National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Image: Artistic Exchange: Europe and the Islamic World

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Florentine, probably 1266 - 1337
Madonna and Child
probably 1320/1330, tempera on panel, 85.5 x 62 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Samuel H. Kress Collection
Image: Giotto
Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330
Samuel H. Kress Collection

Beginning about 1285 Tuscan painters clothed their sacred figures in exotic garments that were based on the most prestigious textiles in the contemporary Near East. The gold borders that edge the left sleeve and mantle of Giotto's Madonna suggest these Islamic tiraz fabrics, which were distinguished by bands with woven or embroidered Arabic inscriptions honoring Muslim rulers. To western viewers of the time, the garments located the Virgin or other religious figures in the Holy Land during Old Testament or early Christian times. Imitation tiraz bands, which remained common in Italian religious art until the early sixteenth century, are painted with an illegible pseudo-Arabic script.

In fact, Giotto's pseudo-inscriptions--others are barely visible along the edge of the background--blend letter shapes derived from Arabic and the Mongol Pags-Pa script. He must have known the latter from the paper money or travel certificates brought by Italian merchants and missionaries who traveled across the Mongol Empire, which stretched from Mesopotamia to China.

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