Comparing the Nardo Panels
At first glance, Christ Blessing looks quite different from Nardo di Cione’s larger panel on view here: the colors are subdued, and the gold background is no longer brilliant. Closer examination of the two panels, however, reveals the similarities in the artist’s working technique.
The “punching” (round indentations hammered into the gold leaf) is the same in both works. Christ’s halo in the smaller painting is punched with solid large rosettes and smaller ones with a center and six petals (fig. 7). The same solid rosette is pressed along the outer edge of the Madonna’s halo (fig. 8) and the petal rosettes in the halo of the Christ Child. These identical punches confirm that a single workshop, using the same metal tools, made both works.
The face of the Madonna and the face in Christ Blessing show similar strong lines at the base of the nose and outlining the eyes. The eyes are painted with dark pupils surrounded by light brown, and dark strokes outline the iris (figs. 9, 10).
Renaissance Paintings from the Museum's Collection
The collection of European painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art numbers almost two thousand objects, dating from the thirteenth to the early twentieth centuries. A selection of pictures, arranged thematically, can be seen on the third floor of the Museum under the title About Time: 700 Years of European Painting.
In this gallery, we present a small group of panel paintings, most from the fifteenth century, or quattrocento, a term that refers broadly to the early Renaissance in Italy. Many of these pictures, with their religious subjects, exhibit an elegant sense of tension between the earthly and the eternal. Their use of perspective to depict the three-dimensional world of the here and now can be seen as the first glimmering of the Renaissance, while their gold backgrounds are vestiges of the medieval evocation 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 in this gallery were painted in either 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 on 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.
Elizabeth W. Easton
Department of European Painting and Sculpture
Most of the paintings in this gallery were originally part of larger structures that came to be broken up and separated over time. Their source is either an altarpiece, a structure of significant size made for use in a chapel; or a smaller devotional work intended for private veneration.
The typical altarpiece structure is composed of a main central panel—most often in the early Renaissance depicting the Madonna and Child—with additional panels on either side. These side panels may contain figures of saints or significant episodes of the Christian story. In more complex altarpieces, there is often also a predella, a horizontal narrative panel running along the bottom of the main structure and composed in a much smaller scale. The predella often recounts episodes in the lives of the saints from the larger panels above.
The small devotional image intended for private worship is very often a triptych, so called because it consists of three panels. The central panel is flanked by two “wings,” which are frequently shaped so as to fold over like shutters and exactly cover the main image. This arrangement enabled the triptych to be easily moved.
It was within these altarpieces and other devotional structures, as well as in the frescoed decoration of church interiors, that the art of painting flourished and developed in the various urban centers and regions of early Renaissance Italy. Independent easel painting, together with themes drawn from antiquity or the secular world, did not begin to emerge into equal prominence until toward the end of the fifteenth century.
Collecting Early Italian Art
Most of the pictures in this gallery were purchased by Frank L. Babbott, an early patron of the Museum, on various trips to Italy early in the twentieth century. Babbott’s taste was for works that are relatively small in size but possessed of a restrained yet intense spirituality. Other pictures shown here were the bequest of A. Augustus Healy, one of the first presidents of the Museum. Although art from the High Renaissance was the acknowledged domain of the royal collections of Europe, from the mid-nineteenth century other collectors from America and abroad began to believe that early Renaissance painting contained the seeds of modern civilization.
The large altarpiece by Nardo di Cione also on view was taken from Florence to Paris at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and then purchased in 1851 by Thomas Jefferson Bryan, with the goal of bringing religious painting to a young America. It was one of the most important panels of his bequest to the New-York Historical Society in 1867. The Brooklyn Museum purchased the picture in 1995 at the sale of Italian paintings from the Historical Society, preserving for New York its heritage of the public display of early Renaissance paintings.
Creating a Renaissance Panel
Each panel painting represents the joint effort of highly specialized craftsmen—a carpenter, a gold worker, and a painter—whose methods and materials were strictly controlled by guilds. The carpenter first cut the panel, typically from a poplar tree. In order to make a smooth surface on which to paint, the artist coated the panel with animal glue and sometimes glued canvas or parchment to the surface. A white material called gesso was evenly/smoothly applied to the entire surface for the artist’s initial drawing.
At this stage, the gold worker applied and polished several layers of red clay, called bole, to the areas set aside for the application of thin gold leaf, which he adhered with animal glue. Gold leaf was customarily embellished with decorative patterns hammered into the surface with special metal tools called punches (see fig. 1). Each artist’s studio had its own tools and patterns for punching, and characteristic tooling often helps to identify individual artist’s studios.
Flesh areas in the figures were underpainted by the artist with a green pigment that determined the overlying modeling in light and shadow. The artist then began to paint the scene with dry color pigments mixed in egg and water. Because of its quick-drying property, painters using egg tempera employed fine, short, individual brushstrokes (fig. 2). The composition was often further embellished with fine lines of decoration (fig. 3), frequently found in the robes of figures, drawn with an adhesive to which gold leaf was attached. In a technique for which Nardo di Cione is well known, called sgraffito, the gilding is covered with pigment that is then selectively scraped away in patterns, as may be seen, for example, in the bird decoration of the throne cloth behind the Madonna (fig. 4).
Egg tempera remains stable over time, but changes do occur through the natural aging of materials or through later restorations. Once hidden beneath the paint layers, much of the underdrawing and green underpaint in Nardo’s large panel can be seen today, because aging paint increases in transparency and because paint layers have been rubbed thin in past cleanings (fig. 5). Likewise, red bole is visible through the loss of gold layers. The Madonna’s cloak was originally painted with a brilliant blue-green pigment called azurite; the cloak has darkened over time due to the discoloration of applied varnishes (fig. 6). Although today we cannot see Nardo’s altarpiece the way it looked when it left his studio, we can better understand his working process as age has revealed the picture’s many layers.
An Altarpiece in Context
Included here are contemporary photographs of the exterior and interior of the Florence Cathedral. Today, an altarpiece depicting Saint Zenobius, painted by Giovanni del Biondo (1333/5–1399, active 1356–99), a student of Nardo’s brother Andrea, occupies a pier in the Cathedral, hung in a manner similar to the way Nardo’s altarpiece was probably installed.
Scientific Examination of the Nardo Panels
At first glance, Christ Blessing looks quite different from Nardo di Cione’s larger panel on view here: the colors are subdued, and the gold background is no longer brilliant. Closer examination of the two panels, however reveals the similarities in the artist’s working technique. The “punching” (round indentations hammered into the gold leaf) is the same in both works.
Christ’s halo in the smaller painting is punched with solid large rosettes and smaller ones with a center and six petals (fig. 7). The same solid rosette is pressed along the outer edge of the Madonna’s halo (fig. 8) and the petal rosettes in the halo of the Christ Child. These identical punches confirm that a single workshop, using the same metal tools, made both works. The face of the Madonna and the face in Christ Blessing show similar strong lines at the base of the nose and outlining the eyes (figs. 7, 9). The eyes are painted with dark pupils surrounded by light brown, and dark strokes outline the iris (figs. 10, 11).
For the first time in nearly 150 years, the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s altarpiece by Nardo di Cione, Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, will be shown complete with its uppermost panel, Christ Blessing, which was recently acquired by the Museum. The complete work, considered the most important mid-14th-century Italian painting in America, is part of Nardo di Cione: The Reuniting of an Altarpiece, an exhibition at the BMA opening November 17, 2000, that celebrates the early Renaissance master and the reunion of these two panels. The exhibition closes on February 18, 2001.
The Museum’s Madonna and Child with Saints is one of the most remarkable achievements of Nardo di Cione, whose known oeuvre comprises fewer than thirty works. The Museum purchased that panel from the 1995 Sotheby’s sale of art from the New-York Historical Society, and has been able to complete the altarpiece with the recent purchase of the pinnacle, representing Christ. The two pictures were last seen together at an auction in 1851.
The Christ Blessing panel was first severed from the rest of the altarpiece to facilitate transport from Italy to Paris when Artaud de Montor purchased the work in 1808. The two panels remained together in that collection until 1851, when they were sold separately. The main altarpiece, Madonna and Child with Saints, was purchased by Thomas Jefferson Bryan, who later bequeathed the work to the New-York Historical Society in 1867. The Christ Blessing panel, long thought to be lost, and known only through an engraving, was in fact in a private collection, and resurfaced in a sale in England in the Spring of 2000.
Related works by Nardo di Cione will also be included in the exhibition, to give a context to this masterpiece. The exhibition will also present information about the various processes used by Museum curators and conservators to analyze works of art.
Nardo di Cione is being organized by Elizabeth Easton, Chair of the Department of European Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition will be presented in the Museum’s Galleries of European Painting and Sculpture.