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This small painting is one of the earliest in the National Gallery’s collection. It was probably made in Siena – it shares many features with Sienese painting of the period – but its combination of images is rare. It is possible that it’s based on a Byzantine (Eastern Christian) painting.
The Virgin and Child are shown in a tender pose that was popular in Byzantine icon painting. The other images narrate humanity’s salvation through the birth and death of Christ. So, just above the central image, we see the Angel Gabriel announcing to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God. Above this is a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion.
In the spaces on either side of this arched image are the believers (on the left) ascending to heaven and the damned (on the right) who, cowering, cannot enter heaven.
This is one of the earliest paintings in our collection. It was probably made in Siena in a decade when devotion to the Virgin Mary was at its height in the city, after she was credited with protecting its citizens against the Florentines in battle.
Its small size suggests it was made for private prayer, but it is very similar to some of the large-scale pictures of the Virgin that were being created in Siena to honour her at around the same time. One of these was the image known as the Madonna del Bordone by the Sienese painter Coppo di Marcovaldo. There, as here, the Virgin wears a large white veil and cradles the Christ Child with a white cloth. These details are deliberate references to paintings of the Virgin and Child from the Byzantine tradition. The pose of the figures also brings these Byzantine icons to mind. For example, there was a particular type of image of the Virgin and the baby Christ pressing their cheeks together tenderly known as the glykophilousa meaning ’sweetly kissing', which is adapted slightly here. This intimacy creates a tender image of motherhood ideal for an image for private contemplation.
The surrounding images tell the story of the redemption of man through Christ’s conception by the Holy Ghost and his death. It begins in fact in the two small figures of the Angel Gabriel (on the left) and the Virgin (on the right) that seem to hover above the central image. They represent the Annunciation – the moment that the Virgin Mary conceived Christ by the Holy Ghost upon hearing Gabriel’s words. This scene has been connected to a badly damaged fresco which dates to around the same period. It was discovered in the crypt of the cathedral in Siena in 2003, providing further evidence that the panel was made in that city.
The scene of the Crucifixion above this is almost identical to the Crucifixion scene shown in the crypt. In both images the Virgin Mary is shown swooning in grief supported by two women. On the right hand side of the Cross is Saint John the Evangelist, who is described as being present in the Gospels. Next to him is the Roman centurion who, according to Luke’s Gospel, declared his faith in Christ at his Crucifixion.
We also see groups of figures in the spandrels, the spaces on either side of the framing arch: those on the left are invited by the angel blowing a trumpet to ascend to heaven. They include a bishop and two friars – one in the brown habit of the Franciscans (the followers of Saint Francis). Like the centurion, they are believers. Those on the right, on the other hand, are the damned who are prevented from entering. Although this part of the painting is quite damaged we can see them covering their faces with their hands.
The entire composition may be drawn from a Byzantine icon as it is very unusual in Sienese painting. It is possible that it was the central panel of a triptych. The presence of Franciscans among the blessed suggests that it was made for a Franciscan friar.
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