The panel, which to judge from its proportions and rectangular shape was probably originally the right shutter of a diptych, shows the Crucifixion, with the kneeling Mary Magdalene clinging to the cross; to the left, Mary, Mother of Jesus, who swoons, supported by her arm on the shoulders of one of the holy women on one side and Saint John on the other; and, to the right, the centurion, a Pharisee, and a third man, who witness the Crucifixion with arms and eyes raised and seem to speak to Christ on the cross. To the sides of the cross, against the gold groundThe layer or layers used to prepare the support to hold the paint., small angels in flight gather the blood that flows from the Savior’s wounds.
Mentioned only perfunctorily by art historians, but in general linked to the name of Bernardo Daddi, the painting in the National Gallery of Art was first introduced to the literature by F. Mason Perkins (1911) as a “genuine, albeit rather weak little work” of this artist. Later scholars confirmed the attribution until Richard Offner declassified the painting in 1930, inserting it among those erroneously attributed to the master. Osvald Sirén (1917) compared the panel to similar versions of the Crucifixion painted by the artist, particularly those in the Galleria dell’Accademia and Museo Horne in Florence; he judged it an early work, while Raimond Van Marle (1924) pointed out its affinity with the portable triptychA picture consisting of three parts. The term denotes both the object itself and its compositional form. As an object, the triptych may vary in size and material, but usually consists of a central panel flanked by wings (or shutters), which may be hinged; as a compositional form it is a tripartite structure, often with an emphasized central element. Although its imagery was, until the 19th century at least, predominantly religious, the object as such was not tied to a specific function.
—Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, dated 1336. Lionello Venturi (1931), however, rejected Offner’s doubts about the autograph status of the Washington Crucifixion, and compared the painting with Bernardo’s portable triptych dated 1333 in the Museo del Bigallo in Florence; Venturi (1933) maintained that the work was actually superior in quality to the triptych in the Lindenau-Museum in Altenburg, in which Offner, by contrast, recognized Bernardo’s hand. Further, after Offner (1958) noted for the first time retouches in various parts of the panel and proposed a classification “close to the Master of S. Martino alla Palma,” opinions were divided: Bernard Berenson(June 26, 1865–October 6, 1959)
Art historian and connoisseur. Son of a Lithuanian timber merchant who emigrated to the United States with his family in 1875, he was educated at the Latin School, Boston, and at Harvard University, where he studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and German. In an unsuccessful application for a traveling fellowship to Europe, he wrote, ‘Art prevails in this programme because it is there that I feel myself weakest. One can study literature here . . . but art not at all.’ On his subsequent visit to Europe in 1885, financed by friends, his rapid visual self-education led to the decision to settle in Italy and to devote his life to the study of Italian art.
—William Mostyn-Owen, Grove Art © Oxford University Press (1963), followed by Burton Fredericksen and Federico Zeri (1972), maintained the attribution to Bernardo, while the Gallery (1965, 1968, 1985) and Fern Rusk Shapley (1966) classified the painting as “attributed to Daddi,” and Wolfgang Kermer (1967) and later Shapley herself (1979) spoke of “Follower of Daddi.” The present writer, after having cited the panel as a studio work by the artist (1984), has since 1989 expressed his conviction that it is a fully autograph work by Bernardo. Ada Labriola (1999) also accepted this proposal, as did Laurence Kanter (in correspondence), who noted similarities to the so-called Master of San Martino alla Palma and pointed out the archaism of the frame carved in one with the panel support.
The affinities noted by Offner between the Washington Crucifixion and the work of the Master of San Martino alla Palma are worth underlining, since they throw some light on Daddi’s beginnings and on the date of this painting. Thought in the past to be a follower of Bernardo, the Master of San Martino alla Palma is now recognized to have been at work not after, but at the same time as, Daddi’s initial phase and had probably begun his activity even earlier. The very fact that he used freehand incisions with a graving tool, and not punch marks, to decorate the halos and ornamental borders of his paintings suggests that the Master’s oeuvre did not extend beyond the third decade of the fourteenth century; it was only after that date that the use of decorations with punched motifs in the gold ground of panels began to spread rapidly in Florence. In light of our present knowledge, the very real similarities to the Master of San Martino alla Palma that Offner observed in our painting would imply a relatively precocious date for it, which can be extended also to two other similar compositions from Bernardo’s early phase, one in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the other, of which only two fragments are known today, divided between the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart and the Strossmayer Gallery in Zagreb [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Bernardo Daddi, Fragment of a Crucifixion, c. 1325/1330, tempera on panel, Strossmayer Gallery, Zagreb. The affinities of all these paintings with those of the Master of San Martino alla Palma are undeniable, but the figures’ more elongated proportions, the more spacious but less rigorously calibrated structure of the compositions, and the figures’ restrained gestures and ponderous movements reveal a phase of particular attention to Giottesque models in the development of the young Daddi. For his part, the Master of San Martino alla Palma, whom Offner called “a painter of a lyrical sweetness and bird-like volubility,” never shows any signs of particular interest in Giotto’s figurative world. A motif like the swooning Madonna, who is supported by one of the holy women and by Saint John and who seems to be falling forward, as in the panel discussed here and in the fragment in Zagreb, is absent from numerous other, presumably later versions of the Crucifixion painted by Bernardo. The passage would seem to suggest that the panel belongs to a phase of youthful experimentation preceding the dated examples of 1333. Several stylistic data seem, in my view, to lead to the same conclusion. Admittedly, in the Washington Crucifixion we no longer find the rigidly static composition nor the ponderous forms that distinguish the figures in the phase of Daddi’s closest allegiance to Giottesque models, datable between 1315 and the early 1320s, such as the frescoes in the Pulci and Berardi chapel in Santa Croce in Florence. Nor do we find in it the spontaneity and immediacy of communication that characterize the triptych in the Uffizi, Florence, dated 1328, and that would become increasingly evident in subsequent works by the artist. The lack of punched motifs, as well as the use of pseudo-Kufic inscriptions in the marginal decoration of the painting in the Gallery, similarly suggests a dating prior to c. 1330, perhaps within the first half of the third decade.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016