This Virgin Mary’s marriage to Joseph is told in the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century compilation of the lives of the saints. Mary’s suitors were invited to the temple, each armed with a wooden rod. The man whose rod bloomed would win her hand in marriage.
Here, Joseph holds a rod that is lush with olive leaves, the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove nestled in its branches – a sign of divine approval. Behind him unsuccessful suitors break their barren rods in frustration.
The picture was once part of a predella, a horizontal series of images running along the bottom of an altarpiece. Gregorio was from Siena, a city dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and the division of the picture into three follows the pattern set by artists who painted scenes from the Virgin’s life for the city’s cathedral in the mid-1340s.
Like many of the early Italian paintings in our collection, this picture is a fragment of a large altarpiece. It shows a story taken from the Golden Legend, a thirteenth-century text that is a rich source for stories about the life of the Virgin Mary before the birth of Jesus, which is not described in the Bible. This scene shows her wedding to Joseph and is also full of details about their engagement.
According to the Golden Legend Mary’s suitors were invited to the temple, each armed with a wooden rod. They were in competition for Mary’s hand in marriage which, they were told, would be won by the man whose rod bloomed. Here, Joseph holds a rod that is lush with olive leaves, the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove nestled in its branches – a sign of divine approval. Behind him unsuccessful suitors break their barren rods in frustration, a detail which also comes from the Golden Legend. The Sienese painter Niccolò di Buonaccorso also included these elements in his little panel showing the Virgin’s marriage.
This compact scene is arranged in three sections – much like contemporary altarpieces – with one larger central section and two smaller flanking sections. The pillars and arches of the architecture divide the painting, and the main action takes place under the central archway. The arched windows resemble contemporary Gothic church or palace architecture, rather than that of a Jewish temple where Mary might have worshipped. The division of the picture into three parts follows a pattern set by the artist’s Sienese predecessors, who painted scenes from the Virgin’s life for the cathedral (Duomo) in Siena in the mid-1340s. Gregorio, a native of the city, would have known these well.
The wood grain of the panel is horizontal, suggesting that it was once part of a long, horizontal plank of wood painted with multiple scenes, called a predella. Two other predella panels have been connected with this image. One shows the Crucifixion (now in the Museuo dell' Opera del Duomo, Siena) and the other shows the birth of Virgin (now in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome). The scenes from the life of the Virgin are the same size and probably framed the Crucifixion, which is slightly longer.
While it is not certain that this work was painted by Gregorio, it is likely to have been; it bears a resemblance to the only signed work by him (now in the Pinacoteca, Siena) which shows the Virgin Mary feeding the Christ Child while seated on the ground.
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