This engaging narrative scene was the center panel of an altarpiece commissioned in 1398 for the Chapel of Saint Peter, near the high altar of the cathedral in Siena. It would have been flanked, in all probability, by standing saints—one of them Peter—and surmounted by other saints shown half-length. Originally, the structure would have been gabled at the top, with elaborate gold moldings framing each section.
According to legend, the Virgin entered the temple in Jerusalem at age three and remained until she was 14. In this depiction, she stands at the top of the long stair with a last sidelong look at her parents, yet she remains fearless and strong. Like those of the high priest who receives her, Mary’s robes are splendid gold brocade. These were created with a technique called sgraffito, in which paint is scraped away in patterns to reveal gilding below that is then textured with tiny punches. Equally lavish is the interior of Solomon’s temple, which is treated as a Gothic church. The complex space is easily read, airy with lots of light and a brilliant palette—cool blues, salmony pinks, and glassy greens. A gallery at the right is filled with the girls who will be Mary’s companions. One, at the back, seems to be on tiptoe, trying hard to see this girl who would be fed each day by an angel. On the other side, near Mary’s parents, Anna and Joachim, another onlooker cranes for a glimpse and a woman kneels, her face half hidden by a pillar. Such rich details enliven and humanize a sacred event, making it more accessible to a contemporary viewer.
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
Terms 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
The apocryphal text has the title De Ortu Beatae Mariae et Infantia Salvatoris; on the origin of the legend and on its sources see Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne, Iconographie de l’enfance de la Vierge dans l’Empire byzantin et en Occident, 2 vols. (Brussels, 1964 – 1965), 2:112 – 128.
Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne, Iconographie de l’enfance de la Vierge dans l’Empire byzantin et en Occident, 2 vols. (Brussels, 1964–1965), 2:128–134.
Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 6 vols. (Gütersloh, 1966 – 1990), 4, pt. 2: 68. On the fifteen Gradual Psalms (Psalms 120 – 134), see Frank L. Cross, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London and New York, 1958), 578.
Gertrud Schiller, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 6 vols. (Gütersloh, 1966–1990), 4, pt. 2:67–68.
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
(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
Fern Rusk Shapley, Catalogue of the Italian Paintings, 2 vols. (Washington, DC, 1979), 1:176.
National Gallery of Art, Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection (Washington, DC, 1956), 28.
National Gallery of Art, Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection (Washington, DC, 1959), 35; Jacqueline Lafontaine-Dosogne, Iconographie de l’enfance de la Vierge dans l’Empire byzantin et en Occident, 2 vols. (Brussels, 1964–1965), 2:30 n. 1.
Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton, 1951), 28.
Bernard Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools, 3 vols. (London, 1968), 2:130.
Vittorio Lusini, Il Duomo di Siena (Siena, 1911), 321 n. 2, and Provenance, note 1.
Quoted by Michael Mallory, Paolo di Giovanni Fei (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1965), 124.
The composition of Paolo’s
An 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
Type 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
On the compositional scheme prescribed for altarpieces in Siena Cathedral, beginning with that of Sant’Ansano painted by
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.”
Gaetano Milanesi, Documenti per la storia dell’arte senese, 3 vols. (Siena, 1854 – 1856), 2:37; Gaudenz Freuler, Bartolo di Fredi Cini: Ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts (Disentis, 1994), 428; Monica Butzek, “Chronologie,” in Die Kirchen von Siena, vol. 3, Der Dom S. Maria Assunta, bk. 1, Architektur, pt. 1, ed. Walter Haas and Dethard von Winterfeld (Munich, 2006), 98. Commenting on this information, Michael Mallory observed, “probably the document . . . is designating a panel depicting St. Peter rather than one made for the chapel of S. Pietro, or possibly it refers to an altarpiece for the chapel that [Bartolo di] Fredi did actually execute, but which was moved or destroyed,” and he added, “it is even possible that [Bartolo di] Fredi did begin the triptych from which the Presentation of the Virgin remains, but that his work was executed on one of the missing panels.” See Michael Mallory, Paolo di Giovanni Fei (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1965), 128. In the view of the present writer, this latter hypothesis seems the more plausible; in any case, it should be recalled that only one of the chapels in the cathedral was dedicated to Saint Peter.
Hendrik W. van Os, “Tradition and Innovation in Some Altarpieces by Bartolo di Fredi,” The Art Bulletin 67 (1985): 50 – 66; Gaudenz Freuler, “Bartolo di Fredis Altar für die Annunziata-Kapelle in S. Francesco in Montalcino,” Pantheon 43 (1985): 21. For a correction of the proposal, see Gaudenz Freuler, Bartolo di Fredi Cini: Ein Beitrag zur sienesischen Malerei des 14. Jahrhunderts (Disentis, 1994), 341.
Recently it was conjectured that the payment to Bartolo referred not to the altarpiece but to the tabernacle commissioned in 1380 to hold the statue of the saint, and destined for the same altar; Monica Butzek, “Chronologie,” in Die Kirchen von Siena, vol. 3, Der Dom S. Maria Assunta, bk. 1, Architektur, pt. 1, ed. Walter Haas and Dethard von Winterfeld (Munich, 2006), 99 n. 1285 and 1286. However, as Monica Butzek verbally advised me, she excluded this eventuality.
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.”
Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death (Princeton, 1951), 28 n. 58; Enzo Carli, Il Duomo di Siena (Genoa, 1979), 85; Hendrik W. van Os, Sienese Altarpieces 1215 – 1460: Form, Content, Function, vol. 2, 1344 – 1460 (Groningen, 1990), 136.
Michael Mallory, Paolo di Giovanni Fei (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1965), 119.
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
Daniela Gallavotti Cavallero, Lo Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in Siena: Vicenda di una committenza artistica (Pisa, 1985), 70 – 73. The frescoes represented the Birth of the Virgin, the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, the Betrothal, the Return of Mary to the House of Her Parents, and, probably, the Assumption.
In 1448 it was decided to add a predella to the altarpiece of the “cappella de’ Signori” in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, and it was specified that “vi si debba fare cinque storie di nostra donna alla similitudine di quelle che sonno a capo le porti dello spedale della scala” (five stories of Our Lady should be made copying those that are above the doors of the Hospital of the Scala). See Gaetano Milanesi, Documenti per la storia dell’arte senese, 3 vols. (Siena, 1854 – 1856), 2:256 – 257. The panels of the predella, now dispersed among various collections, were painted by Sano di Pietro and are to be considered simplified reproductions but substantially faithful to the frescoes of Lorenzetti on the facade of the Ospedale della Scala. See Keith Christiansen, “The Cappella de’ Signori Predella,” in Painting in Renaissance Siena, 1420 – 1500, ed. Keith Christiansen, Laurence B. Kanter, and Carl Brandon Strehlke (New York, 1988), 146 – 148.
Wolgang Fritz Volbach, Catalogo della Pinacoteca Vaticana, vol. 2, Il Trecento. Firenze e Siena (Vatican City, 1987), 48, fig. 99.
Mallory listed the variants of the compositions. Michael Mallory, Paolo di Giovanni Fei (PhD diss., Columbia University, 1965), 135–141.
This motif is less clearly evident in the panel of Sano di Pietro and in the other derivations from the Lorenzettian prototype, where the two old men, busily conversing with each other and in some cases with other figures, are also flanked by Saint Joachim, who dominates the group. Presumably this also was so in the lost fresco of Santa Maria della Scala. The motif of the disputation is particularly conspicuous in