Niccolò Pisano, The Dance of Miriam
Two Scenes from the Story of Moses
These two Old Testament scenes are painted not on panel, as are most surviving Italian Renaissance paintings, but on linen. They are part of a series of eight paintings on linen canvasses by various artists, which survive in various collections.
Although now rare, paintings on linen were widespread in the Renaissance. They could serve as hangings, curtains, altar frontals and banners, as well as framed works of art; they were much cheaper than tapestries, faster to execute than frescoes and easier to transport than panel paintings.
These pictures probably came from a small chapel or oratory in Ferrara. Alternatively, they might have been from the home of a member of Ferrara’s Jewish community.
These two Old Testament scenes are painted not on panel, as are most surviving Italian Renaissance paintings, but on linen. They are part of a series of eight tempera paintings on canvas by various artists, which survive in various collections. Four illustrate episodes from the Book of Genesis: The Creation of Eve, The Temptation, The Expulsion from Paradise (all in private collections) and Cain killing Abel (Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti, Bergamo). The others show episodes from the Book of Exodus: Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness (here called The Dance of Miriam), Moses striking the Rock (private collection), The Israelites gathering Manna and God speaking to Moses (Musei Civici di Monza).
Although now scarce, paintings on fabric were widespread in the Renaissance, both in Italy and northern Europe; other examples in the National Gallery’s collection include Lippo di Dalmasio’s The Madonna of Humility, Dirk Bouts‘ The Entombment and Quinten Massys’ The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Barbara. They had many advantages: they could serve as hangings, curtains, altar frontals and banners as well as framed works of art, and they were much cheaper than tapestries, faster to paint than frescoes and easier to transport than panel paintings. Many, like these two, were done on linen canvas in glue tempera, a quick-drying medium, rather than oil. Andrea Mantegna in particular continued to use egg and glue as paint binders, and must have done much to maintain the prestige of this kind of painting in the courts of north-east Italy.
These pictures probably came from a small chapel or oratory in Ferrara. The Old Testament subject matter would have been perfectly appropriate for such a setting, especially if accompanied by New Testament scenes, as in the Sistine Chapel. The four Genesis scenes may have originally been on one long wall, with those from Exodus opposite them. They may have been framed by a cornice and base mouldings, with pilasters dividing each picture, as would often be the case with a fresco narrative. Perhaps the episode of Moses receiving the tablets of the law – which, surprisingly, is omitted – was shown on the altar wall. Alternatively, they might have been from the home of a member of Ferrara’s Jewish community.
The choice of medium and support, as well as the employment of a team of painters (including Pisano, Garofalo and Michele Coltellini), suggests that speed was of the essence. In 1506 the same artists, along with others, worked on a series of eight canvases in glue size for a vaulted room in the apartments of Lucrezia Borgia, consort of Alfonso I d'Este, Duke of Ferrara. However, the two series do not seem to have been directly related.
All eight paintings were recorded for the first time in the Costabili collection in Ferrara in the nineteenth century. They been tentatively identified with eight Old Testament scenes listed in the collection of Carlo II Gonzaga, Duke of Nevers, in 1665. Mantua, which was ruled by the Gonzagas until 1708, was not far from Ferrara, although Giovanni Battista Costabili and his uncle Francesco usually purchased their paintings from a local Ferrarese source. The series was broken up when the collection was sold by Costabili’s heirs.