some thirty years, beginning with Giuseppe Fiocco (1930–1931), and to whom the Gallery (1985), Francesca Zava Boccazzi (1993), and John Oliver Hand (2004) continued to attribute the Coronation in Washington. But the alternative proposal by Michelangelo Muraro (1965, 1969), who placed the Washington panel at the center of his reconstruction of the oeuvre of an artist he considered the stylistic precursor and perhaps even the elder brother of Paolo, has met with increasing consent since the latter decades of the twentieth century. Opinions differ, however, on the extent of the catalog of the Master of the Washington Coronation. Only three paintings, all chronologically close to the panel dated 1324, are unanimously, or almost unanimously, recognized as his work. They are the Madonna and Child no. 1604 in the Musei Civici in Padua; the painted crucifix in the Istituto Ellenico in San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice; and the fragment of a Crucifixion that surfaced at an auction sale in Rome in 1974, but which has since gone untraced. To this small group a number of other works can, in my view, be added. These include one other dated painting: namely, the altar frontal of the Blessed Leone Bembo now at the treasury of the Church of Saint Blase in Vodnjan (Dignano d’Istria) in Croatia, painted for the Venetian church of San Sebastiano in 1321. Usually ascribed to Paolo Veneziano, the panel provides further evidence of the essential stylistic continuity between the manner of Paolo and that of the older master.
The two painters, however, should not be confused. From his earliest works (those datable between the second and early third decade of the century, such as the scenes from the life of the Virgin in the Musei Civici at Pesaro and the frescoes on the triumphal arch and nave of the church of San Fermo at Verona), Paolo Veneziano displays a more spontaneous elegance in the movement of his figures, more fluent linear rhythms in his design, and more delicate passages of chiaroscuro in his modeling. In other words, he reveals a style akin to but more modern—more attuned to the GothicTerm used to denote, since the 15th century, the architecture and, from the 19th century onward, all the visual arts of Europe during a period extending by convention from about 1120 to c. 1400 in central Italy, and until the late 15th century and even well into the 16th century in northern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. The early gothic style overlapped chronologically with Romanesque and flourished after the onset of Renaissance art in Italy and elsewhere. The term gothic is applied to western European painting of the 13th century to the early 15th century. Unlike gothic architecture, it is distinguished more by developments in style and function than in technique, and even in these areas there is considerable national and regional diversity. The applicability of the term to Italian painting is debated, as is its usefulness in accounting for developments in Netherlandish painting from the early 15th century. Contact with Byzantine art was close in the early 13th century, but after c. 1250 survived principally in the Holy Roman Empire and Italy.
—Peter Kidson, Grove Art © Oxford University Press manner—than that of the Master of the Washington Coronation. In the years in which Paolo made his appearance on the scene, the activity of our anonymous master is attested to by works in which the forms tend to be more incisive and in which any cultivation of elegance in gesture, or gothicizing animation in calligraphic rhythm, is muted. Instead, the author of the Washington Coronation dedicates particular attention to the corporeal substance of his figures, which in general seem more restricted in movement and more reserved in comportment than those that populate the paintings of Paolo Veneziano.
The results of the master’s activity in the 1310s, or slightly before, are probably the Crucifixion in the Serbian Orthodox church of Split (Spalato); the two fragments of an altarpieceAn image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar, abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum. The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history.
—Alexander Nagel, Grove Art © Oxford University Press—one with three, the other with four figures of saints—now in the Pinacoteca Civica in Forlì; and the so-called Madonna delle stelle in the church of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano. These paintings are still strongly indebted to the classicizing aspirations of the Palaeologan Renaissance. But instead of cultivating the formal complexities and agitated rhythms of Byzantine painting of his day, the artist seems to draw inspiration from the powerful firmness of the bodies and the incisive figurative style of the painted images of previous decades. What remains of the important cycle of frescoes in the church of San Zan Degolà in Venice probably belongs to a slightly earlier phase in the master’s career, to the years around the turn of the century. These frescoes are variously attributed and dated, but it seems to me difficult to doubt their very close stylistic affinity with the group of paintings just cited. They are truly superb examples of the painter’s sophisticated figurative culture, influenced not by Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337) (as has sometimes been suggested) but by the neo-Hellenistic figurative art developed in Constantinople and also in other centers of the “Byzantine Commonwealth” since the 1260s. These works are preceded in date by the vigorous language of some other paintings in which the artist strives to create strong effects of plastic relief and to present his figures in illusionistically convincing architectural settings. I refer to such works as the Madonna and Child with Donors [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Master of the Washington Coronation, Madonna and Child with Angels and Donors, early fourteenth century, tempera on panel, Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Image: bpk, Berlin/Pushkin Museum, Moscow/Roman Beniaminson/Art Resource, NY in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the busts of apostles from the iconostasis of Caorle Cathedral. In particular, the articulation of forms in the latter, with zones of color almost geometrical in regularity, and their modeling with energetic brushstrokes and sudden flashes of white highlights suggest that they were executed within the last decade of the thirteenth century.
The fact that works of such importance had been commissioned from the artist some two to three decades before he executed the painting now in Washington shows that the Master of the Washington Coronation must have become a well-established painter by the time of its creation, even if he still proposed very different figurative ideas than those of his full maturity. If the artist followed a decidedly “philo-Byzantine” orientation in his initial phase, in his paintings of the 1320s he draws closer to the classicism pursued by Giotto and other artists of central Italy. In works such as the panel now in Washington (dated 1324) he aspires to a figural style characterized by gothicizing elegance of movement and fluency in linear rhythms [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Detail, Master of the Washington Coronation, The Coronation of the Virgin, 1324, tempera on poplar, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection. These paintings reveal an undeniable kinship with the first works attributed to Paolo Veneziano. It is therefore probable that the elderly master shared a workshop around this time with the rising star of fourteenth-century Venetian painting.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016