This early Madonna is unusual in Sano’s prolific career in that it shows not only the graceful linear forms that characterize Sienese painting, but also the powerful effect of Florentine realism in the pliant muscularity of the Child and the sense of observed reality in the head of the Madonna. The Madonna of Humility refers to images of the Virgin seated modestly on the ground (usually, as here, on a cushion), emphasizing her humanity and motherhood, as opposed to the Madonna Enthroned, which presents her as the Queen of Heaven.
As was common in other images of this genre, this Madonna is surrounded by cherubim, junior members of the family of angels and often depicted as winged heads.
Saint James Major was one of Jesus’ apostles and became the patron saint of pilgrims, those devoted and adventurous Christians who made their way over hundreds of miles to the Holy Land or to the chief pilgrimage churches of Europe. Their connection with James arose from the belief that the apostle had traveled across the Mediterranean as far as Spain to found the famous pilgrimage church Santiago (Spanish for Saint James) de Compostela. The seashell, symbolizing that voyage, and the pilgrim staff are the saint’s usual attributes.
Crivelli is noted for the linear intensity and sculptural hardness of his forms, seen here in the knobby toes and the spiraling curls of hair. However, in this image of the saint, who in the original altarpiece would have been gazing at the Madonna and Child, we also see a certain tenderness, in his pose, his gesture, and the tilt of his head.
This mosaic is a rare fragment from the funerary monument of Pope Boniface VIII (1235–1303). Recently attributed to Jacopo Torriti, who played an important role in the innovations of expressiveness and humanity that characterized late thirteenth-century art, this fragment represents the culmination of his achievement. Only two mosaic fragments from his tomb are known to survive: this head of the Madonna, and the Christ Child now in the State Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
This altarpiece of which this is a direct replica was commissioned from Luini in 1523 for the church of San Magno in the northern Italian town of Legnano. Luini’s debt to his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci can be seen in the soft transitions in the modeling of the faces of the Madonna and Child, and in the similar sweetness of the angels’ expressions. Artistic mastery is evident not only in the rendering of human form, but also in the bravura handling of the bubble above the Child’s hand; only the lightest touches of white paint indicate the reflection of light off the bubble’s transparent surface and reveal its presence.
October 3, 2003–September 19, 2006
The newly reunited masterwork of Nardo di Cione on view is the most important fourteenth-century altarpiece in the United States. A group of panel paintings, most from the fifteenth century, or quattrocento, a term that refers broadly to the early Renaissance in Italy, represents a cross-section of religious art from the early Italian Renaissance.
Many of these pictures use gold backgrounds to evoke a sense of the eternal realm. It may at first appear that all gold-ground paintings look alike. All were executed in egg-based tempera on wood using a similar technique in the layering of paint. But within the conventions imposed by the medium, close examination reveals a wide variety of brushwork, some of it quite lively. In addition, gestures and facial expressions differ from artist to artist.
The majority of the pictures on view were painted either in Florence or Siena, the two great centers of early Italian Renaissance painting. Florence was known for the monumental style pioneered by the fourteenth-century master Giotto (1267–1337), while Siena’s artists distinguished themselves with the delicacy of their lyrical and sinuous lines. Two small pictures of the Madonna and Child are Flemish and represent the Northern approach to this universal theme both in their style, with its attention to crisp detail, and in their medium, with the use of oil paint instead of tempera.
The way we look at these pictures in our time differs dramatically from the experience of Renaissance viewers. In the Museum, we may admire the paintings’ aesthetic qualities, but many original viewers—gazing upon them in a church or private chapel—also understood them to be imbued with spiritual power. Not only the Christian symbolism of the works, but also the frontal orientation of the holy subjects—toward the viewer—prompted spiritual meditation. The saints’ gestures of reverence for the Madonna and Child, the Madonna’s compassion for her son, and Christ’s suffering on the Cross all offered powerful visual models of piety for the faithful to follow. In addition, the careful rendering of the figures heightened the sense of veneration, as did the use of precious materials.
This exhibition is made possible by the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation in celebration of its 25th Anniversary. Additional support is provided by Arthur Richenthal and other generous friends of the Museum.