(b. ca. 1320, Firenze, d. ca. 1365, Firenze)

Madonna and Child with Sts Peter and John the Evangelist

c. 1360
Tempera on panel, 76 x 66 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

This small triptych was made by one of the most sought-after artists in Florence: Nardo di Cione. It must have been a prized possession. The triptych was made to be used by its owner in private devotion, at home or even away: its size and folding wings made it portable. Because the wings, which close like shutters over the Madonna and Child, with the Man of Sorrows, protected the painted surfaces, Nardo's artistry has survived in excellent condition. We are able to appreciate to an unusual degree the lyrical delicacy of his style and the gemlike quality of his colours. Nardo's Virgin, despite her soft expression, appears removed from human concerns. Bright, artificial colours separate her from the real world, and the stiff saints on either side underscore her hierarchical importance.

Around the middle of the fourteenth century, Florentine artists like Nardo and his brothers abandoned the human concerns and naturalism of Giotto. For several decades the older, traditional styles again predominated. Art historians continue to debate why this occurred. Perhaps Giotto's work was only appreciated, as Petrarch believed, by a small, educated elite. Perhaps intensified religious sentiment following the plague of 1348 - when up to half the population of Italian cities died within a few weeks - prompted this conservatism. Or perhaps the deaths of so many artists and patrons changed the nature of commissions and workshop practice.

Nardo's small triptych in Washington, and his pentaptych in Prague (Národní Galerie) are probably his latest works, though they cannot be called late works, since Nardo's life apparently came to an abrupt and premature end through illness.