The earliest works in the National Gallery’s collection are displayed in this room - Like most paintings of this period, they were intended for Christian worship.They were painted as altarpieces, to decorate the fronts of altars, or as crucifixes to hang in church interiors. Churchmen and women, and members of the social elite, owned small images of Christian subjects to stimulate private prayer and devotion; an outstanding example of which is The Wilton Diptych.
Italian painting of this period is indebted to the art of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine icons (sacred images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the saints) were venerated across the Italian peninsula. Their gilded backgrounds and deep colours were an inspiration to many painters. So, too, were the subjects they depicted. For instance, the depiction of Christ as the Man of Sorrows – first developed in Byzantine art of the 12th century – was much copied in Italy.
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, painters across Italy strove to inject a new, naturalistic spirit into painting. Cimabue, for instance, shows the Christ Child as a real baby, clinging to his mother’s hand. Giotto, who may have been Cimabue’s pupil, gives his figures monumentality and gravity, often placing them within convincing architectural spaces.