Master of the Christ Church Coronation

(Active in Florence during the third quarter of the XV century)

Coronation of the Virgin with Saints John the Baptist, John the Evangelist, Peter, Paul and Two Musical Angels; (in the pinnacle) Holy Spirit, c. 1370 - 1375

tempera on panel, gold ground, 79,5 x 38 cm (31.30 x 14.96 inches)

  • Reference: 729
  • Provenance: Milan, Private Collection
Descriptions:

Seated on a throne covered by a canopy held by cherubs and seraphs, Christ crowns His mother. Saints John the Baptist and Peter on the left, Saints John the Evangelist and Paul on the right assist at this holy event. Two angels play a psaltery and a vielle and close the lower composition.

The legend of the Coronation of the Virgin, which took place in the sky immediately after her assumption, is based on the famous Transitus Virgins, a volume previously attributed to Leucius, Saint John’s pupil, and today considered as one of the XIV century apologetics. The episode became popular in Christian liturgy thanks to the prayer of the Confraternite del Santo Rosario, founded by Saint Peter of Verona in the XIII century: the fifth and last glorious Mystery – which has to be recited on Wednesdays and Sundays – is dedicated to Mary ‘the Queen of Heaven and Earth’. In addition, in this same period Jacobus de Varagine included the episode in his Golden Legend, and the miracle became a usual iconographic theme represented both in monumental decoration of the apses –especially in the churches dedicated to Mary -, in the small and medium altarpieces for private devotion[i], and later in the main panels of polyptychs.

Our painting – which was plausibly the main section of a small triptych and was originally completed by two wings whose location is presently unknown – is a Florentine panel of the second half of the XIV century, as attested by its extremely rational and rigorously symmetric composition based on the author’s adhesion to the prototypes of the masters of the Giottesque school, and, in particular, to the manner of Bernardo Daddi. Yet, the luminous tones in the interpretation of the cloaks and the decorative richness of the draping canopy behind the protagonists of the scene, reveal that this is the same formal journey that, at the end of the century, would lead to the Late Gothic language of Agnolo Gaddi and Spinello Aretino. Our artist is, therefore, a ‘compromise’ artist, who had certainly trained in contact with the models of the early XIV century and was at the same time aware of the cultural and figurative suggestion to come in the following decades.

The panel has previously been attributed to Francesco di Michele, already known under the conventional name of Master of San Martino a Mensola[ii]. Behind this attribution – which, despite the mistake, identified the same stylistic trend of our painting - was the fact that the panel had been studied before the last restoration and the cleaning of the surface. It therefore appeared as an Orcagnesque work, particularly connected to the models of Jacopo di Cione: in other words, a retrospective painting whose quality is undeniable. Francesco di Michele was active between the 1380s and the 1390s; his corpus is very homogeneous and tends to update Andrea Orcagna’s figurative experience with the interest for Agnolo Gaddi’s linear shapes – a quite normal aspect if we consider the timeline of his works. Analysing our painting today, we immediately realize it was actually made twenty years before, closer to 1370 than to 1390; therefore, it does not recover the tradition of a century that is about to end with a historicist approach.  Rather, it is part of that same tradition that in 1370, through the evolution from Daddi’s workshop to the production of the school of the Orcagnas, still represented the avant-garde of the Florentine manner, with no trace of the retrospective and nostalgic nature that became quite common in Florentine painting at the turn of the century.

In a written communication, Angelo Tartuferi, who had the chance to study the panel after its restoration, correctly attributes it to the Master of the Christ Church Coronation: an anonymous painter, to which Richard Offner has attributed a comprehensive stylistic group of a dozen paintings, named after the panel with the Coronation of the Virgin with angels and saints today preserved in the Christ Church Gallery in Oxford[iii]. Only the disassembled triptych representing the Virgin with the Child, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Catherine, previously in the Musée de Palais Bénédictine in Fécamp (Normandy) and today part of a private collection is accurately dated. While still in the museum’s collections, it was discovered that, under the wings of the triptych, inserted in a XVI century frame, traces of the year ‘1373’ were visible. Since this is clearly a mature work of the artist, among the last of his stylistic journey, we can easily suggest that the painter’s training dated back many years, prior to the 1348 plague and therefore means that he came into contact with the masters who would have died in the plague[iv]. In his early panel with the Madonna with the Child and seventeen saints previously part of the Campana Collection in Rome and today in the Musée du Petit Palais in Avignon[v], the painter is manifestly influenced by Bernardo Daddi and Jacopo del Casentino, artists who would remain constant models throughout his career. Two Coronations of the Virgin follow, one preserved in the Christ Church Gallery and the other in the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa (Oklahoma), which already reveal the artist’s interest for Puccio di Simone and Andrea Orcagna[vi]. On the contrary, the Coronation of the Hermitage and the panel with Christ and the Symbols of the Passion, part of the Corsi Collection in the Museo Bardini in Florence[vii], are decisively closer to the workshop of the Orcagnas[viii]. Lastly, the Madonna with the Child and Six Saints, previously in Santo Stefano di Torri and today in the church of San Cristoforo della Perticaia in Rignano sull’Arno, near Florence[ix], and the aforementioned 1373 triptych, all reveal the influence of the Maestro di Barberino.

Despite the small number of analysed works, it is clearly visible that the development of the Master of the Christ Church Coronation is extremely interesting, since it is certainly representative of what happened in Florentine painting in the decades after the middle of the century. As Millar Meiss stated, ‘[if] new forms and new contents’ were needed in Tuscan painting and ‘narrative has transitioned into ritualistic’[x], our master is a valid representative of this transformation.  His works are mostly of small dimensions, depending on the devotional requests of private patrons. As a consequence, the figures’ sense of monumentality gradually disappears: the maturity and the awareness of the peculiarity of his style led our anonymous painter to interpret his models with a gentle disdain. It does not come as a surprise that, among the high models of the Giottesque tradition of the first half of the century, he focuses his attention on the panels of Bernardo Daddi, Giotto’s most discursive and colloquial pupil, who had best reacted to the new private religious needs of the populace.

Our panel follows the Coronation of the Christ Church Gallery – from the drawn layout, with the angels and the saints organized in an oval to ideally protect Christ and Mary in the theophany – and is decisively closer to the style of the panel of the Hermitage. By reducing the thickness and the weight of the physiognomies, in his mature activity our master represents the faces as calligrams, music notes of a melody that goes beyond the realistic consistency to achieve a purely poetical reason. Basically, the saints and the angels develop from the light and colours, rather than from the rationality of the drawing.

This catalogue evocatively opens with an important work: the decorative and luminous nature of the gold-ground panels requires the transposition of the holy mysteries into mystic imagination. Some authors and paintings of the second half of the XIV century reveal the return to a distinctive medieval Byzantine dream. Our panel rightly participates to this pivotal passage in the history of aesthetics.

 



[i] On the diffusion of Marian themes of the Assumption and the Coronation see: S. J. Shoemaker, Ancient traditions of the Virgin Mary’s dormition and assumption, Oxford 2004.

[ii] On the identification of the Master of San Martino a Mensola and a detailed analysis of the works that have been attirubted to him, see: L. Bellosi, Francesco di Michele, il maestro di San Martino a Mensola, in “Paragone”, 419/423, 1985, pp. 57-63; R. Fremantle, Some additions to a late Trecento Florentine: the Master of San Martino a Mensola, in “Antichità viva”, 1973, 1, pp. 3-13; M. Boskovits, Pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento 1370-1400, Florence 1975, pp. 379-381.

[iii] H. B. J. Maginnis, A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting, V/1, A Legacy of Attributions, Florence 1981, pp. 29-31; on the panel in Oxford: J. Byam Shaw, Paintings by Old Masters at Christ Church Oxford, London 1967, pp. 33-34, n. 7, Pl. 9.

[iv] For a list of the master’s oeuvre and a valid hypothesis on the chronological order of the works, starting from the triptych previously in Fécamp, see the essay by Cecilia Scalella: C. Scalella, Contributi alla pittura fiorentina del secondo Trecento: il ‘Maestro dell’Incoronazione della Christ Church Gallery’, in “Arte cristiana”, 2001, 803, pp. 117-130.

[v] M. Laclotte, E. Moench, Peinture italienne: Musée du Petit Palais. Avignon, Paris 2005, p. 132, n. 142

[vi] Suida referred this work to a Florentine painter around 1360-70; Offner includes the American painting in the catalogue of the Master of the Coronation Christ Church: E. Suida, in Paintings and Sculpture in Devotional Images in Italiy during the XIV century, New York 1953, pp. 16-17; Maginnis, cit., 1981, p. 31.

[vii] A. Soffici, in La collezione Corsi: dipinti italiani dal XIV al XVI secolo, by S. Chiono and A. Nesi, Florence 2011, pp. 105-112, n. 5.

[viii] T. K. Kustodieva, The Hermitage. Catalogue of Western European Painting. Italian Painting: thirteenth to sixteenth centuries, Florence 1994, pp. 281-282, n. 150.

[ix] C. Caneva, in Arte e restauri in Valdarno, by di C. Caneva, exhibiton catalogue (Figline Valdarno, Vecchio Palazzo Comunale, 18-5/7-7/1991), Florence 1991, pp. 35, 49-50, n. 3. Angelo Tartuferi attributed the triptych to the Master of the Christ Church Coronation.

[x] M. Meiss, Pittura a Firenze e Siena dopo la morte nera. Arte, religione e società alla metà del Trecento, Princeton 1951, ed. Turin 1982, pp. 20-33.

Biography

An anonymous Florentine painter, likely active between 1350 and 1375, he is named after the triptych with the Coronation of the Virgin with four angels and sixteen saints, today part of the collection of the Christ Church Gallery in Oxford. The master’s stylistic oeuvre was initially constructed by Richard Offner, while other important works were later catalogued by Federico Zeri and Miklòs Boskovits; at present his oeuvre counts more than twenty panels. The only dated one, with the year 1373, is the triptych (disassembled and reassembled) with the Virgin with the Child, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Catherine, previously in the Musée de Palais Bénédictine in Fécamp and today part of a Milanese private collection. This is one of the last works of his stylistic journey: clearly trained before the Black Death, in contact with such masters as Bernardo Daddi and Jacopo del Casentino, who died during the plague, our anonymous painter was one of the artists who led Florentine painting – and specifically the panel painting for private devotion – from the models of the first half to those of the second half of the XIV century, in other words from the Giottesque tradition to the avant-garde of the Orcagnas. In his late works he approaches the so-called Master of Barberino and seeks for a less imposing and more approachable representation of figures.

 

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