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The Virgin Mary sits high on a throne of rough-hewn rock while two angels hover with the crown of heaven above her head. The infant Christ stands naked on her lap, dangling a pair of cherries, symbolic of the fruit of Paradise, from a thread.
Saint George is shown as a young knight on horseback. The severed head and dead body of the dragon he has just slain lie at his horse’s feet. Saint James the Greater holds his pilgrim staff and introduces the donor of the altarpiece to the Virgin and Child. The man, whose identity is unknown, kneels with his red cap in his hands. The artist has not flattered his client, recording the man’s stubbly double chin, his bald head and the wrinkles at the back of his neck.
Most of Giovanni Martini da Udine’s career was spent in Friuli, north of Venice, and he was particularly renowned as a sculptor of carved wooden altarpieces. This is one of his major surviving painted altarpieces.
The Virgin Mary sits enthroned against a cloth of honour made from gold brocade, which appears to be suspended from the sky. Two angels, emerging from clouds, hover with the crown of heaven above her head. She gazes at us as the infant Christ stands naked on her lap, dangling a pair of cherries, symbolic of his Passion and the fruit of Paradise, from a thread. Her throne of rough-hewn rock in the hilly landscape has the appearance of a roadside shrine. The ground is strewn with pebbles, and small plants and wild flowers grow in the fissures and crevices of the rock.
Saint George is shown as a young knight on horseback clasping his hands in prayer in adoration of the infant Christ. He wears a full suit of armour but no helmet, and is armed with a spear and sword. The severed head and dead body of the dragon he has just slain lie at his horse’s feet. His height on horseback requires the Virgin to be enthroned very high up so that she is above him, reflecting her status.
On the left, Saint James the Greater holds his pilgrim staff and introduces the donor of the altarpiece to the Virgin and Child. He looks directly at us and touches the donor on the shoulder. The man, whose identity is unknown, offers his prayers on bended knee, his red cap in his hands. The artist has not flattered his client, recording the man’s double chin, the lines at the sides of his eyes, his bald head and the wrinkles at the back of his neck. We can see from infrared images that originally he was drawn facing three-quarters to the front.
This type of altarpiece in which the Virgin, Christ Child and saints are grouped together in an informal arrangement in a single panel is known in Italian as a sacra conversazione (literally a ‘sacred conversation’). This was a development from earlier altarpieces in which the saints would be represented on separate panels rather than in the same space as the Virgin and Child.
The painting has recently been restored in one of the most complex structural treatments ever carried out at the National Gallery, which took nearly four years to complete. A cradle or lattice of wooden slats had been added to the reverse of the altarpiece during the nineteenth century to strengthen it, but this did not allow the three wooden panels of which it is formed to naturally expand and contract in response to changes in humidity and climate. Over time this cradle had caused splits and distortions, and made the altarpiece even more fragile.
During conservation, the cradle was removed and the three wooden panels that make up the altarpiece were realigned, and splits and woodworm damage were repaired. A flexible auxiliary support was designed and attached to the reverse, which allows the original panels to expand and contract without causing further cracks in the paint layer.
The panel was originally rounded at the top but was cut down, probably when it was removed from its initial location. An extra curved strip has been added to reflect the altarpiece’s original shape.
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