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This is a rare example of a work by Niccolò di Buonaccorso – one of the most gifted Sienese artists of the fourteenth century. The panel belongs to a series of three: the others show the Virgin as a child in The Presentation of the Virgin (Uffizi, Florence) and The Coronation of the Virgin by Christ after her death (Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
According to legend the Virgin had many suitors who took part in a competition for her hand in marriage. They all took rods to the Temple and the one whose rod flowered was successful. Joseph’s rod has sprouted leaves and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has landed upon it.
The artist has included his hometown in his signature: NICHOLAVS. BONACHVRSI. DE SENIS. ME P[I]NXIT (‘Niccolò di Buonaccorso of Siena painted me’). This suggests the picture may have been made for a patron who was not from Siena. The marriage of the Virgin was more popular in Florence than Siena.
A little boy in red stockings and an elaborately embroidered gown looks on as Joseph places a gold ring upon the Virgin’s finger. A priest – wearing a heavily-gilded and jewelled cloak, and a white hat with a gilded border – joins the couple’s hands; the Virgin and her attendants, in equally splendid gowns, are accompanied by minstrels playing trumpets and drums, known as nakers. The haloed figures in simple robes are Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna.
The story of the competition leading to the Virgin’s marriage comes from a thirteenth-century text known as the Golden Legend. Her suitors presented wooden rods at the Temple and the man whose branch miraculously blossomed was to be the victor. Joseph is barefoot; his rod has sprouted leaves and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has landed on it. Behind him, unsuccessful suitors hold their barren rods. On the far left of the scene one of them breaks his over his knee in frustration.
The artist of this little panel has signed it in gold: NICHOLAVS. BONACHVRSI. DE SENIS. ME P[I]NXIT (‘Niccolò di Buonaccorso of Siena painted me’). Niccolò was one of the most gifted Sienese painters but very few of his works survive. Those that do are painted as here, with exquisite detail and vibrant colours. The Marriage of the Virgin was not a common scene in Siena but it was popular in Florence, suggesting that this work was made for a Florentine patron. This might explain why Niccolò included his hometown in his signature.
Colourful details match the celebratory nature of the event: striking chequered red, yellow and blue carpet woven with birds has been laid upon the green and yellow stone of an open courtyard. Beyond the town is a lush orchard. A palm laden with dates towers over the central arch in the distance. A pine tree and an orange tree are visible through the balustrade – decorated with tri-lobed arches – that encloses the scene. Similar delicate architectural features, resembling those found in fourteenth-century churches, adorn the windows of the upper storeys of the surrounding buildings. The gilded frame with its multi-lobed arches and decorative details complements the painted architecture.
It is likely that this panel formed the central image in a series of three paintings depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin. The other scenes show the Virgin as a child in The Presentation of the Virgin (Uffizi, Florence) and The Coronation of the Virgin by Christ after her death (Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). All three are also decorated on the reverse with silver leaf and painted with the same diamond pattern suggesting the backs were intended to be visible. They may have been joined together to form a portable altarpiece but no evidence of any hinges remains.
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