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, “Pietro Lorenzetti/Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with an Angel [right panel]/probably 1340,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 14, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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This painting belongs to a triptych, which also includes Madonna and Child, with the Blessing Christ [middle panel] and Saint Mary Magdalene, with an Angel [left panel]. The image represents Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who is identified by her crown and by the wheel of martyrdom she supports with her right hand. According to the Golden Legend, Saint Catherine had contested Emperor Maxentius's persecution of Christians and successfully rebutted the arguments of 50 philosophers and orators who had sought to ruin her faith in Christ. Having been thwarted, the emperor ordered that Catherine be executed with spiked wheels. The wheels, however, were shattered through divine intervention.

An inscription, which survives on a fragment of the original frame (now incorporated in a modern support and located beneath the triptych's central panel of Madonna and Child, with the Blessing Christ [middle panel]), records the artist's signature: Pietro Lorenzetti of Siena painted me in 1340. Pietro and his brother Ambrogio are often noted for the inventive ways in which they defined three-dimensional space and incorporated details from everyday life to expand the realism of their figures and settings. However, they also painted icon-like devotional pictures, such as this one. During this period, Pietro seems to have been especially influenced by Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337), as seen in the quiet solemnity of the composition, in which a massive figure fills nearly the entire panel. The figure’s clothing also typifies Giotto's style: heavy fabrics fall perpendicularly in a few simplified or pointed folds to emphasize the figure's solidity.


The central Madonna and Child of this triptych, which also includes this panel of Saint Catherine and Saint Mary Magdalene, with an Angel [left panel], proposes a peculiar variant of the so-called Hodegetria type. The Christ child is supported on his mother’s left arm and looks out of the painting directly at the observer, whereas Mary does not point to her son with her right hand, as is usual in similar images, but instead offers him cherries. The child helps himself to the proffered fruit with his left hand, and with his other is about to pop one of them into his mouth.[1] Another unusual feature of the painting is the smock worn by the infant Jesus: it is embellished with a decorative band around the chest; a long, fluttering, pennant-like sleeve (so-called manicottolo);[2] and metal studs around his shoulders. The group of the Madonna and Child is flanked by two female saints. The saint to the left can be recognized as Saint Mary Magdalene by the cylindrical pyx of ointment in her hand,[3] while Saint Catherine of Alexandria is identified by her crown and by the wheel of martyrdom she supports with her right hand, half concealing it below her mantle.[4] Both this saint and the two angels in the gable above Mary’s head bear a palm in their hand.[5]

Though signed and dated by the artist [fig. 1],[6] the triptych in the National Gallery of Art is rarely cited in the art historical literature. An impressive series of letters from experts whom Felix M. Warburg or Alessandro Contini (later Contini-­Bonacossi) had consulted in 1926 about the three panels (then separately framed) confirmed their fine state, extraordinary historical importance, and attribution to Pietro Lorenzetti.[7] Nevertheless, the panels were illustrated but cited only fleetingly in the art historical literature. For example, Ernest De Wald (1929) denied their attribution to Pietro, explaining that “the panels are evidently of Lorenzettian derivation but​ . . . ​the heads are all softer and broader than Pietro’s style. Much of this [he added] may of course be due to the clever retouching.”[8] For his part, Emilio Cecchi (1930) included the three panels in his catalog of Pietro’s work and dedicated a brief comment to them, emphasizing that their “solemn plasticity” is typical of the painter’s last creative phase.[9] Bernard Berenson (1932, 1936, 1968) concurred with the attribution but cited the panels as dated 1321.[10] Raimond van Marle (1934) also accepted the attribution and Berenson’s reading of the fragmentary date.[11] In the previous year, Giulia Sinibaldi (1933) had limited herself to citing the paintings among those ascribed to Pietro, but she took no position on the question.[12] The triptych was ignored by most of the specialized literature in the following decades, with the exception of the successive catalogs of the Gallery itself (1942, 1965, 1968), though curiously they failed to point out the artist’s signature.[13] Only in the catalog of 1965 was this mentioned: “a worn inscription on bottom of old part of frame of middle panel,” and the date tentatively interpreted as 1321.[14] It was not until the 1970s that the triptych began to be regularly cited as the work of Pietro Lorenzetti (Fredericksen and Zeri 1972; Laclotte 1976) or, as in the case of Mojmir S. Frinta (1976), as the work of one of his assistants, on the basis of the punch marks that also appear in paintings by Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio.[15] Frinta conjectured that the triptych could be attributable to Mino Parcis, a minor master who was apparently documented in Pietro’s shop in 1321 and was perhaps the father of Jacopo di Mino.[16] The same scholar reassigned to Mino some works hitherto attributed to Pietro himself in his last phase and given by others to an anonymous artist called the “Dijon Master.” Fern Rusk Shapley (1979) entertained similar doubts: “Whether the attribution to Pietro Lorenzetti can be fully accepted remains somewhat uncertain.”[17] She wondered whether the Gallery triptych might not have been a work by the same assistant of Pietro who had painted a Madonna now in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence (donation by Charles Loeser) and some other stylistically akin panels. However, Shapley cited a letter written by De Wald to Charles Parkhurst at the Gallery in 1942, reporting that he had examined the infrared photographs made during restoration at the Gallery and, on that basis, could now confirm Pietro’s hand.[18]

After the catalog entry written by Shapley (1979), with the exception of Frinta’s volume (1998), in which the triptych continued to be classified as a product of Lorenzetti’s shop, art historians seem to have agreed that the Washington paintings should be recognized as an autograph work by Pietro himself.[19] Those accepting this position include not only the catalog of the Gallery (NGA 1985) but also Carlo Volpe (1989), Erling S. Skaug (1994), Cristina De Benedictis (1996), Alessio Monciatti (2002), Keith Christiansen (2003), Rudolf Hiller von Gaertringen (2004), Michela Becchis (2005), Ada Labriola (2008), and Laurence B. Kanter (2010).[20]

Bearing in mind the triptych’s state of preservation, made almost unrecognizable by inpainting aimed at concealing the damage suffered by the painted surface, it is difficult to express a balanced judgment of its authorship. Even old photographs of the panels, made prior to their latest restoration, do not assist much in that regard [fig. 2] [fig. 3] [fig. 4]. Some of its general features—the extreme sobriety of the composition, dominated by massive figures presented in almost frontal pose and filling almost entirely the space at their disposal, and the form of the panels themselves, terminating above in a simple pointed arch—surely are those one would expect to find in the paintings by Pietro Lorenzetti in the period around 1340, when the artist was apparently fascinated by the sober grandeur of Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337) in his final phase. Undoubtedly “Lorenzettian” is the figures’ clothing, made of heavy stuff and with draperies falling perpendicularly in a few simplified or pointed folds, which barely discloses or suggests the form of the underlying body. Similar forms and compositional devices can be found in the Birth of the Virgin in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Siena, dated 1342 but commissioned and planned in 1335;[21] the Madonna now in the Uffizi, Florence, with a provenance from Pistoia, whose fragmentary date [22] has been variously read; and the polyptych no. 50 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena, recognized by some (if not all) art historians as executed by Pietro with studio assistance and dating to the late years of the fourth decade.[23] Unfortunately, perhaps also because of the Washington triptych’s compromised state, the analysis of the punched ornament provides no useful indications to confirm or deny the conclusions reached by an interpretation of the stylistic data, but it should be observed that the decorative motifs of the dress of Saint Catherine are very similar to those of the cloth of honor of the Madonna in the Uffizi and seem to confirm that the two works belong to the same period. 

A detail that has hitherto escaped attention could offer a clue as to the triptych’s original destination: it was perhaps commissioned for a church not in Siena but in Pisa, where apparently the motif of the Christ child eating cherries was popular in the fourteenth century. Giorgio Vasari (Florentine, 1511 - 1574), who erroneously attributed the fresco of the Lives of the Anchorites in the Camposanto to the painter he called “Pietro Laurati” (that is, Pietro Lorenzetti), reported that the artist spent a period in Pisa, and so the unusual iconography of the central panel of the triptych might have been adopted in deference to the wishes of a patron in that city.[24] In any case, the stylistic character seems to coincide with the evidence of the signature and the date preserved on the fragment of the original frame that has come down to us. As for the possible intervention of studio assistants, the state of preservation of the painting today prevents, in my view, speculations of this kind. Doubts perhaps can be raised about the inscription itself, because we do not know how it was recovered and inserted into the existing frame. But it is hardly probable that the signature of the artist and the date 1340 (or 1341 or 1342) would have been added to the painting by another hand, concordant with the features of this particular phase in Pietro’s career.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Probably the art market, Florence, by 1924;[1] (Alessandro Contini, Rome), by 1926;[2] sold 1927 to Felix M. Warburg [1871-1937], New York;[3] by inheritance to his wife, Frieda Schiff Warburg [1876-1958], New York; gift 1941 to NGA.

Exhibition History

Masterpieces of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300-1800, New York World's Fair, 1939, no. 221, pl. 5.

Technical Summary

Stephen Pichetto transferred this image and its companions Saint Mary Magdalene, with an Angel [left panel] and Madonna and Child, with the Blessing Christ [middle panel], forming part of a triptych, from the three original wooden panels to a canvas support in 1941–1942. The paintings may already have been transferred from the original wooden panels to newer panel supports in an earlier treatment as well.[1] The current frame was made on the occasion of the 1941–1942 treatment. It incorporates a strip of wood bearing the date and artist’s signature from the original frame [fig. 1]. The ground is a white gesso layer, incised with a rough outline of the figures. The gold ground is applied on a red bole preparation, and the halos are decorated with punchwork. Gold leaf was used to create the decorative trim details on the drapery of the figures. The paint layers of the central panel are badly worn and have been heavily restored in the course of various treatments.[2] The inpainting is particularly extensive in the Madonna’s robes, but the shadows in the saints’ faces are also heavily reinforced and remodeled, making the painting difficult to assess. In addition, the gold-leafed details in all of the paintings have been strengthened.


DeWald, Ernest T. "Pietro Lorenzetti." Art Studies 7 (1929): 162 n. 1, pl. 101.
Cecchi, Emilio. Pietro Lorenzetti. Milan, 1930: 37, pl. 106.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places. Oxford, 1932: 293.
Marle, Raimond van. Le scuole della pittura italiana. 2 vols. The Hague and Florence, 1932-1934: 2(1934):361.
Sinibaldi, Giulia. I Lorenzetti. Siena, 1933: 175.
Berenson, Bernard. Pitture italiane del rinascimento: catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi. Translated by Emilio Cecchi. Milan, 1936: 252.
Book of Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1942: 251, repro. 135.
Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 25 n. 1.
Becchis, Michela. "Lorenzetti, Pietro." In Dizionario biografico degli italiani. Edited by Alberto Maria Ghisalberti. 82+ vols. Rome, 1960+: 65(2005):809.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 77.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools. 3 vols. London, 1968: 2:221.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 68, repro.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 109, 312, 429, 646.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 198, repro.
Frinta, Mojmir Svatopluk. "Deletions from the Oeuvre of Pietro Lorenzetti and Related Works by the Master of the Beata Umilità, Mino Parcis da Siena and Iacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio." Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 20 (1976): 290.
Laclotte, Michel. "Un ‘Saint Evêque’ de Pietro Lorenzetti." Paragone 27 (1976): 18 n. 7.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:269-270; 2:pl. 185.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 232, repro.
Volpe, Carlo. Pietro Lorenzetti. Edited by Mauro Lucco. Milan, 1989: 195-196, fig. 175.
De Benedictis, Cristina. "Lorenzetti, Pietro." In Enciclopedia dell’arte medievale. Edited by Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana. 12 vols. Rome, 1991-2002: 7(1996):884, 892.
Skaug, Erling S. Punch Marks from Giotto to Fra Angelico: Attribution, Chronology, and Workshop Relationships in Tuscan Panel Painting with Particular Consideration to Florence, c. 1330-1430. 2 vols. Oslo, 1994: 1:226, 228; 2:punch chart 7.5.
Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 61, 97, 336, 483.
Monciatti, Alessio. "Pietro Lorenzetti." In Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Edited by Chiara Frugoni. Florence, 2002: 80, repro. 82.
Christiansen, Keith. "Paul Delaroche’s Crucifixion by Pietro Lorenzetti." Apollo 157 (2003): 14 nn. 17, 19.
Hiller von Gaertringen, Rudolf. Italienische Gemälde im Städel 1300-1550: Toskana und Umbrien. Kataloge der Gemälde im Städelschen Kunstinstitut Frankfurt am Main. Mainz, 2004: 152 n. 44.
Hoenigswald, Ann. "Stephen Pichetto, Conservator of the Kress Collection, 1927-1949." in Studying and Conserving Paintings: Occasional Papers on the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 2006: 30 (repro.), 37.
Boskovits, Miklós, and Johannes Tripps, eds. Maestri senesi e toscani nel Lindenau-Museum di Altenburg. Exh. cat. Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, 2008: 42.
Kanter, Laurence B., and John Marciari, eds. Italian Paintings from the Richard L. Feigen Collection. Exh. cat. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2010: 20.

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