UNKNOWN MASTER, Italian
(active in 1270s)
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin1270-75
Tempera on wood, 79 x 120 cm
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp
The painting is split into five sections. The central part shows the Virgin and Child Enthroned. There are two scenes to their left and right - The Birth of the Virgin, Annunciation, Nativity and Assumption. The vertical division, in which the central part is separated from the sides by two painted columns, is a precursor of the triptych altarpieces and enables us to identify the painting as Tuscan or Umbrian. In 1949 from a faint inscription found beneath Mary's feet the painting was identified as the work of Simeone and Machilone of Spoleto. These Umbro-Sienese masters worked in Ancona, Florence, Pisa, Siena and Orvieto, absorbing the influence of all those centres.
The painting has a Byzantine feel and is strongly influenced by the Sienese and Florentine schools. The architectural structure in the scenes showing the Birth of the Virgin and the Annunciation is Sienese. Whereas Marian cycles in the Byzantine tradition generally culminated in the assumption of Mary's soul, this painting focuses on the bearing of her body to heaven. This is a Western theme which only became truly popular in Italy in the 14th century, establishing itself first in Sienese art. The Annunciation scene, in which Mary turns from the angel in fright, also betrays a Sienese influence. By contrast, the throne on which she sits, the drapery of her robe and her facial type are all specifically Florentine. The Birth of the Virgin and the Nativity have the same composition. The drowsing Joseph in the latter scene is interesting, as are the two midwives bathing the infant. The more anecdotal elements of the image derive from apocryphal texts.