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Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s

A woman sitting on a throne supports a baby as twelve winged angels look on, all framed in a carved, gilded pointed arch in this vertical panel. It is the center of a three-panel triptych. The background behind all the people is gold, and the top of the panel comes to a rounded, pointed arch under a second taller, sharper point. Trios of spiraling columns frame the left and right sides. The woman, child, and angels all have pale skin tinged faintly with green, and rosy cheeks. They all have blond hair except for the woman, whose hair is covered, and all have plate-like gold halos that overlap, sometimes obscuring the bodies of others. The woman, Mary, faces us from her ivory-white, carved stone throne. She looks slightly above us with brown eyes under delicate brows. She has a small, straight nose, and her narrow pink lips are closed. The lapis-blue robe that covers her head and body is bordered with gold patterns, and has a starburst on her right shoulder, to our left. The pea-green underside of the mantle is visible where it turns over on the sleeves and down the front, and the robe is worn over an ivory-white dress patterned with gold. The child she holds with both hands, Jesus, stands on her lap and wraps one arm around her neck. His other hand grips the high neckline of her dress. He looks up with dark, close-set eyes. He has curly blond hair, a double chin, and rounded cheeks. Two tiny teeth are barely visible below his pink upper lip. Despite the rounded cheeks, his face looks more like that of an adult, and the proportions of his body are also adult-like. He wears a gold-trimmed, pale pink robe over a blue garment, which stops just short of his bare feet. The twelve angels surrounding the throne are grouped in trios, with three looking on to our upper left, three to our upper right, and then two trios gathered in each lower corner. Their wings and robes are painted in tones of celery green, ruby red, butter yellow, and pale rose pink. Each has a triangular diadem above their foreheads. The floor beneath is patterned with gold against a burgundy-red background. Above Mary and Jesus, a bearded man is shown from the chest up in a shape made of three lobes alternating with three points. That man faces us and holds up his right hand, to our left, with the first two fingers raised. He wears a shell-pink garment under a green robe, and holds up an open book with Latin text with his other hand. The frame around Mary, Jesus, and the gable above is carved and gilded. Barely discernable, the panel is inscribed across the bottom below the throne, “AVE MARIA GRATIA PNELA DOMINUS.” The pages of the books read, “EGO SUM A O PRINCI PIU FINIS EGO SUM VI A. VERITAS VITA.”


Many of the Gallery’s early Italian paintings were originally parts of altarpieces, a form that first appeared in Italy in the thirteenth century as new attention was focused on the altar by changes in the liturgy, church architecture, and the display of relics. Painting on wooden panels had not been common in the West, but by this time the gilded and painted panels of elaborate altarpieces had begun to join—and would eventually overshadow—fresco and mosaic as the principal forms of decoration in Italian churches. Western artists working on panel turned for inspiration to the Christian East, adapting the techniques, style, and subject matter of Byzantine icons. For Byzantine Christians—and Orthodox Christians today—the icon was a true copy of its holy model. Theologians used the analogy of a wax impression and the seal used to create it to describe the relation between an icon and its subject. Because they depict a holy and infinite presence, not the temporal physical world, icons avoid direct reference to earthly reality, to specific time or place. Instead, backgrounds are dematerialized with shimmering gold, settings are schematized, and figures often appear timeless and static.

Icons are devotional images—windows through which viewer and holy subject make contact. Church decoration was also meant to instruct the faithful, however. And in the West, this role came to foster styles that could, in effect, tell a story. Church frescoes and mosaics—and now panel painting—illustrated the lives of Christ, the Virgin, and saints. New religious orders, especially the Franciscans, who renounced their possessions to preach in villages and towns as Christ had done, stimulated interest in the human life of holy figures. Artists sought to capture the world of everyday experience with greater verisimilitude, relying less on an “ideal image in the soul” to work instead from what was seen by the eye.

Among the first and most important artists to move in this direction was Giotto. Recognized as a father of “modern” painting, he was the first Western artist since antiquity to capture the weight and mass of bodies moving in space, making them three-dimensional with light and shadow. He abandoned the decorative pattern and complicated line of Byzantine art; his forms are heavy and his shapes simple. And as if to match their convincing visual form, Giotto animated his figures with human psychology. Renaissance critics contrasted Giotto’s style, which they termed “Latin,” with the work of his Sienese contemporary Duccio, whose inspiration was Greek. Two panels from Duccio’s greatest work, the monumental Maestà altarpiece, are featured on this tour.

Agnolo Gaddi, Italian, active 1369 - 1396, Madonna Enthroned with Saints and Angels [middle panel], 1380/1390, tempera on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.4.b

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A woman sits on a wide, high-backed throne with a child on her lap against a gold background in this vertical painting. Their peachy skin is deeply shadowed with greenish gray. To our left of center, the woman’s body nearly fills the panel as she sits with her shoulders angled slightly to our right. She tilts her head in that direction as she gazes at us from the corners of almond-shaped, hazel eyes under arched brows. She has a slender face with a long nose and a petite coral-red mouth. A marine-blue mantle covers her head and wraps around her body. The mantle has fallen open at the neckline and the right knee to reveal her dark, navy-blue robe underneath. The child sits upright in the crook of her left arm, on our right. Her left hand cradles the child’s bottom while her other hand, to our left, rests delicately on his knee. The child faces our left and tilts his head to look up at the woman while reaching his far hand to her with two raised fingers. A bone-white scroll is clutched in his near hand. He has wavy, chestnut-brown hair and large, dark eyes. He wears a tomato-red robe and thin, black sandals. A spruce-blue sash wraps around the shoulders and waist of the robe. The folds and creases of their garments are suggested by densely spaced gold lines that bend in angular curves around their knees, legs, and arms. In pointed red shoes, the woman rests her feet on a stool just before the wide, ginger-brown throne, which is decorated with inset camel-brown and tan squares and rectangles. The back of the throne alternates between bands of carved decoration and spindles. Teardrop-shaped finials line the back. The woman and child have halos incised into the gold background beyond them. The child’s halo is divided by three, wide, garnet-red rays. Winged angels with gold halos in brick-red circles hover in the upper left and right. The glimmering gold background is worn in some areas and is cracked throughout.

Certain aspects of technique suggest that the artist who painted this panel was a Greek, trained as an icon painter. However, its blend of Byzantine and Western elements indicates that he was probably working in Italy or, at least, for a Western patron. The delicate gold striations defining the folds of cloth are a Byzantine convention, and the composition itself is closely modeled on one of the most enduring icon types, the Hodegetria—the Virgin who, by indicating the Child, “shows the way.” Yet Jesus gives the Western, not Eastern, sign of blessing, and the halos are not the plain burnished disks found in Byzantium but are decorated with the floral patterns popular in Italy. The three-dimensional view of the Virgin’s throne may also reflect Western influence. With her red shoes and the archangels’ imperial regalia, the elaborate throne underscores Mary’s role as queen of Heaven.

Byzantine 13th Century, Enthroned Madonna and Child, 13th century, tempera on panel, Gift of Mrs. Otto H. Kahn, 1949.7.1

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A bearded, light-skinned man is shown striding to our left and looking in that direction between two columns supporting an arch in this vertical painting. The area around the man, within the arch, is bright gold. The man has a high forehead with short, brown hair, dark eyes under dark brows, a long, straight nose, a forked beard, and his pink lips are closed. He wears a marine-blue, ankle-length cloak over a long, rose-pink robe. Folds are painted with lines of darker blue and pink. He clenches a parchment-colored scroll in his left hand, on our right, down by his hip and grasps the edge of his cloak with his other hand. His head is surrounded by a halo created by incising and punching the gold background. The shoulder-wide halo is decorated with S-shaped spirals and a ring of simple, delicate flowers around the perimeter. He stands on a dark gray floor that meets the gold background just below knee level. The columns to either side are cut off by the edges of the panel, and are brick-red with light blue, leafy capitals. The brown arch supported by the columns is inscribed, “SANCTUS JACOB LEPHI Q COGNOMINAT E IU.” The corners above are maroon red, and rough, disk-shaped areas in each corner could indicate losses.

Originally forming part of the back of an altarpiece, this panel when joined with a companion panel also in the Gallery’s collection would have shown James Minor and John the Evangelist standing under an arcade; round cuttings in the spandrels probably held glass ornaments. Other panels from this altarpiece, now in other museums, include a Madonna and the remaining apostles as well as Saint Francis. Inclusion of Saint Francis would have had particular significance for Franciscans, many of whom regarded their founder as the thirteenth apostle. In fact, the monks, who sat in the choir of the church behind the altar, were the only members of the congregation normally able to see these panels.

The artist apparently modeled the arcade and the Roman-style dress after an early Christian sarcophagus unearthed in 1262. This marble coffin was reused for the burial of the Blessed Egido, a companion of Saint Francis, in the crypt of the church of San Francesco al Prato in Perugia. Probably the two panels here were originally in the same church, placed on the altar directly above Egido's coffin.

Note how faces and folds of cloth are defined with white highlights applied over the background colors. Later works in the Gallery's collection—Giotto's Madonna and Child, for example—use a gradual and continuous blending of dark colors to re-create the realistic appearance of shadows.

Master of Saint Francis, Italian, active second half 13th century, Saint James Minor, probably c. 1270/1280, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.15

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At least eleven people gather around a man hanging from a wooden cross, all against a gold background in this nearly square painting. The people have pale skin tinged heavily with gray, and pink on the cheeks. At the center of the composition, the man, Jesus, hangs from nails driven into the cross through his palms and feet. His thin body is covered only by a sheer loincloth across his hips. His knees angle to our left, and his head tips in that direction. He has a beard and auburn-brown, shoulder-length hair. His eyes are closed under furrowed brows. A gold halo surrounds his head and has red lines radiating to the red outline of the disk. The letters “INRI” appear on a panel on top of the cross. Three small, winged angels, like miniature people, catch vibrant red blood spurting or trickling from Jesus’s two palms and a gash over his right ribs in gold bowls. A fourth angel clasps hands in prayer. The angels have brown or blond hair, gold halos, and cobalt-blue robes and wings. A woman with long, curly, copper-colored hair kneels at the base of the cross, holding Jesus’s bleeding feet. To our left, a woman wearing lapis-blue swoons into the arms of two women who wear hoods and robes in marigold orange or nickel gray. All four women have gold halos, as do two of the four men standing together to our right. One of those men has short, copper-blond hair and wears a blue robe. His cloak is rose pink on one side and green on the other. He holds his small hands together in prayer and looks up at Jesus in profile. The other three men wear helmets and armored breastplates. One of them, at the front of that trio, has a halo and he points up at Jesus. The hand and torso of another person is visible along the right edge of this group, but the upper body has been lost. The cross sits on a low, rocky rise over a small cavern holding a skull. The ground around the cross and groups is carnation pink. A crenelated, turquoise-colored wall, about elbow height, runs across the back of the scene. The glimmering gold background is worn in some areas, revealing the red ground beneath the gold leaf.

The poet Petrarch called Venice “a world apart.” Protected by a bewildering network of canals, the city naturally turned to the sea and, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, commanded an extensive empire in the eastern Mediterranean. When Venetian commercial interests diverted the Fourth Crusade from the Holy Land to loot the riches of Byzantium instead, many Greek artists were forced to find work in Italy.

That the city remained tied to its Byzantine traditions is evident in the work of Paolo Veneziano, the first Venetian artist we know by name. If he was aware of the more naturalistic styles of his contemporaries in other parts of Italy, he chose not to emulate them. This painting’s small size and arched shape suggest that it might have originally crowned a larger panel in a multipart altarpiece. Paolo’s style is essentially Byzantine, with ethereal figures and flat gold backgrounds. But his form—the altarpiece—is a Western one.

Paolo's Coronation of the Virgin also is part of the Gallery’s collection. The subject of the Coronation was not painted by Byzantine artists and seems to have originated near Paris in the twelfth century. This may be the first such scene painted in Venice. Its strong colors and brittle figures seem almost abstract, a sense increased by the gold striations of the drapery: even without Byzantine models to follow, Paolo’s painting has a strong Byzantine character.

Paolo Veneziano, Italian, active 1333 - 1358/1362, The Crucifixion, c. 1340, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.143

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A man stands on a rocky, tan-colored outcropping and gestures to two men in a rowboat, all against a gold background in this square painting. The men’s pale skin is tinged with gray but they have rosy cheeks, and all three have beards. The outcropping rises steeply up along the left edge of the panel. The man who stands on it has long brown hair, a straight nose, and a small mouth. A halo is incised with geometric designs around his head against the gold background. He wears a crimson-red robe under a sea-blue mantle, both of which are edged with a line of gold. He holds up his blue robe with his left hand, farther from us, and holds out his other hand, palm up, to the other men. Those men stand in a wooden rowboat and hold a net heavy with fish over the side. Both of these men have ash-blond hair. The man to our left in the boat wears a sky-blue tunic and holds up one hand to his chest as he faces our left, his other hand holding a line of the net. The second man, to our right, has a longer beard and wears a brick-red robe. He holds the net with both hands, and looks up and to our left. The boat floats on a copper-green sea with several fish swimming in its undulating current. The fish are painted with dark green outlines. Closer inspection reveals two fish with gaping mouths facing us head on.

This was one of the rear panels of Duccio’s magnificent Maestà in Siena cathedral. With more than fifty individual scenes, the altarpiece was about fourteen feet wide and towered to gabled pinnacles some seventeen feet over the main altar. It was installed in June 1311 after a triumphant procession through the streets of Siena. Priests, city officials, and citizens were followed by women and children ringing bells for joy. Shops were closed all day and alms were given to the poor. Completed in less than three years, the Maestà was a huge undertaking for which Duccio received 3,000 gold florins—more than any artist had ever commanded. Nevertheless, Duccio, like all artists of his time, was regarded as a craftsman and was often called on to paint ceiling coffers, parade shields, and the like. Not until the middle and later fourteenth century did the status of artists rise.

Duccio signed the main section of the Maestà, or “Virgin in Majesty,” which is still in Siena. His signature, one of the earliest, reads: “Holy Mother of God, be the cause of peace for Siena and life for Duccio because he painted you thus.” This plea for eternal life—and perhaps fame—signals a new self-awareness among artists. Within a hundred years signatures become commonplace.

This rear panel of the Maestà is at least partly the work of Duccio’s students and assistants.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Italian, c. 1255 - 1318, The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew, 1308/1311, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.141

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This horizontal painting is made up of three parts: in the center square panel, a woman reclines under a wooden shelter set into a rocky cave, which is surrounded by angels, and narrower wings to either side are each occupied by a standing man. All the people have pale skin, which is tinged with faint green. The three panels are joined with a gold frame, and the gold background behind the central scene and the men in the side panels are covered with a noticeable network of cracks. In the central panel, a cobalt-blue robe nearly envelopes the reclining woman’s body; this is Mary. It covers her head and falls open where she crosses her wrists over her chest to show a pink garment underneath. A flat gold halo encircles her head ,and her body is surrounded by a field of crimson red, almost like an aura. She rests under a wooden structure with a pitched roof, which is surrounded by craggy, barren rock. A swaddled infant lies in a rectangular, tray-like manger. The infant’s head is also surrounded by a gold halo. Fine gold rays emanate down into the structure from a star just above the peak of the roof. A bull and a donkey look down at the baby from the far side of the manger. The interior of the structure behind them is black. In a smaller scale, two women wash a haloed infant in a tub in front of the rocky cave near the lower left corner of this panel. A man with a white beard and hair sits to our left of Mary, holding a pink cloak at his throat and looking toward the infant. Above and around the rocks, seven winged and haloed angels cluster on each side. One angel to the right presents a scroll with black writing to two men accompanied by a dog and several sheep in the lower right. The man in the panel to the left, Isaiah, has a gray beard and long, wavy hair, and he wears a lilac-purple cloak draped over a coral-orange robe. In his right hand, on our left, he holds an unfurled scroll with large black lettering. His other hand is raised with one finger pointing upward. He looks to our left, away from the central scene. On the right, Ezekiel, echoes Isaiah's pose. Ezekiel holds an open scroll with his left hand, on our right, and his other hand is raised. He also wears a coral-colored robe, but his is overlaid with a blue cloak. His receding hair is short and brown, as is his beard. Like Isaiah, he takes up most of the height of the panel and gazes to our left, toward the central panel.

The Nativity, flanked by Old Testament prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus, was on the front of the Maestà, the altarpiece at Siena cathedral. It was one of the scenes from Christ’s childhood painted above and below the central image of Mary enthroned in a crowd of saints and angels. Devotion to the Virgin, who was patron saint of Siena, increased with the new interest in Christ’s humanity and the surge of popular religion that grew around mendicant preachers. By including a large devotional image of the Virgin with a story-telling scene that had traditionally been painted on church walls, the Maestà combined the functions of both icon and narrative art.

A blend of Byzantine and other influences characterizes Duccio’s style. Many of his motifs seem to be based on Byzantine manuscript illuminations. The cave setting, for example, is typically Byzantine. Duccio, however, added a manger roof similar to ones found in the Gothic art of northern Europe. Though he used the gold background of Byzantine painting, he was nevertheless keenly attuned to a specific sense of place, carefully repeating outdoor settings to give continuity from one scene to the next. While the effect of gold and brilliant colors is highly decorative, the elegant lines that define drapery folds and Duccio’s undulating brushstrokes soften the austerity of the Byzantine style.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Italian, c. 1255 - 1318, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311, tempera on single panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.8

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A woman with pale skin holds a baby in the crook of her left arm, on our right, against a gold background in this vertical, arched wooden panel. The woman is shown from the waist up with her body angled slightly to our right. She wears a dark blue mantle that drapes over her head and shoulders, and across her body. The garment has a gold border and celery-green lining where it turns over at her wrists and chest. There is a gold starburst-like symbol on her right shoulder, our left, and she holds a stylized rose with her right hand. The baby is nude except for a translucent white cloth, also edged with a gold border, wrapped around his waist and legs. His face and body look more like a small man than a baby, but there are baby-like rolls at his wrists. He has blond wavy hair. He grips the woman's forefinger on the hand that holds his body, and he reaches for the rose she holds with his other hand. The gold background is punched to create halos around their heads and decorative bands along the inner edge of the curving, arched top.

While Duccio—with his reliance on Byzantine traditions, flat planes, and decorative line—can be said to sum up the past, Giotto was recognized even by his contemporaries as anticipating the future. Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch all praised his naturalism. Giotto’s panel, probably the central section of a five-part altarpiece, was painted late in his career. The colors are sober and restrained. Soft shadows model the Virgin and child. We sense the weight and volume of their bodies and feel the pull of gravity on them.

We also sense that they are actors in a quiet drama. We are witnesses to the human interaction between a mother and a child. The infant steadies himself by grasping his mother’s finger and reaches—like any baby—for the flower she holds. This emphasis on the humanity of the participants is a departure from the devotional Byzantine tradition, as in the Gallery’s Enthroned Madonna and Child, in which the infant Christ does not turn to his mother, but rather offers a blessing to the worshiper.

Giotto, Italian, probably 1266 - 1337, Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.256

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About a dozen women, babies, and men gather in small groups across interior spaces with a bedroom to one side and a covered space to the other in this vertical panel painting. The women have nearly white-colored skin, and the men and children have pale skin, sometimes tinged with gray. The bed spans the left two-thirds of the composition. A woman lies under a vibrant red coverlet and white sheets pulled up to her chest. A white veil covers her head, forehead, and neck, and she wears a white, long-sleeved gown. Her shoulders rest up on pillows, and her head is surrounded by a shiny gold halo. A pale face by the woman’s feet looks through an opening at the base of the bed. Two women on the far side of the bed wear green or blue dresses and white head coverings. They both attend to a swaddled blond baby, who also has a gold halo. The wall behind the bed is patterned with an intricate geometric design in grass green and brown. The space above the bed is shiny gold punched with a leafy pattern. The wall is capped with an entablature held up with corbels. A balcony space rises to the left, and a structure with arched openings is to our right. A deep bench runs parallel to the bed along the bottom edge of the painting, closer to us. A balding man with a gray beard sits there and writes, brows deeply furrowed, on a scroll braced on one knee. If complete, writing on the scroll would read “NOMEN EST IOHANNES.” He wears a blue robe under a pale pink cloak, and he has a halo. A man standing just to our right of the seated man gestures toward the first with both hands. This second man has a brown beard and long hair and wears a marigold orange cloak over red robes. A bearded man with gray hair standing behind him wears leaf green and looks to our right. Four men and a haloed baby crowd in the covered space to our right. The man wearing green is shown again, now holding the nude baby. The man with brown hair now wears white vestments and cuts foreskin of the baby’s penis. Two other two men look on, and a sliver of an orange cap indicates that a fifth person is at the back of the crowd. The covered space is ivory-white and has a balcony above the taller, lower level. The whole panel is edged by gold patterned with a clover-like design.

This panel, the Gallery’s Baptism of Christ, and several in other museums were part of an altarpiece illustrating the life of John the Baptist. It may have been commissioned for use in a baptistery. The various panels can be linked because the halos were decorated with the same metal punches and the backgrounds carved in the same brocade pattern. Such clues can often help identify paintings from a single workshop and to reconstruct works that have been dismantled and dispersed over time.

Here we see a sequence of three separate events from the Baptist’s infancy. First, two women admire the new infant, while a child peers in from the doorway. Next, John’s father, Zacharias, writes “his name is John” on a scroll. While writing he regains the power of speech, which had been taken from him because he was skeptical of God’s announcement that his elderly wife would conceive. One witness looks right, leading our eye to the third scene, where the infant John struggles while being circumcised.

The panel’s strong narrative sense and broad, simple figures reflect Giotto’s influence. But its strongly contrasting colors and rich detail—the patterned background, the heavy curtains, and architectural decoration—express the younger artist’s own preferences.

Master of the Life of Saint John the Baptist, Italian, active second quarter 14th century, Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist, probably 1330/1340, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.68

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Two panels on a gilded, carved, wooden frame are swung open like shutters to show a bearded, gray-haired man wearing robes standing in each wing, on either side of panel with a pointed, arched top showing a woman holding a baby. In a three-lobed shape in the apex above the woman and child, a nude man crosses his arms over his chest. All the people have pale, ivory-colored skin. Gold halos encircle each person’s head and the background of all three panels is bright gold. The woman in the center panel is shown from the hips up with her body facing us. The deep blue mantle that drapes over her shoulders and her dusty rose-pink dress beneath are trimmed in gold. A sheer veil covers her wavy blond hair and a red, triangular form sits above her forehead like a diadem. She looks to our right with dark, almond-shaped eyes. She has a straight nose, her coral-pink lips are closed, and her smooth cheeks are lightly flushed with pale pink. She holds the child in the crook of her left arm, on our right, and rests her other hand in the baby’s lap. He has short, curly blond hair and looks directly at the woman. He reaches his right arm, farther from us, around his mother’s neck and hooks his other hand in the neckline of her dress. He wears a sheer shirt edged in gold, and the fabric draped around his hips is patterned with tangerine-orange and gold, with lapis-blue clover designs. He has rounded cheeks and a pudgy tummy, but his facial features and arms are scaled more like an adult. Twisted columns separate this central panel from the shutter-like panels to each side. A single person stands in each wing, filling most of the space, and both are angled and look towards the central panel. Both men have darker, olive-toned complexions, wear long robes trimmed in gold, and stand on floors patterned with orange, gold, and sparsely spaced royal blue diamond-shapes. The man to our left has short, steel-gray hair and a trimmed beard. Wrinkles line his forehead, and his brow is furrowed. He wears a topaz-blue, long sleeved garment under a honey-orange robe, the underside of which is ruby-red where it turns back over his wrists and shoulder. He holds a book with a dark cover up in his left hand, farther from us, and a large skeleton key in his other hand. In the right panel, a balding man has a fringe of long, gray hair and a flowing, full beard. His forehead is also creased with wrinkles and his brow is furrowed. The dark, olive-green lining of his rose-pink robe shows where it folds back at his neck, over his wrists, and down the front. His robe covers a topaz-blue garment as well. He holds a book, also with a dark cover, by his side with his left hand, closer to us, and holds up a feather quill with his opposite hand. The inner edges of each of the central panel and both wings are incised with bands of decorative floral and geometric designs punched into the gold backgrounds. In the pointed peak above the central panel, the nude man is shown from the waist up in a three-lobed, clover shape that would be visible even if the wings were closed. The man’s body faces us but his haloed head tips to his right, our left. He has a beard and long brown hair, and a hole dripping blood pierces the back of his left hand, visible on our right. The base of the tryptic is inscribed with gold letters in a dark field: “AVE GRATIA PLENA DO.”

Nardo, who with brothers Andrea (called Orcagna) and Jacopo had Florence’s busiest workshop in the late 1300s, painted this small work similar to a church altarpiece for use in private devotion at home. It may have been specifically commissioned or bought from stock. The wings pivot to close like shutters; because they protected the surface, this painting is especially well preserved. Its splendor and clear colors, now rare, must have been typical.

Nardo’s Virgin, despite her soft expression, appears removed from human concerns. Bright, artificial colors separate her from the real world, and the stiff saints on either side underscore her hierarchical importance. Around the middle of the fourteenth century, Florentine artists like Nardo and his brothers abandoned the human concerns and naturalism of Giotto. For several decades the older, traditional styles again predominated. Art historians continue to debate why this occurred. Perhaps Giotto’s work was only appreciated, as Petrarch believed, by a small, educated elite.

Perhaps intensified religious sentiment following the plague of 1348—when up to half the population of Italian cities died within a few weeks—prompted this conservatism. Or perhaps the deaths of so many artists and patrons changed the nature of commissions and workshop practice.

Nardo di Cione, Italian, active 1343 - 1365/1366, Madonna and Child with Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist [left panel], probably c. 1360, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.261.a

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