Greek icon | Virgin and Child

Icon: Virgin and Child C-1

Veneto-Adriatic, ca.1370-1375
Tempera on wood, 51.5 x 38.5 cm

Private Collection, Italy
ALR Ref. No: S00141168
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Prof. Dr. Gaudenz Freuler, Professor Emeritus for Art History
Zurich University, Switzerland

The Virgin is looking at the viewer and holds the Christ Child on her left arm while gently touching his leg with her index finger. The Divine Child, with piercing eyes turns frontally to the beholder. In his left hand He holds a scroll with pseudo-kufic letters, while with his other hand He grasps the hem of his precious mantle. Following an old Byzantine tradition,(1) in the upper corners we discern two roundels with stylized golden letters: on the right the M and on the right a D which stands for Mater Dei. Two more roundels, vertically placed above Christ’s head, disclose on a red ground the golden letters IHS XPS, referring to Jesus Christ. 

The conflict between old Byzantine traditions and the innovations introduced by Tuscan artists like Giotto in the early fourteenth century, is the primary artistic essence of our painting. Undoubtedly the unknown creator of the Madonna must have been trained in a non-Italian workshop, deeply rooted in the Byzantine tradition of  “Ikonenmaler”. Given his familiarity with, as we are going to demonstrate, Emilian painting around 1350, he might have emigrated to Italy possibly via Venice from a region along the Adriatic coast. There he must have encountered the more modern artistic conventions in vogue in Italy, in his case mainly those developed during the third decade of the fourteenth century in the Veneto and particularly in the Emilia region.
The case of our painting and its unknown author is comparable to the more celebrated panel of an unknown artist of Byzantine descent, who painted the famous Madonna, now in the cathedral of Cambrai for which he quite openly emulated Sienese art of the earlier fourteenth century.(2) In our Madonna the degree of assimilation with Italian art is slightly less strongly felt. The painter, despite his remarkable opening towards Western art did not make an effort to conceal his Byzantine descent. This is easily discerned if we compare our Madonna with the central panel of Simone Martini’s Virgin and Child from the polyptych painted for the Dominicans in Orvieto.(3) Both paintings are visibly based on a common, unknown Byzantine prototype.
Some elements in our Virgin and Child demonstrate the artist’s effort to modernize his artistic repertory and assimilate his style to the newly founded artistic principles developed by Italian painters during the fourteenth century. The antiquated Byzantine chrysography of the robes and mantles have given way here to the golden imitations of embroidery as they were introduced to Venetian painting in the first half of the fourteenth century by artists such as Paolo Veneziano and other painters of his following. The technique of applied punched decorations to the halo’s was introduced to Italian art towards 1320.(4) Other details, however, for example the use of old Byzantine conventions such as the roundels with the initials placed in the upper zone of the gold ground, the detail of Christ’s robe which is unnaturally wrapped tightly around his thigh and, the rendition of Christ’s body as an adult male rather than as an infant are clear indications as to our artist’s education within a Byzantine painter’s workshop outside Italy, presumably in the Adriatic region. The Byzantine nostalgias, to which he hung on in his depiction of the Virgin and Child, could have been simply due to the fact, that at the time of this painting, patrons in the Veneto and the neighbouring Terraferma and Emilia expected from their artists a pictorial world which was still strongly permeated by Byzantine conventions, as can easily be discerned in the works of fourteenth century Venetian artists such as the aforementioned Paolo and Lorenzo Veneziano,(5) two major protagonists of Venetian Trecento painting, and in those painted by Emilian painters, such as Barnaba da Modena(6) and others. 

The fleshy tone and subtle modelling of our Virgin’s face as well as her type as a youthful woman seem to be modelled on the Madonnas, painted by Tommaso da Modena in his early years around 1345 under the influence of Vitale da Bologna and other Emilian painters, such as the image of the Knitting Madonna and Child of the charming small altar in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna(7) or another Virgin and Child painted some years later for the diptych of Karlstejn near Prague(8). Even the Christ Child with his thick curly hair compares to Emilian types as they can be discerned in for instance a charming painting with the Virgin Tearing Jokingly her Child’s Ear, formerly in the Buitoni collection, Perugia,(9) painted towards 1350-55 by one of Bologna’s most prolific painters, Simone di Filippo detto “dei Crocifissi”.

The observations made so far which revealed for the author of our painting a remarkable awareness of Venetian and Emilian painting around the middle of the fourteenth century, make a strong case that our anonymous painter from the Adriatic coast, must have worked in the Veneto-Emilia region in the years of the third quarter of the Trecento. This conclusion is further confirmed by his distinct inclination towards gothic aesthetic principles which, around 1370, were developed in the Veneto by artists such as Lorenzo Veneziano, who during his final years progressively turned to a more sophisticated pictorial world of gothic elegance and ornamental splendour. This gothic phase is best represented by pictures such as his Annunciation altarpiece in the Galleria dell’Accademia in Venice from 1371 or his Virgin of the Rose from 1372 in the Louvre in Paris,(10) which reveal a remarkable gothic flair. This gothic tendency visible in Lorenzo Veneziano’s late works is also shared to some extend in our Madonna through the relaxed pose of her face, graciously inclined towards her Divine Son as well as the dynamized undulating movements of the mantles, which have left behind the graphic stiffness inherent to the rigid artistic formulas usually employed by painters of Byzantine descent. 

In conclusion our Virgin and Child  has revealed itself as a fascinating fourteenth century example of an Adriatic painter’s attempt to emancipate himself from the rigid Byzantine conventions learnt in his homeland by modernizing his antiquated artistic formulas of  Byzantine obervation with his apparent interest for painters active in the Veneto and Emilia around 1350-1375. At some point in the third quarter of the fourteenth century, our Adriatic painter must have immigrated to the Veneto and the Emilia region. There he must have become acquainted with the art of the then leading artists of these regions, whose marvelous works should have inspired him to break up to some extent from his Byzantine tradition. By doing so he created a painting which presents itself as a rare and intriguing artistic fusion between the ancient Byzantine tradition and the innovations of later Italian Trecento art. 


1 See for example: Helen C. Evans, Byzantium. Faith and Power (1261–1557), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2004, Cat. No. 207, p. 348 (Virgin Hodegetria, Catherine Monastery, Sinaï, Egypt); Galerie G. Sarti, Splendours of Italian Painting 1250 – 1510, London, pp. 24-31(Virgin and Child with two Angels, Private Collection). 
2 See for the Cambrai-Madonna: Helen C. Evans, Byzantium. Faith and Power (1261–1557), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2004, cat. no. 349, p. 582.
3 See: Giovanni Paccagnini, Simone Martini, Milano 1955, fig. 32, p. 119 (Virgin and Child ,1321, Orvieto, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).
4 The gilded background of our panel was restored at a later date, but in all probability follows the original design of the punching.
5 See for example: Cristina Guarnieri, Lorenzo Veneziano, Milan 2006, cat. co. 42, pp. 168, 169, 212, 213 (The Virgin Enthroned of the Rose, Louvre Museum, Paris);  Michelangelo Muraro, Paolo da Venezia, London 1970, Plate 4, p. 137  (Virgin and Child Enthroned, Belgrade, National Museum of Serbia).
6 See for example: Noemi Gabrielli (ed.), Galleria Sabauda Maestri Italiani, Turin 1971, fig. 41, tavola 23 (Virgin and Child, ca. 1350-60, Turin, Galleria Sabauda).
7 Robert Gibbs, Tomaso da Modena: Painting in Emilia and the March of Treviso, 1340-80, Cambridge etc. 1989, pl. 4, 6b (Tommaso da Modena, Virgin and Child, ca.1345, Bologna Pinacoteca Nazionale).
8 Idem, pl. 93-94 (Tommaso da Modena, Virgin and Child, ca. 1350, Karlstejn castle, near Prague)
9 Idem, fig. 146 (Simone di Filippo detto “Dei Crocifissi”, Madonna dell'Orecchio, ca. 1350-55, formerly Perugia, Buitoni collection / private collection).
10 See: Cristina Guarnieri, Lorenzo Veneziano, Milan 2006, cat. no. 42, pp. 168, 169, 212, 213 (The Virgin Enthroned of the Rose from 1372, Louvre Museum, Paris); idem, cat. no. 9, pp. 120, 121, 180, 181 (Annunciation altarpiece from 1371, Galleria dell’ Accademia, Venice)