This triptych (a painting in three parts) shows the Virgin Mary just after her birth. Saint Anne, Mary’s mother, props herself up in her bed while midwives and attendants make food and prepare a basin for washing. This scene was particularly popular in Siena, a city devoted to the Virgin Mary.
The artist has taken its overall design and various details – like the little boy announcing the news to Saint Joachim, Mary’s father – from a famous Sienese altarpiece showing the same scene, which was made by Pietro Lorenzetti in the 1340s for Siena’s cathedral.
The side panels, or wings, would have folded inwards to cover the central image. The triptych could then be transported safely and conveniently with its owner, providing a focus for prayer on their travels.
The subject of this triptych (a painting in three parts) is the birth of the Virgin Mary, a popular theme in Sienese painting. The story does not appear in the Bible but comes from the account of Mary’s life in the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of the lives of the saints.
In the central panel Saint Anne, the Virgin’s mother, props herself up in her elegant curtained bed. It is decorated with intarsia (inlaid panels of different types of wood) – a luxurious detail appropriate to her status as the mother of the Virgin. The infant Virgin stands, diagonally opposite her mother, on the lap of one of the midwives; another midwife pours water into a large dish.
The artist borrowed these details and the design of the central panel from other scenes showing the birth of the Virgin, in particular the large altarpiece made by Pietro Lorenzetti for Siena’s cathedral in 1342. It may seem unusual to show a newborn baby standing rather than sitting on the midwife or wet-nurse’s lap, but this can also be found in Sienese paintings such as our predella panel showing the birth of Saint John the Baptist. Both pictures may have been inspired by frescoes painted by Pietro and his brother Ambrogio in 1335 – now destroyed – for the facade of the Ospedale (orphanage) in Siena.
The outer panels or ‘wings’ of the triptych would have folded inwards to cover the central image. It could then be transported safely and conveniently with its owner, providing a focus for prayer on their travels. The left-hand wing also follows the design of Lorenzetti’s altarpiece: in both we see a small boy with folded arms deliver the news of Mary’s birth to her father, Saint Joachim, in what looks like the hallway of the house. The right-hand panel shows two servants in the kitchen. One kneels before a pot of food which she is probably about to bring to Saint Anne, while the other balances a terracotta jug on her head. This is a slight deviation from the usual imagery that accompanies the scene, where the maid dries a cloth before the fire. Similarly unusual are the golden rays of light surrounding the Virgin Mary, normally reserved for images showing the Nativity. They might refer to the words in the Golden Legend that tell how she was ‘filled with the Holy Spirit from her mother’s womb’.
The artist made a large altarpiece of the birth of the Virgin for the church of Sant’ Agatha in Asciano, a town outside of Siena. Although the design of our picture is quite different from this altarpiece, the two have been connected, and our painting may have been commissioned by Matteo Angeli, the chaplain of the church of Sant' Agatha. The Angeli family, together with the Pasquino family, founded the chapel dedicated to the birth of the Virgin Mary for which the altarpiece was made.
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