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Italian Altarpieces and Religious Sculpture of the 1300s


The Gothic style of the twelfth through fifteenth centuries sought to bring a vision of the heavenly paradise to earth. Architecture soared upward on thin columns, and light streamed through tall windows. The shapes of Gothic paintings and sculpture often reflect the pointed arches and steep gables of the churches they adorned.

Unified in their motifs, artistic ensembles made use of sumptuous, symbolic color schemes. The paintings' gold-leafed backgrounds, for instance, recall God's divine light, and much of the sculpture bears traces of original paint and gilding, too. Spiritual significance dictated figure scale; the more important subjects were rendered in larger sizes. Courtly figures with elegant poses and slender anatomy characterize Gothic art, as do the sweeping folds in their draped robes and their curvilinear silhouettes.

An adoration of Mary as the all-nurturing mother arose in the western Christian world during the later Middle Ages. The Madonna (Italian for “My Lady”) appears both in specific scenes from her legend and as a sacred intercessor who offers her son Jesus as the way to salvation.

Verona 14th Century, Madonna and Child with Two Angels, 1321, marble, overall: 89.5 x 46.4 x 38.8 cm (35 1/4 x 18 1/4 x 15 1/4 in.), Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.95

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Against a shiny gold background, a man with peach-colored skin nearly fills this tall, narrow, vertical panel above a row of twelve people, significantly smaller in scale, kneeling by his feet and looking up at the man, their hands together in prayer. The top of the panel comes to a point above the man’s head. His body faces us, and he looks at us with brown eyes under furrowed, dark eyebrows. His nose is long and straight, and his mouth is small with a rosy lower lip. He has a brown, trimmed beard, and his hair is receding. He holds up a gold-handled sword with a slate-gray blade in his right hand, on our left, while in his other hand, he cradles a thick black book with a gold-edged pages against his chest. The man wears a floor-length, celery-green tunic with a flowing, rose-pink robe over his left shoulder, on our right, and around his body. The robe is lined with tangerine orange and has a faint, patterned border. The toes of his sandaled feet stick out. On a smaller scale, along the bottom of the painting, six pairs of people kneel facing the center, three couples to each side. Eleven of the people gaze with heads tipped back, up at the man with their hands folded in prayer. To our right, one woman turns and gestures, mouth open, to her neighbor. Their long robes are painted in shades of shell pink, indigo blue, scarlet red, butter yellow, sage green, and chestnut brown. Some wear white fabric over their hair while others are bareheaded. The gold background is incised around the man’s head to create a halo. Molding and a band of alternating strips of slate blue and brick red enclose the pointed panel. Three shapes, like small banners, are painted in red with gold lettering around the man’s head, with an “S” at the top center, “PAU” over his shoulder to our left, and “LUS” to our right. In the blue and red band set into the frame at the lower center, an inscription reads, “NI.MCCCXXXIII M II.ESPLETUM FUIT HC OPUS.” There is a noticeable network of cracks across the painting’s surface, especially on the gold background behind the man.

The narrow shape and large size of this panel suggest it was meant to hang against a colossal pillar in a church. The original frame utilizes decorative motifs similar to those in the borders of Gothic illuminated manuscripts.

Saint Paul holds a book, recalling the Epistles he wrote. The sword he displays has several meanings: his early career as a Roman soldier; his position as defender of the Christian faith; and the instrument of his martyrdom by beheading. The great dignity of his erect figure and the monumental effect of the drapery correspond to his stern, direct gaze. His imposing presence implies that the painter Bernardo Daddi may have been a pupil of Giotto.

A sweeter, gentler mood emanates from the small figures representing the donors who commissioned this painting. Although depictions of donors are not unusual in Gothic art, it is rare to find so many husbands and wives shown kneeling together. The couples are separated, just as men and women were while worshiping in church during the Middle Ages.

Bernardo Daddi, Italian, active 1312 - probably 1348, Saint Paul, 1333, tempera on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.3

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According to Mary’s legend, after her death she was crowned the Queen of Heaven by her son Jesus. Here, musical angels serenade her coronation. Dressed in pale olive green, one angel plays a lute while another, garbed in iridescent robes, strums a mandore. Such pastel colors infuse the poetic paintings of Agnolo Gaddi, who also preferred intricate, delicate patterns. The surface of the painted gesso plaster was textured by designs impressed with punching tools. The crowns of the Madonna and Christ are so deeply indented as to appear three-dimensional.

In a large altarpiece by Gaddi, Madonna Enthroned with Saints and Angels, also in the Gallery’s collection, several of the angels have faces that nearly duplicate the angels here. Gaddi’s Coronation probably formed the central section of a similarly complex altarpiece, the side panels of which are now missing.

Agnolo Gaddi, Italian, active 1369 - 1396, The Coronation of the Virgin, probably c. 1370, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.203

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Two men with gray hair and beards stand under pointed arches with a winged angel in the triangular gable above, all against a gold background and set within a carved, gold frame in this vertical painting. This is the left wing of a three-panel triptych. The people all have pale skin with rosy cheeks, and the men’s faces are shaded with gray. Each man is set within his own pointed arch. Both of their bodies are angled very slightly to our right, toward the central panel, and they both wear long, voluminous robes. The man on the left gazes over our heads with dark eyes. His long, wavy gray hair frames his tan face, and tufts stick out the top and sides. His celery-green cloak is trimmed with gold, and it drapes over his blush-pink robe. He holds a wooden cross slightly taller than he is, tucked into his left elbow and leaning on that shoulder, to our right. In that hand, he holds a coiled, white rope. His other hand is held up by his waist but is covered with the green cloak. The man to our right looks in that direction. He is mostly bald with a fringe of curly hair over his ears. He wears a loose silvery-white robe and holds a bundle of rods in his right hand, resting on that shoulder. In his other hand, he holds an open book facing us so we can read the Latin text. Both men have halos carved into the gold background, and they stand on a floor patterned with gold and burgundy red. The outer columns of the panel have pairs of twisted shafts that support the gable, which has a circle carved into its center. In that roundel is an angel inside a four-lobed quatrefoil. Shown from the waist up, the angel has blond hair, a diadem, gold and crimson-red wings, and wears a shell-pink robe. Facing our right in profile, two fingers of the right hand are raised. Above the angel, a face is surrounded by blood-red wings, set within a shape that has three lobes alternating with three points. Barely discernable, the panel is inscribed across the bottom below the saints, “S. ANDREAS AP L U S; S. BENEDICTUS ABBAS.” The Latin text in the book reads, “AUSCU LTA.O FILI.PR ECEPTA .MAGIS RI.ET.IN CLINA.AUREM CORDIS.T UI A MONITIONE M.PII.PA TRIS.LI BENTE R.EXCIP E.ET.EF.”

This three-part altarpiece or triptych is still in a Gothic frame, but the spiral columns are modern replacements reconstructed from traces of the now-lost originals. In the larger center panel, angels worship Mary as she sits on an elaborate throne. Jesus, standing on his mother’s lap, embraces her neck. Above them, in the main pinnacle, Jesus appears again as the adult Savior, holding open the Book of Revelation. In the pinnacles to either side, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary face each other in an Annunciation scene.

Four saints flank the throne. At the far left, holding the cross upon which he was crucified, is Andrew the Apostle, one of Christ’s first disciples. On the far right is Catherine of Alexandria. A princess and scholar, she wears a crown and carries a book. She stands upon a broken wheel with spikes, in reference to a torture from which she was miraculously rescued, and holds a palm frond to signify her triumph over death as a martyr.

Saint Benedict, a sixth-century founder of monasticism, displays a text with the opening words of the Benedictine Rule, “Harken, O son, to the precepts of the master.” Reading from another book is Saint Bernard, a twelfth-century monastic reformer who helped found the strict, Cistercian branch of Benedictine monks. The white robes of Benedict and Bernard suggest the altar was commissioned for a Cistercian monastery.

The clearly organized color scheme makes it evident why Agnolo Gaddi, whose father had been a pupil of Giotto, was the most sought after painter in late fourteenth-century Florence. Mary and Jesus are surrounded by the brightest colors in the painting, the reds and greens of the angels’ wings and robes. Then come the neutral whites of the two monks’ habits. Bracketing the entire design are the rose pink and lime green of the outer saints’ robes and attributes, which echo, in pastel tints, the pure colors of the center angels.

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

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Giovanni di Balduccio’s Charity is characteristic of the medieval and Renaissance practice of personifying the Christian virtues as human figures with identifying attributes. Charity here has a scroll bearing her name and a startling combination of the attributes associated with that virtue: a flaming heart, and infants who nurse on milk flowing from her bosom. She looks heavenward, the irises of her eyes inset with metal accents.

The quatrefoil or four-lobed shape of the lozenge from which Charity and the children seem to emerge is typical of ornamental forms that also appear in Gothic manuscript illumination, stained glass, and architecture. The marble relief comes from a set of at least sixteen, whose surviving elements represent Christ’s twelve apostles and the virtues of Truth, Obedience, Poverty, and Charity. Most are still set into the outside walls of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence.

Giovanni di Balduccio, Italian, active 1318/1319 - 1349, Charity, c. 1330, marble, overall: 45.1 x 35.3 cm (17 3/4 x 13 7/8 in.), Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1960.5.4

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A woman sitting on a pillow on the floor holds a baby stretched stiffly across her lap, and both are shown against a gold background in this arched, vertical painting. Ranks of four winged angels float to each side and a man hovers overhead, above a dove that flies down toward the baby. All the people have light skin, strawberry-blond hair, and their heads are surrounded by gold halos. The woman at the center wears a royal-blue, hooded cloak over a dusky rose-pink dress. The cloak is edged with gold, and there is a gold starburst on each shoulder. Her dress is covered with gold, scrolling vines and geometric patterns. She sits facing us with her head tipped to her right, our left, and she gazes down at  the baby with narrowed, almond-shaped, light brown eyes. She has a long, delicate nose and her small pink lips are closed. The baby has chubby, pink cheeks but his body is more like that of an adult. He lies stiffly across the woman’s lap, wrapped in shimmering gold fabric that leaves his bare feet, chest, and arms exposed. He looks at us as he reaches up and touches the woman’s breast, which emerges from her dress near her right shoulder. He has snail-like curls, medium brown eyes, a rounded nose, and small, pink lips. The pillow the woman sits on has tassels in the corners. The muted pink floor is veined with sage green. A book with a scarlet-red cover and gilded edges sits nearby. On either side of the woman, four winged angels cluster in two rows of two, near the arched top of the panel. The angels all have coral-pink diadems in long blond hair, and they look toward the woman in profile with wrists crossed against their chests or held together in prayer. They wear robes in ivory white, brick red, or royal blue, all decorated throughout with gold patterns. Emerging from a narrow band of clouds to the upper right, a bearded man wearing a blue robe over a pink garment, also both edged with gold, floats above the woman with his right hand extended. He holds a book in his other hand. The white dove below is connected to the man's extended right hand by long lines, like stylized rays of light. Red shows through some cracks and worn areas of the gleaming gold background.

In the early Middle Ages, Mary normally was represented enthroned as the Queen of Heaven. At the beginning of the 1300s, though, partly due to the humanistic teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi, a new subject emerged—the Madonna of Humility—which shows Mary seated upon the ground or, as in this case, a cushion. This Madonna of Humility adds the theme of the baby Jesus reaching for his mother’s breast to nurse. God the Father appears overhead, and the dove of the Holy Spirit flies down upon rays of light. Thus, the entire Trinity is present along with the Virgin.

Andrea Orcagna was the eldest of three artist brothers who often collaborated. Jacopo di Cione, the youngest brother, may have assisted Orcagna in the execution of this work. A small triptych or three-part altarpiece by their middle brother, Nardo di Cione, is also in the Gallery’s collection.

Orcagna, Italian, active 1343 - 1368, and Jacopo di Cione, Italian, active 1365/1398, Madonna and Child with Angels, before 1370 tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.18

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This wooden, painted, free-standing sculpture is of a young woman standing and holding an open book with one hand and holding the other to her chest. The woman’s skin, gown, and long mantle are painted cream white. The mantle covers the back of her head and has a denim-blue lining visible in the folds around her shoulders, waist, and inside the hanging sleeves. It falls just below her knees and wraps around her long gown. The skirt below her knees has traces of brick red but much of the pigment there is lost. In this photograh, her body is angled to our right but she turns her head to look down in front of us with pale brown eyes. Wavy, brown hair is parted down the middle to frame her face. Her right hand, on our left, is raised to touch her chest while her other hand holds an open book at her waist, its pages facing outward. She stands on an octagonal wooden base painted gold. The surface of the sculpture is cracked, flaking, and worn in some areas, allowing the underlying wood to show through.

The Virgin Annunciate (shown here) and The Archangel Gabriel make up a monumental Annunciation pair, in which Mary holds the Old Testament from which she has been reading the prophecies that a virgin would conceive. Arriving to announce to her that she has been chosen for this honor, the Archangel Gabriel places one hand over his heart to acknowledge her sanctity and greets her with the other hand. In exquisite Gothic refinement, Mary and the angel, with small, fine features and rhythmically waving hair, incline toward each other in graceful poses. The deep, curving folds of drapery create elegantly ornamental surface effects and add grace to their subtle movements.

These works are early copies after a pair of marble statues, very famous in their time, from the church of Santa Caterina in Pisa (now in a museum in that city). Such Annunciation pairs would perhaps have flanked the entrance to the high altar area of a church or the altar itself or have been set into a tabernacle. As with panel paintings of the Middle Ages, the wood sculpture was prepared with coats of a fine plaster, called gesso, in order to receive paint. Traces of pigment that once covered the surfaces remain—red, blue, green, and a red and gilt pattern on the mantle borders.

Pisan 14th Century, The Virgin Annunciate, 1325/1350, wood, polychromed and gilded, overall: 162.3 x 53.8 x 39.9 cm (63 7/8 x 21 3/16 x 15 11/16 in.), Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.98

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Angel with Symphonia (shown here) and Angel with Tambourine, with their slight Gothic sway, pudgy faces, and abundant draperies may once have belonged to a larger group of angels whose other members are lost. Their instruments are of interest for the history of music. The symphonia, an early form of hurdy-gurdy, and the tambourine or timbrel with rattles would “Make a joyful noise unto God” (Psalms 66 and 150).

Such figures, carved in the round, might have stood on top of the pinnacles of a complex Gothic monument whose central image would have represented Christ, the Virgin, or both. Since both angels look to their right, they must have been placed on the same side of the main subject. The notable differences in their faces, movements, and drapery styles suggest more than one hand was involved in their creation.

Possibly Pisan 14th Century, Angel with Symphonia, c. 1360, marble, overall: 53.8 x 21.5 x 17.8 cm (21 3/16 x 8 7/16 x 7 in.), Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1960.5.14

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Tino di Camaino, a sculptor born in Siena who died in Naples, could coax remarkably soft effects from marble. The figures in this relief, gentle and supple, with flowing garments, respond tenderly to each other. The saints standing on either side of the Madonna and Child are probably the early thirteenth-century Francis of Assisi and his follower Clare, who founded an order of Franciscan nuns. Saint Clare and the Virgin Mary both reach out to touch a nun who kneels before them.

The woman wearing a veil, but carrying a crown around her arm, has been identified as Queen Sancia of Naples. Out of devotion to the religious orders of Saints Francis and Clare, she reportedly often exchanged her regal garments for the habit of a nun, and thus she appears here—with her earthly crown removed in deference to the celestial crown worn by the Madonna. In 1343, after the death of her husband, Robert the Wise of Naples, Sancia joined the Order of Saint Clare.

Tino di Camaino, Italian, c. 1285 - 1337, Madonna and Child with Queen Sancia, Saints and Angels, c. 1335, marble, overall: 51.4 x 37.8 x 8.5 cm (20 1/4 x 14 7/8 x 3 3/8 in.), Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1960.5.1

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