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Tag Archives: 15th century

Object of the Month: December 2014

Madonna and Child with an Angel (“Madonna of the Magnificat”)

Tempera on panel

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, called Sandro Botticelli (and studio)

Florentine, 1444/45–1510

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

The Florentine master Botticelli is known for creating elegantly fluid lines that give his paintings what art experts call an “ethereal quality.” Two expressive works showcasing this skill are his Madonna and Child with an Angel (c. 1490) and his Mystic Nativity (c. 1500).  Although both works highlight Christ’s incarnation, the overall composition and thematic nuances are vastly different.

This first work, a tondo from M&G’s collection, portrays a tender embrace between Mary and the Christ child.  The pose of the central figures readily awakens in the viewer that universal feeling of familial love.  It is an intimate human scene, but one that illuminates the wonder of the Word becoming flesh. This wonder is further explored through the angel who (unlike most angelic messengers) is without the defining attribute of wings. The angel’s focus on Mary’s Magnificat is also significant, for it draws our attention to the text that “gives voice” to the painting’s key theme: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

The beautiful intimacy between Mary and the Christ child is also implied through the central vignette of his Mystic Nativity. However, radiating from this focal point is a sweeping panorama that takes the viewer beyond the incarnation to the final judgment. It is one of Botticelli’s most unusual works; it is also his only known signed painting. In his later years, Botticelli came under the influence of the fiery reformer Savonarola. In The Panorama of the Renaissance Margaret Aston notes that the “more expressive and powerful force discernible in his later works may represent his spiritual response to [Savonarola and] the spiritual unrest in Florence.”  Aston also points out that despite the juxtaposition of the incarnation with the apocalypse, the overall tone of the painting is joy. The apocalypse, usually so terrifying, is here transformed through the angels’ celebration.  Clearly, this nativity will change everything.

Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education


Published in 2014

Object of the Month: June 2014

The Holy Trinity

Tempera on panel

Lorenzo di Niccolò di Martino

Florentine, active 1392–1412


Lorenzo di Niccolò worked in Florence around the turn of the fifteenth century—one of the most significant centuries in history known as the Renaissance. Painting during this period continued in the tradition of Giotto (begun a century earlier), and Lorenzo’s own style was not much different from that tradition along with other contemporary artists. While paintings of the Trinity were common imagery within altarpieces of the time, Niccolò’s depiction is unique—painted in a way never done before. All known earlier representations of the Trinity in this configuration (known as “The Mercy Seat”) are depicted with God the Father sitting behind the crucified Christ; whereas, here, God the Father is shown standing.

Perhaps today this seems like an insignificant modification, but in the fourteenth century iconography was more codified; deviations articulated meaning, tradition, and Church dogma—all issues firmly upheld and monitored by Church officials. Interestingly, Trinity subjects with God the Father in a standing position were rare until the same concept appeared about 20 years later in one of the most famous paintings in history, Masaccio’s fresco of the Holy Trinity at Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Another nuance of Niccolò’s imagery is that God the Father is also shown as a young man—the same likeness used for Christ. This approach heightens the physical and spiritual connection between the Father and Son, who are mysteriously distinct persons in a unified Trinity. However, the depiction of a youthful Heavenly Father was later forbidden by papal edict revealing that the iconography shown in this painting was short lived in art history.

An intriguing facet of this panel is that the entire back side of the panel is painted (with the exception of areas of wear and damage expected for an artwork over 600 years old). A full, decorative reverse side of a painting is somewhat common to early Italian panel paintings and suggests that people were intended to view the reverse. Sometimes entire narratives or portraits are found on the back of paintings; others have painted inscriptions or symbols for organizations such as confraternities. However, the pattern and application here supply a completely abstract, decorative function. In fact, the effect was intended to mimic the type of decorative marble inlaid patterns commonly incorporated into many existing Florentine churches, including the DuomoSanta Maria Novella, and Santa Croce.

Preliminary research has revealed an almost identical pattern for what we see on this panel on a wall fresco border painted by Agnolo Gaddi in 1380 at Santa Croce. This pattern could be a clue to its inclusion in that same church to match the existing faux stonework existing on the walls. The pattern is distinct and would have the same markings as some or all of the other panels associated with the altarpiece from which this panel came. Such unique features can aid in attribution and dating, if related panels have firm documentation.

John M. Nolan, Curator 


Published in 2014


Object of the Month: April 2014

The Man of Sorrows

Oil on panel

Albrecht Bouts

Flemish, c. 1452-d. 1549


Albrecht Bouts was born into an artistic family; his father, Dieric, was one of the most prominent artists in Louvain in the mid-fifteenth century and was elected official painter to the city in 1468. Albrecht learned his craft working closely with his father in his workshop; Dieric’s influence on his son’s artistic technique is seen most in Albrecht’s compositional choices rather than his style and brushwork. The present devotional panel, The Man of Sorrows, is widely believed to be based on a lost type created by Dieric; Albrecht would have been familiar with such images in his father’s shop as well as had access to his cartoons and drawings. Small and intimately composed images of Christ and Mary became enormously popular in the last part of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century, largely emanating from the workshops of the father and son.

The close-up focus on Christ’s face in this composition is a variation of an earlier fifteenth century model and reflects the Netherlandish trend of pious adoration of Christ’s head. Here, the bust-length image of Christ is presented frontally with a gaze fully engaging the viewer. Christ’s sunken, blood-shot eyes confront and invite the devotee to deeply contemplate the evidences of His suffering for mankind’s behalf. His eyelids are nearly half-way down, reflecting the countless hours of agony, pain, torture and sleeplessness. His brow bears a thick, entwined crown of thorns—one of the primary emblems of Christ’s torment and shame. Unlike any contemporary Italian painter’s conception of this theme, Bouts fully renders each thorn to depict their excruciating effect. On Christ’s sullen cheeks, translucent tears echo the flow of blood; the cool purple color of Christ’s lips reflect the blood loss and strain of torment. Finally, both Christ’s hands are raised in a blessing gesture.

Though many variations of this bust-length subject exist from Bouts and his workshop, very few, if any, are exactly alike. However, such detailed, realistic imagery focused on Christ’s substitutional sacrifice reflects the contemporary interest to contemplate Christ’s head and wounds both in art, but also in devotional tracts and meditations such as Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.


Published in 2014


Object of the Month: February 2014

Madonna and Child with Saints

Tempera on panel, 1469

Baldassare di Biagio del Firenze (called the Master of Benabbio) and Matteo Civitali

Biago: Florentine, c. 1450-1500; Civitali: Luccan, c. 1436-1501

Paintings dating to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries present an inherent obstacle—attribution, since artists were not consistently signing works prior to the nineteenth century. To compound the problem, many artists up until the mid-1400s painted in a similar manner, not especially concerned with individual styles and expression. When art experts are unable to associate an unsigned painting with a particular known master painter, a pseudonym is derived from the name of the place where the most characteristic work of the unknown artist resides.

In the case of this painting, the artist was known as the “Master of Benabbio” when we acquired the painting in 1961. This unknown artist’s best representative work was a triptych that belongs to the church of Santa Maria Assunta in the small, Tuscan village of Benabbio, Italy; hence the unknown artist was dubbed “Master of Benabbio.”

Scholars who research and distinguish authorship for unsigned paintings specialize in a particular field of study; their specialization usually focuses on a particular country and time period but may also narrow further to a particular region or city. This concentration allows the scholar to review closely the nuances of artists’ particular styles working in a certain time and place, honing the skill of art connoisseurship.

Another facet of researching authorship for Old Master paintings involves documentary evidence. Scholars using archives comb through original documents (often dating hundreds of years old) looking for clues that will allow them to piece together information for a known work of art. In 1978 one such art historian, Massimo Ferretti, defined the career and primary works of the “Master of Benabbio.” Ferretti connected M&G’s painting with a citation in Michele Ridolfi’s 1819 publication of a sixteenth century inventory of the church of San Michele in Antraccoli (near Lucca) which said, “In the Oratory of the Company next to the church there is an old altar of wood in Gothic ‘gusto,’ in the panels of which is represented the Virgin and Child, and the four saints, and in the predella below the twelve apostles; it is a work of the Florentine School of uncertain author, and bears a date of the year 1469.” Since the artist’s name was not mentioned in this inventory, he continued to be known under the pseudonym, “Master of Benabbio.”

The inventory’s date of 1469 corresponds exactly to the date that is written in Roman numerals across the base of the triptych. Furthermore, the prominent presence of St. Michael the Archangel on the left side of the painting supports its position as the main altar of a church dedicated to this same saint, San Michele.

Subsequent archival research by Roberto Ciardi in 1997 led to the discovery of the original contract when this altarpiece was commissioned by Antonio del fu Domenico and Biagio del fu Tofanello for the Church of San Michele di Antraccoli. The contract says on December 15, 1467, Antonio del fu Domenicho and Biagio del fu Tofanello, operai (workers), sindici, e procuratori (prosecutors) dell’opera (of the work) di San Michele di Antraccolo, commissioned “Valdassar olim Bazii del Firenze, lucensis civis et Matteus olim Johnnis di Coviatlie, Luce commorans, pictures,” to paint a ‘tabulam de lignamine’ for the high altar of San Michele within ten months for seventy ducats. The artists were to begin in January 1468 and to complete the painting in ten months. However, the altarpiece was not delivered until October 6, 1469—twenty months later.

Documentation such as this provides concrete evidence for the attribution of this altarpiece to not one, but two prominent Luccan artists of the Italian Renaissance—Baldassare di Biagio del Firenze and Matteo Civitali. For centuries it was thought that only one artist, provisionally called “Master of Benabbio,” was responsible for the painting. However, the contract revealed that the painting was actually a collaborative effort, which was not unusual for this time period or for these artists. The importance is in the firm identification of the artists.

The significance for Baldassare is that this is one of the few altarpieces of his where the original church context is known. Furthermore, his artistic personality is still in its infancy because until 1982, the artist’s works were only known by the elusive pseudonym, Master of Benabbio. A secure attribution and dating for this altarpiece make it a benchmark for judging undocumented works thought to be by him.

As for Matteo Civitali, the documentation for this altarpiece is paramount. Until 1997, Matteo Civitali’s acclaim rested wholly on his work as a sculptor. He is considered to be the most important marble sculptor outside Florence during the second half of the fifteenth century. In spite of his fame as a carver, historical evidence pointed to his activity as a painter as well, though no painting could firmly be identified. Before the revelation of the contract for our polyptych identifying him as a collaborator, the extent of his painting activity was only surmised. Now M&G’s polyptych has become a key work for Civitali’s career as a painter. In 2004, this polyptych traveled to the Villa Giunigi in Lucca, Italy for an important monographic exhibition focused on the career of Matteo Civitali.

John M. Nolan, Curator


Published in 2014


Object of the Month: July 2013

Procession to Calvary

Oil on Panel

Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, called Il Sodoma

Sienese, c. 1477-d. 1549

The life and times of Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), better known simply as Il Sodoma, were filled with tumultuous events and dramatic historical change. Born under the auspices of the Renaissance in 1477, Bazzi lived during the apex of the High Renaissance style in art only to witness the style’s demise with the sacking of Rome in 1527.Bazzi contributed greatly to High Renaissance elegance, introducing the movement’s harmonious compositions and dignified, lifelike characters to his home city of Siena, Italy. In 1508, he had the good fortune to travel to Rome, where Pope Julius II commissioned him to assist in the painting of the Stanza della Segnatura in the papal rooms of the Vatican. Here, he worked with the incomparable Raphael Sanzio—who, as fortune would have it, was working in the same room!

Bazzi’s painting reflected the historical trends of his time, as the High Renaissance style that he made famous in Siena gradually intermingled with a new, more daring movement—  Mannerism. Nowhere is this blending more evident than in his 1525 work, Procession to Calvary found in M&G’s collection. In his painting, Bazzi combines the sfumato styling of Leonardo da Vinci with direct references to Raphael’s 1520 altarpiece, Christ Falling on the Way to Calvary.

However, Bazzi’s Procession moves stylistically beyond both master painters by employing full-blown characteristics of the Mannerist movement, including use of bright and garish colors, character’s featuring extreme body contortions and theatrical poses, and close cropping around the painting’s edges. As M&G former curator John Nolan writes, “The bodies of the tormentors writhe in their effort to scourge Christ. Their awkward poses add to the tension of the scene.”

Bazzi was disliked by Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who wrote critically of him in his famous Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550). As such, Bazzi’s immediate reputation suffered; however, taken together with his 1525 work entitled St. Sebastianthis period in Bazzi’s life was among his greatest in terms of artistic production, with this Procession rightly deserving recognition as one of Bazzi’s most exquisite masterpieces.


Published in 2013

Object of the Month: February 2013

Madonna of the Fireplace

Oil on panel, ca. 1500

Attributed to Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse

Flemish, b. Maubeuge?, ca. 1478, worked in Antwerp, d. Antwerp 1532


Though the Madonna of the Fireplace is a painting that continues to lack a firm attribution to a known painter; nonetheless, it is one of the “star” paintings in the collection. One of the primary considerations of Dr. Bob Jones Jr. in assembling the collection during the 1950s and 60s, was the importance of the painting’s quality, even if the work lacked sure authorship by a known artist.

The characteristics of this painting epitomize late fifteenth-century painting in the area of the Low Countries generically referred to as Flanders. The highly angled and stylized folds of the drapery are typical of paintings in the 1400s and even occur in carved sculpture from this period. The slightly awkward proportions and elongated facial features are stylistic hallmarks of the era as well as the very accomplished and detailed surface treatment. Even the setting for Mary and Christ strongly betrays its Northern origins. Though the fireplace carvings and treatment reveal the artist’s knowledge of Italian models, the tile floor patterns and the carved linen-fold wooden paneling would have been found in many well-to-do homes throughout Flanders. It is also the same kind of carved, period paneling on the very gallery wall on which this painting hangs in the museum.

One of the turning points in the history of Northern Renaissance art began when painters started depicting the Virgin in domestic interiors. Artists of the 1300s and early 1400s typically placed the Virgin within a church interior as part of an Annunciation scene or other narratives. However, this setting changed with innovations in the 1420s by Robert Campin, whose famous Merode Altarpiece (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) broke with tradition and pictured the Virgin in a domestic interior typical of a fifteenth-century home. M&G’s painter continues Campin’s vision later in the century with this remarkable panel—one of the most beautiful and well preserved paintings in the entire Museum & Gallery Collection.


Published in 2013