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The coronation of the Virgin was a very popular subject in Florentine painting. Inspiration for the images came not from the Bible but from legends recounting the Virgin’s glorious reception into heaven by Christ, where she took her place by his side.
Daddi and his large workshop of assistants painted several versions of the coronation. This one reflects a work by Giotto, both in the bulkiness of the figures and the Virgin’s crossed arms. This gesture of humility was more often found in images of the Annunciation.
It remains unclear whether this panel formed the centre of a large altarpiece but we do know that it was cut down and altered. A painting now in Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, showing four angels playing musical instruments with saints, formed the lowest part of the picture. The remnants of the saints’ haloes were once visible here, but they were painted over some time before it entered the National Gallery’s collection.
This painting looks complete but it is in fact one part of a larger image. It was cut in two sometime before 1828 probably so that each section could be sold separately. The lower part entered the collection of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1828.
Here the Virgin Mary is crowned by Christ. Her glorious reception in heaven, after her death, is not described in the Bible but in the thirteenth-century compilation of lives of the saints, the Golden Legend, where she takes her place on a throne by Christ’s side. Such passages would have inspired sumptuous representations such as this. The pose of the Virgin, her arms crossed in a gracious gesture, comes from Giotto’s version of the scene painted for the Baroncelli Chapel in Florence. It recalls images of the Annunciation, when the Virgin humbly received the news that she was chosen by God to be the mother of his son. Its use here may be intended to remind the viewer of the importance of humility and the acceptance of God’s will in Christian life.
This is the only picture by the Florentine painter Bernardo Daddi, who had a large and prolific workshop, in the National Gallery’s collection. It is, however, a good example of his admiration for the highly decorative style of painting in the neighbouring Tuscan city of Siena. The Virgin’s halo is adorned with a wreath of roses, incised into the gold leaf; the edges are imprinted with small rosettes and dots, made with metal tools called punches. Pattern abounds across the picture: the Virgin’s robe is decorated with a now-worn gilded pattern, with red and blue outlines; it is similar to the gold, green and blue fleur-de-lis pattern of the textile hung upon the throne.
The picture in Oxford shows four angels kneeling before the steps of a throne that resembles the one in this picture. Behind them are two figures, identifiable only by their clothing as the panel was cut just beneath their heads. Saint John the Baptist is on the left; the saint on the right has been identified as Saint Stephen. X-ray images of the National Gallery panel show the remains of three haloes, one to the Virgin’s left and two to Christ’s right. They are not visible to the naked eye, as they have been scraped off and painted over, but if you look closely you can see Saint John’s fingers showing through where the paint of the Virgin’s mantle has worn. It is likely that the arrangement of figures was symmetrical and that there was another saint behind John the Baptist. No evidence of that figure remains as the panel was cut down at the left edge.
The original painting, then, showed the coronation with four angels kneeling and playing instruments at the base of the throne, with two pairs of saints standing on either side. The angels and saints are of a much smaller scale than the imposing figures of Christ and the Virgin above. It is unclear whether it was an independent painting, or if the picture was the central panel of a larger altarpiece.
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