The legend of the childhood of Mary, mother of Jesus, had been formed at a very early date, as shown by the apocryphal Gospel of James, or Protoevangelium of James (second – third century), which for the first time recounted events in the life of Mary before the Annunciation. The iconographyTerms 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 of the presentation of the Virgin that spread in Byzantine art was based on this source. In the West, the episodes of the birth and childhood of the Virgin were known instead through another, later apocryphal source of the eighth – ninth century, attributed to the Evangelist Matthew. According to this account of her childhood, Mary, on reaching the age of three, was taken by her parents, together with offerings, to the Temple of Jerusalem, so that she could be educated there. The child ascended the flight of fifteen steps of the temple to enter the sacred building, where she would continue to live, fed by an angel, until she reached the age of fourteen. The legend linked the child’s ascent to the temple and the flight of fifteen steps in front of it with the number of Gradual Psalms. The image of so long a flight of steps does not in general appear in fourteenth-century Sienese painting, which instead follows other details of the narrative of the Pseudo-Matthew: it describes the surprise of those present on seeing the infant girl spontaneously ascend the steps on her own and shows the high priest Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist (haloed), welcoming the child. The other girls who are being brought up in the temple are represented in a separate zone. One endeavor to which Sienese painters, on the other hand, paid constant attention was that of expressing the splendor of Solomon’s Temple, generally represented as a grand and complex building. The importance of the event was further underlined by the presence of ever more numerous onlookers.
The painting now in the National Gallery of Art appeared in the London exhibition in 1928 as a work by Bartolo di Fredi, an attribution perhaps proposed by 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, who privately confirmed it in 1951. William Suida and Fern Rusk Shapley accepted this opinion in their catalog of the Kress Collection (NGA 1956), commenting that “the attribution to Bartolo . . . is not likely to be doubted.” That attribution was reaffirmed in the 1959 catalog of the Gallery and by Jaqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne (1965). As early as 1951, however, Millard Meiss broke ranks, identifying the hand of Paolo di Giovanni Fei in the painting. All the more recent literature, apart from the above-cited exceptions, recognizes Meiss’s proposal as correct, including Berenson’s own posthumous edition of Italian Pictures (1968). Confirmation of the attribution came with the discovery that the panel now in Washington comes from Siena Cathedral; documents of 1398 – 1399 record payments made to Paolo di Giovanni Fei that undoubtedly refer to this painting. The various inventories of the cathedral later described it as “tauola dipenta colla Ripresentationi al Tempio di Nostra Donna et di sancto Pietro et di sancto Pauolo et di più altri sancti e sancte” (a painted panel with the Presentation of Our Lady and with Saint Peter and Saint Paul and many other saints). It remained on the altar of the chapel of San Pietro at least until 1482 and probably until the early 1580s (see Provenance).
The composition of Paolo’s 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 would have followed the scheme prescribed for the altarpieces of the various chapels in the cathedral, a church dedicated to the Virgin: namely, a scene representing a Marian feast at the center, flanked by full-length, standing saints in the lateral panels, including the titular of the altar. As we know from the example of other 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 with a provenance from the cathedral, the saints were portrayed one on each side. Moreover, the polyptychs, in contrast to the present appearance of The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, were always enriched with gables comprising half-figure images of other saints above the main register. Though none of these components of Paolo’s altarpiece have yet been identified, there seems no reason to doubt their existence.
The documents, therefore, not only confirm the attribution of the panel in the National Gallery of Art to Paolo di Giovanni Fei but also reveal that it is the fragment of a larger complex. It remains uncertain, however, whether Paolo was the sole author of the dispersed polyptych. According to another piece of documentary evidence dating to 1393, in fact, another painter, Bartolo di Fredi, received a payment “per la tavola d’altare di San Pietro che fa.” According to some, this means that the execution of the polyptych had already begun in 1392 – 1393, but for some reason Bartolo’s work was not completed. So the commission was then apparently transferred to Paolo. It was believed in the past that the lost laterals of our Presentation could be identified in two panels by Bartolo di Fredi representing Saint Peter and Saint Paul, but the hypothesis was then shown to be mistaken. So, in this case, the problem of the collaboration between the two Sienese painters still remains open.
Paolo’s painting in Washington has always met with a flattering reception from art historians. Millard Meiss (1951) hailed it as an “important panel”; Enzo Carli (1979), as one of the masterpieces of late-fourteenth-century Sienese painting (“uno dei capolavori della pittura senese del tardo Trecento”); while the Dutch expert on Sienese painting, Henk van Os (1990), described it as “a magnificent painting.” Michael Mallory (1965) was the first to recognize its identity with the documented panel by Paolo di Giovanni Fei in Siena Cathedral. He also subjected it to a meticulous stylistic and iconographic analysis. He observed inter alia that “the series of spaces that the artist has opened up beyond the figures is more complex than anything that he attempted in the Nativity [that is, in the other polyptych by the artist similarly having a scene thronged with figures at the center, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena] or in the Visitation [that is, in the scene frescoed by Paolo in the church of San Francesco, also in Siena], and at the same time the architecture is rendered accurately enough so that we can understand the plan of this church with its polygonal apse and vaulted chapels.” The Washington Presentation, Mallory concluded, “is the most ambitious and successful Sienese painting of the late Trecento as regards interior setting.”
To illustrate the scene of the entry of the child Mary into the temple, Paolo must have followed an illustrious model, now lost: the one painted by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti as part of a Marian sequence on the facade of the Ospedale della Scala, opposite the cathedral, in 1335. We do not know whether Paolo had been contractually obliged — as Sano di Pietro would be a half-century later — to reproduce the Lorenzettian composition in his panel. Many elements that it holds in common with Sano di Pietro’s version of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana), and with the many other variations on the theme produced by Sienese painters in the second half of the fourteenth century and early fifteenth century, do suggest that he followed the same prototype, albeit with some liberties. The model in question showed Mary at the top of the flight of stairs within an elaborate architectural structure, frontally placed, with one or two priests welcoming her. The child’s arms were humbly crossed over her breast, but she was shown looking backward towards her mother. Behind the priests, at the center, an altar with a golden ciborium (presumably intended to represent the Ark of the Covenant) could be glimpsed in the background, while further to the right was placed the group of girls who would be Mary’s companions during her years in the temple. Placed in the foreground to the left were Mary’s mother and a group of women, and on the other side a group of men including two elderly bearded Jews disputing with each other.