Although the bodily Assumption of the Virgin did not officially become the dogma of the Catholic Church until 1950, it began to be represented in art in the eleventh century (with some isolated examples even earlier than that). In Italy, one of the first large-scale images of the Assumption is found in Siena, in the great rose window of the cathedral, based on a cartoon by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319) and dating to c. 1288. Here Mary is sitting in a mandorla of light, supported by angels in flight, with her hands joined in prayer, in the pose in which she would be frequently portrayed in the following centuries. The image of Mary borne up to heaven by angels would then be enriched with further details in the course of the fourteenth century. In particular, it would be accompanied (as in the present panel) with a scene of the apostles with expressions of wonder and awe gathered around the Virgin’s tomb, which is filled with flowers only, and with the figure of Saint Thomas, who is shown kneeling on the Mount of Olives, separated from his companions and praying to Mary. He was asking for a sign of her bodily Assumption, and the Virgin answered his prayer by throwing down her girdle, a relic that is now venerated in Prato Cathedral.
The panel in the National Gallery of Art might originally have been a self-sufficient devotional image and not part of a larger complex. This is suggested by the two medallions with the Angel of the Annunciation and the Virgin Annunciate in its upper spandrels; 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 and portable triptychsA 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, this extremely concise narrative of the Annunciation usually appears on the two outer sides in the upper tier [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Paolo di Giovanni Fei, triptych, location unknown.
The attribution of the painting has never been in doubt: ever since Robert Langton Douglas (1904) introduced it to the art historical literature, its ascription to the Sienese master Paolo di Giovanni Fei has been unanimously accepted. Greater uncertainties surround its date, even though most art historians agree that it should be ascribed to a relatively advanced phase in Paolo’s career. There is also widespread recognition of its high artistic qualities. Both opinions can be confirmed, though it should be premised that the earliest of Paolo’s securely datable paintings dates to 1387, and hence the first two decades of his career still remain obscure. Nevertheless, research over the last half century, and in particular the studies of Michael Mallory, have helped to establish the sequence of the paintings dating to the painter’s maturity and offer sufficient evidence to confirm that the present panel was painted within the first decade of the fifteenth century.
Paolo di Giovanni Fei’s stylistic development can be briefly summed up as follows. In works presumably dating to the 1370s, the artist proposed solemn and static compositions. The figures are virtually immobile and symmetrically distributed. Reserved, even impassive, in expression, they are enveloped in thick starched draperies with the consistency of leather, barely ruffled by a few broad folds. After this phase, exemplified by such paintings as the versions of the Madonna in the Atlanta Art Association and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, or the Saint Lawrence formerly in the Matthiesen Gallery in London, Paolo modified his style, while largely maintaining his spacious and symmetrical compositions. In such paintings as the fragmentary polyptych in the Museo d’Arte Sacra in Asciano and the portable triptych no. 137 and the diptych no. 146 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, all dating to around 1380, the characterization of the protagonists becomes more animated and the description of their gestures and reactions to the events taking place more circumspect. The paintings of this period are distinguished by their very detailed narratives, and the scenes are more complex and crowded. Although the faces remain almost impenetrable to human emotions, the expressiveness of the gestures seems ever more meticulously observed and effective. The artist also reveals a growing interest in the spatial setting of his figures. Results of these developments, dating to the mid-1380s, can be seen in such paintings as the altarpiece of the Birth of the Virgin in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena and various other large-format works including a polyptych and a painted crucifix executed for the hospital complex of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, the latter unfortunately the victim of a restorer’s excessive zeal. The painting discussed here can no doubt be placed in the last decades of Paolo’s career, presumably in the intermediate years between The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple painted for Siena Cathedral (1398 – 1399) and now in the Gallery and the triptych [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Triptych from the Minutolo Chapel, 1407–1408, tempera on panel, Naples Cathedral. Image: Scala/Art Resource, NY in the Cathedral of Naples (1407–1408).
As in other paintings dating to the first years of the fifteenth century, the artist skillfully exploits the background of his compositions to enlarge the space of the action and tries in various ways to give a realistic character to the episodes. In the panel now in Washington, each of the figures reacts in his own personal way to the miracle of the flowers that bloom in profusion in the sarcophagus in place of the body of Mary [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Detail of figures reacting to the miracle of the flowers in place of Mary's body, Paolo di Giovanni Fei, The Assumption of the Virgin with Busts of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin of the Annunciation, c. 1400/1405, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection. In contrast to the version proposed by Taddeo di Bartolo in his Montepulciano Cathedral polyptych (1401), which also shows the Assumption at the center, Paolo does not try to reunite the apostles in a compact group but distributes them freely around the sarcophagus. His scene is striking both for its spaciousness and for the realistic effects in characterizing the apostles’ reactions: their gestures are spontaneous, not over-dramatic in expressing surprise. An example of the artist’s pursuit of verisimilitude is the conduct of the youth at the center, who thrusts himself forward between two companions. Supporting himself with one hand on the shoulder of Saint Bartholomew and with the other on the edge of the sarcophagus, he leans forward eagerly, with head bowed, to see better what is happening. His sharply foreshortened face is also typical of the innovations associated with this phase in the painter’s career. An even bolder effect of foreshortening is achieved in the backwards-bent head of Saint Thomas, casting his gaze up to the Virgin. In contrast to other contemporary representations of the theme, Saint Thomas is seen at some distance from the rest of the apostles (his figure, indeed, is smaller); he kneels on a rock outcropping, evidently intended to represent the Mount of Olives. The foreshortened sides of the sarcophagus also help to accentuate his distance; not only do they “measure” the depth of the space in which the action is taking place, but they lead the observer’s gaze backwards to the apostle invoking the gift of the girdle. Also worth pointing out is the trouvaille of depicting the Madonna of the Assumption not, as usual, in a mandorla of light or in a similar oval form of seraphim, but surrounded only by the rays of light incised in the gold ground and seated on a throne of clouds, whose step has the consistency of cotton-wool and is supported with great delicacy by two fluttering angels. These details suggest for the Gallery’s Assumption, as Mallory already pointed out, a date more advanced than Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, datable to 1398 – 1399. On the other hand, Mallory’s proposal that the date be deferred to the last years in the artist’s life seems questionable. The very elongated proportions of the figures in the Neapolitan triptych, the accentuated hanchement of their poses and the multiplication of the folds in their draperies that introduce a more restless movement into these latter paintings, together with the exaggerated pathos of their facial expressions, seem to me to indicate a further development, a step in the direction of the artistic ideals of the International Gothic(c. 1380–c. 1440)
The expressions “Courant international” and “Gothicité international” were first employed by Courajod with reference to analogies between French and Italian sculpture of the period around 1400. He intended to demonstrate Franco-Netherlandish impulses for the Renaissance and to establish the existence of a universal late medieval Gothic style. Von Schlosser (1895) also described the formation of a European-wide “höfische Kunst” marked by widespread occurrences of the same subject-matter, notably in the more mobile medium of tapestry. What became known as the international gothic style (or international style) was seen as the product of courtly patronage and eclectic, supraregional, stylistic, and iconographic preferences. Many of its formal qualities were held to persist well into the 15th century in Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Bohemia, and Italy.
—Paul Binski, Grove Art © Oxford University Press. These developments had evidently not yet been made at the time of the painting of our Assumption.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016