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This triptych – a folding picture in three parts – was most likely made for private contemplation and worship. The central image shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary after her ascension to heaven. Orderly tiers of cherubim and seraphim (the blue and red winged creatures at the very top), angels and saints are arranged around the throne. Below, two groups of saints look up in devotion towards the Virgin and Christ.
The panels on either side of this scene show the Nativity of Christ on the left and the Crucifixion on the right. The upper parts together show the Annunciation – the moment the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the son of God.
The reverses of the two outer wings are painted with scenes from the life of the Virgin, from the story of her conception to her marriage to Joseph.
This triptych was most likely made for private contemplation and worship. Its small scale – the figures are painted in miniature – and soft violet, lavender, peach and pink colours, and the intricate detail and decorative effects – like the Virgin’s robes, which are patterned with golden suns and moons – give the painting the air of a luxury object.
The central image shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary after her ascension to heaven. The setting has the appearance of a palatial throne room; the coloured marble floor tiles diminish in size as they reach the throne to give the impression of a large space. The throne itself is magnificent in both its size and its elaborate carved decorative details. Orderly tiers of cherubim and seraphim, angels and saints are arranged around the throne.
Below, two groups of saints look up in devotion towards the Virgin and Christ. On the left is Saint Margaret with the dragon from whose belly she escaped death, while Saint Catherine of Alexandria is identifiable by the wheel at her side – the instrument of her torture. The saint with the crown between them may be the empress Helen. Opposite them, Saint Paul holds the sword with which he was beheaded and Saint John the Baptist appears in the camel-skin tunic he wore in the wilderness. Saint Peter has the keys to the kingdom of heaven offered to him by Christ (Matthew: 16–19) – he appears to hold one out to Catherine, who raises her hand to her breast in acceptance.
The panels on either side of this scene show the Nativity of Christ on the left and the Crucifixion on the right. The upper parts of the wings together show the Annunciation. On the left the angel Gabriel, holding a lily, kneels to announce to Mary that she will conceive the son of God. On the right Mary appears startled by the sight of the Holy Ghost, a tiny dove emanating golden rays, who will impregnate her.
The reverses of the two outer wings are painted with scenes from the life of the Virgin, from the story of her conception to her marriage to Joseph. These would have been visible when the triptych was closed. These seem to be based upon Giotto’s highly influential scenes of the life of the Virgin made for the Arena chapel in Padua.
The importance of Saint Catherine, who receives the key from Peter, and the unusual prominence of female saints suggests the triptych might have been made for a female patron. She may have been a Dominican nun at Santa Maria della Vettabbia in Milan called Isotta de Terzago. Isotta commissioned a polyptych from Giusto four years before he made this picture; it also featured the six saints given prominence here.
Another theory is that the patrons were Ambrogio and Caterina Birago, whose name saints Ambrose and Catherine both feature here. They came from the same town as Isotta de Terzago and had commissioned a series of frescoes showing scenes of the Virgin’s conception and birth, a rare choice of imagery in Italian art. It is possible that the story had meaning for their marriage – perhaps they were hoping to have a child themselves.
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