The Virgin is seated on a marble seat, intricately carved and decorated with multi-coloured inlay, outlined in gold. It resembles a Roman tomb, perhaps as a reminder of Christ’s future sacrifice at his Crucifixion. Here, Christ is shown as an infant, tenderly reaching to touch his mother’s face, a gesture also found in paintings by Duccio, Siena’s most renowned painter in the fourteenth century.
The fine detail, the decorative use of gold leaf and the gentle and graceful nature of the holy figures are key features of Sienese painting of this period. Ugolino da Nerio was a Sienese artist who was working at the same time as Duccio; he would have known Duccio’s work well and emulated his style. When this work was purchased, it was thought to be by Duccio but recent technical analysis of the drawing beneath the painted surface compares it more closely to documented works by Ugolino.
The careful painting of intricate details in this small panel, made for private contemplation, transforms it into a precious object as well as an aid to devotion. Even the reverse, painted to imitate marble, was not neglected, indicating that it was made to be portable rather than fixed to a wall. The owner might have taken it with him on his travels as a focus for prayer when away from home. It may have been hinged to another panel to form a diptych, which could have been closed like a book to protect the images within.
The Virgin Mary holds the Christ Child in her arms. She is seated on a green cushion placed upon a marble box-like seat – its surface and the step supporting her feet are decorated with coloured marble inlays outlined with gilding. The front is carved with acanthus leaves and rosettes recalling Roman sarcophagi (marble tombs) which were usually elaborately decorated. The corbels that jut out beneath the upper surface are similar to those found supporting roofs in ancient buildings and seem to suggest that, like a tomb, the structure has a lid. Two angels hold up a red cloth, embroidered with gold thread, creating a makeshift throne. The combination of tomb and throne may be intended to make a theological point about Christ’s dual nature as human and divine. As a human he was crucified and died but as a divine being he was resurrected, majestically triumphing over death. Here Christ is still a baby, his little foot resting upon his mother’s wrist as he reaches to touch her face. Her expression is sorrowful, however, as though she is contemplating his future sacrifice.
When this painting was acquired by the National Gallery in 1968 it was thought to be by Duccio di Buoninsegna, the most well-known fourteenth-century Sienese painter. Recently, technical investigation using infrared light has enabled us to see the drawing beneath the painted surface. Comparisons of this drawing with those found under paintings firmly attributed to Duccio, such as The Virgin and Child with Saint Dominic and Saint Aurea, and Patriarchs and Prophets, show how different they are. It compares well, however, with the drawing found on The Betrayal of Christ from the Santa Croce altarpiece – Ugolino’s only surviving signed work.
As accomplished artists from the same city, Ugolino and Duccio would certainly have known each other’s work well. The Christ Child’s tender gesture recalls small panels by Duccio including the picture known as the Stoclet Madonna in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Examination of the underdrawing shows that the artist changed his mind while painting and diverged from Duccio’s version slightly by turning Christ’s face towards the viewer, perhaps to allow a more engaging view. This little panel has been dated to 1305 to reflect the fact that it resembles Duccio’s work at around this time when, as here, his contours and colours were soft and muted.
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