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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...
December 26, 2019 By: Sarah Hall, Chief Curator, Director of Collections

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things...

There’s no better time than the Christmas season to take a closer look at our Italian collection and appreciate the wonderful pictorial storytelling and skilled technique of early Renaissance artists. I took a walk through the galleries myself the other day and snapped some pictures of favorite details to share.

Master of the Scrovegni Chapel Presbytery (Italian, Padua, first quarter of the 14th century). Madonna and Child with Two Saints; Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin, c. 1308. Tempera on three panels. 1970.50

First, I love this sweet Nativity from around 1300–1325 attributed to the Master of the Scrovegni Chapel Presbytery. This is a small scene among many that provide details of the life of Christ, arranged like pages from an illuminated manuscript around the central image of the Madonna and child with two saints. Art historians might point out the fact that it’s a pre-Bridgettine Nativity, which is indicated by the fact that Mary is reclining, as most women would be after giving birth. In later religious painting, after the visions of mystic St. Bridget (c. 1303–1373), it becomes conventional to portray the birth as miraculous. So rather than showing Mary resting after the labor of childbirth, she and Joseph are more typically depicted kneeling in prayer. Here, the birth takes place in a rocky cave. The ox and the ass, tethered nearby, are almost nuzzling the infant Christ, who is safely swaddled and laid in the manger (a box for feeding the animals) behind his mother. Goats and sheep nibble grasses in the foreground, and a shepherd at right looks up in awe. Joseph is contemplative on the left, while Mary has a surprisingly serene, confident expression on her face.

                                                          

Master of the Scrovegni Chapel Presbytery. Madonna and Child with Two Saints; Scenes from the Life of Christ and the Virgin, (detail, the Nativity).

Bernardo Daddi (Italian, Florence, c. 1280–1348). Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and a Saint-Bishop; Saints Peter and Paul; the Crucifixion; the Annunciation, late 1330s. Tempera on three panels, 1973.27.

Florentine artist Bernardo Daddi is known for his sense of color and combining an interest in emotion with embellishment. The Frick’s piece is perfectly scaled for use in the home as an aid to private devotion. Daddi was particularly sought after to provide such pieces to wealthy and prosperous middle-class patrons in Florence in the 1330s and 1340s. Daddi’s delicate touch, finesse with color, and ability to render at an intimate scale, all evident in this work, make these personally-scaled devotional works his best. Notice the beautiful rose-pink gown of Gabriel, at the top left, as he tells Mary of the impending birth of Christ. In the central panel, the Virgin sits on a throne with a strong, architectural structure, draped with lavish fabrics, characteristic of Daddi. The saints bear their traditional attributes—Saint Peter is depicted with keys, Saint Paul with his sword, and Saint Francis with the stigmata. Epidemics like the Black Death fueled the desire for objects such as this to aid in prayer. Daddi himself likely died from one of the outbreaks of the plague that swept through Florence in 1348.

 

Bernardo Daddi (Italian, Florence, c. 1280–1348). Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and a Saint-Bishop; Saints Peter and Paul; the Crucifixion; the Annunciation, (detail).

Stefano di Giovanni called Sassetta (Siena, c. 1400–1450). Virgin of Humility Crowned by Two Angels, 1335–1340. Tempera on panel. 1973.29

One of the most exquisite paintings in our collection is the Virgin of Humility Crowned by Two Angels by Sassetta, who is known for his elegant line and reverential, tender Madonnas. In our example, I love the interplay of the two figures—Mary’s hand so naturalistically cradling Jesus, as she lifts him a bit closer, the little flash of a jeweled border on her cuff. This type of composition is called a Virgin of Humility because Mary sits on a cushion, in contrast to the Biagio, in which she is enthroned as the Queen of Heaven; here her status is indicated by angels placing a crown on her head. 

Stefano di Giovanni called Sassetta (Siena, c. 1400–1450). Virgin of Humility Crowned by Two Angels, (detail).

Attributed to Biagio di goro Ghezzi (Siena, c. 1325–c. 1384). Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saint Catherine and Saint John the Baptist, c. 1350. Tempera on panel. 1970.38

The Biagio de goro Ghezzi is a small show-stopper, with a plethora of decorative embellishments. The Virgin’s gold polka dot dress, the myriad punch patterns in the gold leaf background, the illusionistic drapery swagging the central figures, and the rippling hem of Mary’s cloak all speak to the elegance of Sienese art in the 1300s. Siena was a wealthy city, and its art is known for generous use of expensive materials, like gold and lapis lazuli (used for the blue pigment in Mary’s cloak). Contracts with patrons for artworks typically included specifications as to the amount of precious materials that were to be used. Here, we can clearly appreciate the Sienese love of embellishment.

Attributed to Biagio di goro Ghezzi (Siena, c. 1325–c. 1384). Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saint Catherine and Saint John the Baptist, (detail).

Arcangelo di Cola da Camerino (documented in Italy between 1416 and 1429). Diptych: Madonna and Child, Enthroned; Crucifixion, early 1420s. Tempera on two panels. 1973.28.

Delightful surprises await those who take the time to look closely at Arcangelo di Cola da Camerino’s Madonna and Child Enthroned. Here, you can see the artist struggling a bit with the complex architecture of the throne, and the marble floor seems to tilt forward. Mary’s robe is blue tempera over silver leaf, giving it a luxurious shimmer. In the background, Angels peek around the sides of the throne and between the arches, resting their elegant fingers against it. The attention to their sweet, expressive faces and the attempt at spatial perspective are indications that the Renaissance is transforming the way artists communicate.

        

Arcangelo di Cola da Camerino (documented in Italy between 1416 and 1429). Diptych: Madonna and Child, Enthroned; Crucifixion, (detail).
 

As part of our permanent collection, these stunning works are on view in the Italian Gallery of The Frick Art Museum year-round, but invoke a particular sense of the sublime during this magical season. Stop in to see them sometime soon.
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