Room 51

Italy 1250–1350

The earliest works in the National Gallery, from the 13th and 14th centuries, are displayed in this room. Like most Italian paintings of this period, they were intended for Christian worship. Panels were painted as altarpieces, to decorate the fronts of altars or as crucifixes to hang in church interiors. Clerics owned small portable altarpieces for their private devotions.

The impact of Byzantine icons was all-pervasive, as can be seen in a diptych probably made in Umbria. Typically these paintings have a gold ground and set formulae for depicting sacred subjects.

This one is the earliest surviving Italian painting to depict Christ as the Man of Sorrows, a subject that encouraged viewers to focus on his suffering. Many altarpieces were later cut into fragments, including that made for Siena Cathedral by the city’s leading artist Duccio. His refined linearity was crucial in forming the styles of his 14th-century Sienese followers.

Cimabue was the leading painter in the rival Tuscan city-state of Florence. He was succeeded by Giotto, whose style is marked by an increasing naturalism and monumentality. The Black Death of 1348 deprived Central Italy of many of its best painters, including the Sienese Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro, as well as the Florentine Bernardo Daddi.