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This painting combines the intense use of gilded decorative pattern favoured by the artists of Fungai’s hometown, Siena, with a more freely painted landscape background inspired by his Umbrian contemporaries, like Perugino.
The Virgin Mary embraces the infant Christ. The dazzling gold and white cloak she wears was usually reserved for images of her glorious ascension to heaven at her Assumption or of her coronation by Christ as Queen of Heaven. The image of the Virgin ascending to heaven in splendour was particularly important in Siena and the use of these colours here may be intended to recollect this event.
The circular shape (called a tondo) had become popular in the mid-fifteenth century, and here gives Fungai the space to depict, on the left, a nativity scene as well as an angel swooping down to share the news of Christ’s birth with a group of shepherds. On the right, the retinue of the Three Kings arrives.
This image of the Virgin and Child enthroned in a landscape shows off Fungai’s technical skill, as well as his adaptation of a variety of regional artistic traditions and innovations: he has combined the intense use of gilded decorative pattern favoured by the artists of Siena, his hometown, with a more freely painted landscape background inspired by his Umbrian contemporaries, like Perugino.
The Virgin’s dazzling gold and white cloak was usually reserved for images of her glorious ascension to heaven at the Assumption or of her coronation by Christ as Queen of Heaven. The image of the Virgin ascending into heaven in splendour was particularly important in Siena, and the use of these colours here may be intended to recollect this event.
Sienese painting was well known for its emphasis on surface pattern; artists frequently embellished the textiles in their works with complex designs using real gold. Fungai has used the traditional sgraffito technique, which involves coating an area of the panel with a layer of gold leaf before beginning to paint. He painted shadowed areas in grey and those that would catch the light in white. In the latter areas – such as the Virgin’s knees – he scratched the paint away in the design of the brocade decoration to reveal the gold beneath, scraping lines into the soft metal to create texture. In the shadowed places, he simply painted the pattern on using an orange-brown paint, replicating the effect of dim unlit gold. This is especially obvious if you compare the part of the cloak that covers the Virgin’s right arm with that covering her left, which is in shadow.
This innovative illusionism creates the sense of volume and three-dimensionality in the Virgin’s figure. The areas where the real textured gold is revealed would also respond to natural light, and it is possible that Fungai took the painting’s position in relation to a window into account when he was working out the design. Fungai clearly had a reputation for his skill at manipulating gold: in 1494, at about the time that Fungai made this work, he was commissioned to gild and paint some ceremonial banners and in 1499 he gilded the organ case in Siena Cathedral.
Dotted around the landscape in the distance are the events surrounding the Nativity. The circular shape (called a tondo) had become popular in the mid-fifteenth century, and here gives Fungai the space to depict these narratives which might otherwise be shown in separate panels, either to the side or in a predella. Christ’s birth is shown at the left of the panel: Mary and Joseph worship him in front of a ruined structure. In the sky above, the angel of the Lord announces the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds, as described in Luke (2: 8–15); we can see their flocks on the hillside below. To the right and in the distance, the retinue of the Three Kings – the tiny figures at the front wearing crowns – processes through the landscape to visit the child (Matthew 2: 1–9).
As well as updating the sgraffito technique, Fungai used paint mixed with oil – an increasingly popular medium in Italian painting – which made blending colours easier. Here, it creates a sketchy, slightly out of focus effect that emphasises the distance and vastness of the landscape. Fungai looked to Umbrian painters and seems to have been particularly inspired by the soft effects and subtle blending of colour by artists like Perugino (as seen in his panels from the Charterhouse in Pavia).
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