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Painting in Siena in the 14th and Early 15th Centuries
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Overview

Siena, where most of the works on this tour were painted, is dominated even today by its cathedral, a dazzling facade of dark and light stone. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the centerpiece of its interior was a gold and brilliantly colored monumental altarpiece—Duccio's Maestà, some panels of which are in the Gallery's collection. Both the fame of the Maestà, which drew large numbers of pilgrims to Siena, and Duccio's influence as a teacher had a long-lived impact on the style of Sienese art. While painters in nearby Florence adopted rounder, more realistic forms, most Sienese artists in the early fourteenth century continued to prefer Duccio's linear and decorative style, which used gold and strong color to create pattern and rhythm.

Probably among Duccio's students was Simone Martini, whose reputation led him to work for the French king of Naples and for the pope, then living in Avignon. Through Simone the brilliant colors and rich patterns of Sienese art met the graceful and lyrical figures of French manuscript painting, evolving to form the International Style. Its refined and courtly manner dominated the arts across Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Simone's chief competitors in Siena were the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, whose influence can also be seen on this tour. Like Simone they were probably assistants in Duccio's workshop, but while Simone painted with refined elegance, the Lorenzetti were concerned with the definition of three-dimensional space, narrative detail, and the depiction of everyday life.

In the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a greater emphasis on human experience and perceptions prompted artists of many kinds to begin "speaking in the vernacular." Poets in Sicily invented and perfected the sonnet, and Dante wrote the Divine Comedy—not in Latin but Italian. Also for the first time, sermons were given in native Italian dialects by members of influential new religious orders, particularly the Franciscans and Dominicans, who left the shelter of monasteries to preach in cities and towns. Religion focused increasingly on human and humane concerns. The simple virtues of the early Franciscans—who renounced worldly possessions and identified strongly with Christ and his suffering—helped to shift emphasis onto Christ's human nature and to demand of religious art a new and closer identification with people's experience. Artists responded by enhancing the sense of particular time and place with detailed settings familiar to their viewers, by expanding the range of gesture and emotion, and by embroidering their narratives with anecdotal details.

Pietro Lorenzetti, Italian, active c. 1306 - probably 1348, Madonna and Child with Saint Mary Magdalene and Saint Catherine [middle panel], c. 1330/1340, tempera on panel transferred to canvas, Gift of Frieda Schiff Warburg in memory of her husband, Felix M. Warburg, 1941.5.1.b

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A winged, blond angel kneels facing our right in profile wearing a gold garment and shown against a gold background in this vertical painting. The textured robe the angel wears is a similar color to the background, and with the golden hair and wings, the painting is dominated by the color gold. The angel’s pale skin has a greenish cast but the cheeks are rosy. Blond hair is bound back around the face but falls over the shoulders. The angel looks to our right with slitted eyes over a long, straight nose and pale pink lips are closed. The hand farther away from us is drawn across the chest and tucked under the arm closer to us, with which the angel holds a tall leafy palm frond. The inside surface of the wing facing us fades from butter yellow to tangerine, and where it curves over along the upper edge, the wing is lapiz blue. The robe is textured with swirls and the gold is highlighted with a few areas of slate blue for shadows and rose pink on the sleeves. A gold halo encircles the angel’s head and the gold background is textured with an ornate decorative border along the top and both sides. The floor beneath the angel is ruby red. The gilding has worn away in some areas, especially in the background, so the red ground beneath is visible through cracks.

This small panel was originally half of a two-part panel made for private devotion. Rich with textured gold and marked by Gabriel's graceful silhouette, it is typical of Simone’s refined style.

Note the angel's ornate robe. In the decades following Marco Polo's return from China, thousands of caravans traveled the silk route carrying luxurious textiles west. As woven patterns of brocade and damask replaced embroidered and appliqued decoration, Italian cities grew wealthy from textile production and trade. Simone Martini devised new ways to re-create the look of these fabrics, and since much of the original paint of this panel has been lost, it is possible to see his technique. The entire panel, except for the hands and face, was gilded over an underlayer of red. Next Simone painted the angel’s robe in delicate pinks, shadowed with darker tones to define folds and the body. After tracing the outlines of the brocade, he scraped away the paint in the pattern area to reveal the gilding below, and finally textured the gold with tiny punches. This technique may have been inspired by Islamic “sgraffito” (scratched) ceramics, which were imported into Italy.

Simone Martini, Italian, c. 1284 - 1344, The Angel of the Annunciation, c. 1333, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.216

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Anne and Joachim were elderly and almost without hope of having children; when an angel announced that Anne would conceive, she promised the child to God's service. Here, the young Virgin, aged four or five, takes leave of her family to enter the temple. Devotion to the Virgin was especially strong in Siena, where she was patron saint. This panel was probably part of a large altarpiece commissioned for the city's cathedral, where it would have been seen near Duccio’s own altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin in Majesty, the Maestà.

Paolo, following in the tradition of Duccio and Simone Martini, used a brilliant palette—note the mosaiclike impression of his strong colors, which range from cool blues to salmony pinks and glassy greens. At the same time, Paolo has infused his scene with an appealing naturalness—legacy from another Sienese master, Pietro Lorenzetti. Paolo concentrates not on the awe-inspiring majesty of the Virgin, but on the human aspects of her story. The young Virgin pauses on the dais. Her expression as she turns a final time toward her parents is tender and rueful—the genuine response of a child.

Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Italian, mentioned 1369 - 1411, The Presentation of the Virgin, c. 1400, tempera on wood transferred to hardboard, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.4

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With one hand the infant Jesus tethers a butterfly, a traditional symbol of his resurrection, while pointing with the other to the neck of his mother's dress, where the word mater (Latin "mother") is spelled out in rich embroidery. Gentile's style, cosmopolitan and refined, reflects his work for princes and wealthy churchmen, as well as the influence of his travels. Born in central Italy, he worked in Venice, Florence, and then Siena before finally following the pope to Rome. Probably this panel was painted shortly after he arrived in Florence—its tooled gold decoration is similar to Florentine work, and the inscriptions point to the city's humanistic schools.

Its rich colors and textured gold surfaces are typical of the International Style's decorative and aristocratic manner. Note, for example, the sumptuous fabric of Mary’s sleeve and the wispy angels, barely visible, that are inscribed into the surface of the gold. The silhouette of the mother and child creates a complex and rhythmic line to which the gold-embroidered hem of Mary's gown (reading Ave Maria gratia plena…, "Hail Mary full of grace…") curls in a bright counterpoint. Nevertheless, the figures have convincing form and their dainty faces are carefully modeled with shadow and light. Gentile’s contemporaries praised his naturalism.

Gentile da Fabriano, Italian, c. 1370 - 1427, Madonna and Child Enthroned, c. 1420, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.255

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As devotion to the Virgin increased in the late Middle Ages, so did the legends surrounding her life. An entire cycle of stories evolved that loosely paralleled events of Christ's own birth and childhood, and they became popular subjects for artists.

This panel, as well as The Nativity of the Virgin and The Presentation of the Virgin, were part of a predella, a horizontal grouping of small panels below the large central image of an altarpiece. As here, the predella often narrated a sequence of events. Here, in the first panel of the series, Mary's aged father Joachim and mother Anne give alms to the poor. To their left a priest stands under the elaborate portico of the temple, from which Joachim had been expelled because the couple's childlessness was seen as a sign of God's disfavor.

Andrea di Bartolo, Italian, active from 1389 - died 1428, Joachim and the Beggars, c. 1400, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.43

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Under an arched structure, five women gather around a baby as two men sit outside the room in this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin with a faintly greenish cast. The women have blond hair and the men have gray hair. To our right, a ruby red curtain has been drawn back along the long side of a bed, and a woman there reclines propped on one elbow, facing into the room. She wears a white veil that covers her hair, neck, and shoulders and a sky blue robe edged with gold over a navy blue dress. Her head is encircled with a gold halo and she looks down toward the baby at the center of the painting. Her wrists are crossed over a gold bowl and an attendant standing next to the bed pours water from a gold pitcher over her hands. The attendant wears a forest green dress and a white cloth is wrapped over her head. A pair of women sitting on the floor near the bed hold the infant, who has a gold halo around short-cropped, blond hair. Wrapped in a white cloth, the baby stands on the lap of one woman, who wears a rose pink dress and a white cloth wrapped around her hair. The second woman in this pair, to our left, wears a golden yellow robe over a scarlet red dress, and her braided hair is wrapped around her head. She holds both hands up in front of the baby, who looks toward her, facing our left in profile. A gold bowl with a flaring foot sits on the floor in front of this trio. Coming through a darkened doorway behind them, a fifth woman wearing a topaz-blue dress enters carrying a gold dish. To our left, two bearded men sit with their backs to the gray, stone wall enclosing the room with the women. The man closer to us has a long gray beard, and his wavy hair is surrounded by a gold halo. He looks to our left in profile and wears a rose pink robe edged with gold, over a light blue garment. The second man angles his body toward him and gestures toward the haloed man with one raised finger. The second man has a trimmed, gray beard and he wears a slate blue robe over a butter yellow garment. The structure enclosing the scene is made up of several arched openings that do not quite fit together to create a cohesive room. The upper, outer corners of the building are missing, as if in ruin. The background above is shiny gold that has been worn away in some areas to show the red layer underneath.

In this panel—the second in a series of three paintings by this artist illustrating scenes from the life of Mary—we see Anne and the new infant being tended just after her birth. Details—such as the chicken brought to the new mother—made the Virgin approachable and brought sacred events into the realm of the viewer's own experience.

Andrea di Bartolo, Italian, active from 1389 - died 1428, The Nativity of the Virgin, c. 1400, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.42

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An older woman and man stand behind a young girl who climbs the steps of a structure, in which a bearded man stands with his hands outstretched, while a group of four women and a pair of bearded men gather to our right, all against a shimmering gold background in this vertical painting. All the people have light skin with long noses, dark eyes, and their garments are edged with gold. The young girl, Mary, walks to our right but looks back to our left. She has reddish blond hair pulled back under a scarlet red headband, hazel-green eyes, and her rosebud lips are closed. Her rose-pink, long-sleeved dress falls to her feet and is covered with a stylized, gold, floral pattern. She holds a book with a red cover in one hand and holds up the hem of her dress with the other. She and the two older people behind her have flat, gold halos incised with geometric patterns surrounding their heads. The older couple behind her face our right in profile. The older woman stands closer to us, wearing a white veil that covers her head, neck, and shoulders. With one hand she holds the sides of her aquamarine-blue cloak closed over her pine green dress, and she holds her right hand, to our left, up near her shoulder with the palm facing Mary. The man behind her has a gray beard and wavy hair, and he wears a dusky-rose colored cloak over a long-sleeved garment of the same blue. He raises his right hand near Mary’s elbow, as if encouraging her up the peach-colored stairs she climbs. The arched, domed structure above has ivory-white walls, and the ceiling is blue with gold stars. Mary walks up toward a man standing with his hands open toward her in the structure. He has shoulder-length, curly gray hair and a long beard, and wears a tall, pointed cap above a gold crown. His crimson-red cloak falls open over a long white robe that ends just shy of the golden-yellow garment beneath, which falls to his feet. Tucked into the corner behind him and to our right, four young girls or women with blond hair tucked under headbands stand in a close group, wearing dresses of butter yellow, crimson, or rose pink. The girl closest to us crosses her arms across her chest and looks to our right, but the others look toward the man in the structure. They stand next to a rectangular altar covered with a white cloth and holding a tall, gold vessel. The two bearded men in the lower right corner of the painting look toward each other and point in opposite directions, one wearing a lilac purple cloak over a red robe and the other forest-green cloak over a lilac robe. Red shows through in some areas of the vibrant gold background, as if flaking or rubbed away.

Here, the young Virgin enters the same temple portico and is greeted by the same priest we saw in the first panel, Joachim and the Beggars. This continuity lends realism to the scenes despite their gold backgrounds.

Andrea di Bartolo, Italian, active from 1389 - died 1428, The Presentation of the Virgin, c. 1400, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.41

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While Andrea's scenes of the Virgin's life were intended to relate a story and to engage the viewer by depicting sacred events in familiar settings, this small image invites contemplation.

This way of representing the Virgin—in which she sits not on an elaborate throne but on a simple cushion on the ground—is known as the Madonna of Humility, probably reflecting the relationship between the Latin words humilitas ("humility") and humus ("ground"). It seems to have been invented by Simone Martini and became extremely popular. As Mary suckles the infant, she gazes wistfully away. Contemporary viewers would have instantly "read" her expression as reflecting sadness at her son's future.

Andrea di Bartolo, Italian, active from 1389 - died 1428, Madonna and Child [obverse], c. 1415, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.20.a

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A thin, haggard, olive-skinned, nearly nude man is nailed to a wooden cross in this vertical painting. His body is stretched and elongated between wide-spread hands. Blood trickles from where each hand has been nailed to the cross and from a gash over his right ribs, on our left. The blood from the nail in his overlapping feet trickles down the shallow platform on which they rest, down the foot of the cross, and onto the ground. His head droops down to our left, eyes closed and shaded under deeply furrowed brows. Blood also drips from the ring of thorns around his long, coppery-red hair. He has a long, straight nose, a short beard, and his lips are slightly parted. The man wears a sheer white cloth loosely draped low on his hips. The background is streaked with tawny brown, burnt orange, and gold.

The foreboding mood of Andrea's Madonna and Child is reinforced by the painting on its reverse side depicting the crucifixion. This side is not on view. The viewer is intended to meditate, as Mary does, on the life and suffering of Christ and to empathize with her. The panel was painted for the private devotions of the small figure kneeling at the right. She may have been a Dominican nun; if so, the painting hung in her convent cell. If she was a lay person, it would have been used for meditations in the quiet and privacy of her bedroom.

Andrea di Bartolo, Italian, active from 1389 - died 1428, The Crucifixion [reverse], c. 1415, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.20.b

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Enclosed within the pale, coral-colored stucco walls of a courtyard, a family group and three men wait their turn to approach a man with a gold halo standing in the lower right corner, who holds a bag of money and reaches out a hand to drop coins into a bowl held by a small boy in this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin except for one man, to our left, with a swarthier complexion. The cleanshaven man to our right, Saint Anthony, has short blond hair, and he wears a gold-trimmed burgundy cloak and pale-green hose. His disk-like gold halo has a band of rings near its perimeter. In his left hand, closer to us, he holds a bulging, ivory-white, cloth purse by its strings, as he offers coins with his right. The boy receiving the offering is small and fair-haired, dressed in a spring-green cloak, with yellow hose and black shoes. He stands next to a woman wearing a patched, caramel-brown dress and a cream-white veil over her head, neck, and shoulders. She holds a fair, blond infant wearing sky-blue. Another woman, stooped with age, hair also veiled, stands with them. Behind this group and to our left, also awaiting alms, is a curly-haired, darker-complected young man with a sparse beard, in a fraying black robe. His chemise pokes through a hole in his right sleeve and he leans forward as if unsteady on his bare feet, perhaps about to cough into the cloth in his left hand. Behind him a taller, older man, hair and beard white with age, is apparently departing; he walks toward our left with his eyes closed, steadied by a staff and led by a small black and white dog on a rope. He wears a green cap, topped with black fur, a pale-blue cape over a brown robe. His finery, like the clothes of all the supplicants, frays at the bottom. A bearded man with a darker, olive complexion enters the scene from our left, walking staff in hand, clad in a turban-like cap, a brown robe and black shoes. Through an open, arched doorway to our right, beyond the alms-giving saint, a second image of Anthony is shown descending a staircase with purse in hand. Also with a gold halo, he approaches another arched opening with a stout wooden door, through which piles of gold coins are heaped. The arcade of the second level of the courtyard fills the top quarter of the painting and extends off the top edge. A shield-shaped coat of arms is shown over the doorway closest to us to our right, with three stars across a gray band against a golden yellow background.

Along with The Death of Saint Anthony, Saint Anthony Leaving His Monastery, and The Meeting of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul this is one of a series of panels illustrating the life of Saint Anthony, founder of Christian monasticism. Their original setting is uncertain but they were probably from a single altarpiece where they were arranged vertically to flank a central image of a saint, painted or perhaps sculpted. In the first scene (illustrated here), young Anthony renounces his wealth and distributes it among the poor.

Although he lived in the third century, the saint is depicted in contemporary guise. The arms of a prominent Sienese family appear over a doorway, and some of the architecture may reflect specific buildings in the city and surrounding area. Here are beggars with patches on their clothing, a blind man being led by his small dog, and on the balcony, the iron spikes that supported awnings against the summer sun. Like the dramatic sermons of street preachers and the performance of religious plays, in which townspeople acted the parts of saints, these details helped viewers visualize sacred events with immediacy and vividness.

The artist combined tradition—note the typically Sienese brilliance of his pinks and greens—with a new interest in landscape and experiments in perspective. Through windows and doorways overlapping layers make depth legible.

Master of the Osservanza, Italian, active late 1420s - early 1440s, Sano di Pietro, Italian, 1405 - 1481, Saint Anthony Distributing His Wealth to the Poor, c. 1430/1435, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.20

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This nearly square painting is visually divided into three vertical zones, with a pergola-like structure occupied by two people at the center taking up the most space, and narrower scenes to either side. The central structure has a shallow roof and several types of arched openings—some rounded and some pointed, all of different sizes. A winged person to the left under the structure has curly blond hair and wears a shell-pink, floor-length garment. A seated woman to the right wears a lapis blue dress and a white head covering. She sits with her forearms crossed over her chest, her hands in front of her shoulders. Both have plate-like gold halos. Two arched openings at the back of the structure lead into rooms beyond. In the left quarter of the painting, a nude man and woman are pushed through an arched gateway by a winged and haloed person. A bearded, haloed man looks down from a gold cloud above. Forest green trees line the garden at the back and flowers and rabbits fill the space around the people’s feet. To the right, a balding, bearded man warms his hands at a fire in a room beyond the central structure. He wears rose pink and has a gold halo. All the figures have white skin tinged in some areas with pale green.

Giovanni's brilliant color and pattern were typically Sienese, but he is distinguished from his teachers and contemporaries by an expressive imagination. His unique style is otherworldly and spiritual. Here the drama is heightened by a dark background and contrasting colors, nervous patterns, and unreal proportions. In the center, Gabriel brings news of Christ's future birth to the Virgin. Thus is put in motion the promise of salvation for humankind, a salvation necessitated by the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, which we see happening on the left, outside Mary's jewellike home. Mary will reopen the doors of Paradise closed by Eve's sin. The scene of Joseph warming himself in front of a fire, on the right, is an unusual addition. Perhaps it refers simply to the season of Jesus' birth, but more likely it is layered with other meanings, suggesting the flames of hope and charity and invoking the winter of sin now to be replaced by the spring of this new era of Grace. The three scenes help make explicit the connection between the Fall and God's promise of salvation, which is fulfilled at the moment of the Annunication.

Though Giovanni's primary concern is not the appearance of the natural world, it is clear that he was aware of contemporary developments in the realistic depiction of space. Note how the floor tiles appear to recede, a technique adopted by Florentine artists experimenting with the new science of perspective.

Giovanni di Paolo, Italian, c. 1403 - 1482, The Annunciation and Expulsion from Paradise, c. 1435, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.223

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