It is unusual to see these four images grouped together like this. This arrangement and the evidence of hinges at the panel’s right edge suggest that it was once part of a larger work made up two or more connected panels.
Clockwise from top left, we see the coronation of the Virgin (when Christ crowned his mother the Queen of Heaven); the Trinity (God the Father, Christ, his son, on the Cross, and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove); and Christ’s crucifixion.
The two figures who kneel before the Virgin and Child in last scene have been identified as Juana Manuel, Queen of Castile in Spain, and her father, Juan Manuel. These were Barnaba da Modena’s patrons. By the time this picture was made he had already painted another for their chapel in the cathedral of Murcia, a Spanish town.
It is unusual to see these four images grouped together like this. This arrangement and the evidence of hinges at the panel’s right edge suggest that it was once part of a larger work, perhaps a diptych or a triptych where – along with another panel with multiple images – it would have framed a central picture, now lost.
The scenes are underlined by a row of half-length ‘portraits’ of the Twelve Apostles. Gold leaf was commonly used as a background on panel paintings but this one stands out for its liberal use of ultramarine, an expensive, rich blue pigment made from the rare semi-precious stone lapis lazuli.
At the top left we see the coronation of the Virgin. This event, when Christ crowned his mother the Queen of Heaven, is described in the Golden Legend as a glorious moment accompanied by angels playing music. The angels in the front row play a portable organ and the nakers – a set of kettle drums strapped to one of the angel’s backs.
To the right of this is a representation of the Trinity, the one Christian God made up of three divine figures: God the Father, who glows with golden light within a blue mandorla; the son, Christ, shown on the Cross; the Holy Ghost, a dove descending upon Christ as though being blown from God’s mouth. All three figures emanate golden rays of light. They are surrounded by the symbols of the authors of the four Gospels: John is shown as an eagle, Matthew as a winged man or angel, Luke as an ox and Mark as a lion. The Virgin Mary and John the Evangelist, who were both present at the Crucifixion, are seated on the ground at the foot of the Cross.
The busy scene below the Trinity shows the Crucifixion. The two thieves who were crucified at the same time as Christ appear on either side of him. The Virgin Mary faints in grief, supported by three other women. John the Evangelist, wringing his hands, stands behind. Mary Magdalene, long hair flowing, reaches up to the Cross.
Finally, we see the Virgin and Christ Child seated on a makeshift throne. A man and woman, probably the people who commissioned the picture, kneel before them. We know that two other pictures made by Barnaba da Modena were sent to Spain and also include figures of the patrons; one was probably made for the chapel of the Manuel family in Murcia Cathedral. The woman in those pictures has been identified as Juana Manuel, a powerful noblewoman who became Queen of Castile through marriage in 1369 – as has the blonde woman in our painting, her crown indicating her royal status. The man in front of her does not have a crown; rather than being her husband, King Henry of Castile, he might be her father, who died before this picture was made. The Archangel Raphael presents him to the Virgin and Child in heaven.
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