This independent panel of the Madonna nursing her child is among the masterpieces of fourteenth-century Sienese painting. It transforms a common, maternal activity into an icon of devotion and is painted with Fei's special feeling for decorative richness and technical refinement. The engaged frame is original, as are the gold-backed, glass medallions with images of the Annunciation, saints, and the head of Christ—a technique known as verre églomisé. The picture may originally have stood on an altar or hung in a domestic interior.
This imposing picture, one of Fei’s most accomplished, is completely intact, with its original engaged frame richly decorated with gilded pastiglia and small cabochon stones alternating with medallions of verre églomisé (see Eisler 1961 for a discussion of this technique). The top and bottom center medallions are lost. The others depict, from top left to bottom right: the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate, Saints Paul and Peter, Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist (or Matthew), and an unidentified saint (or Saint John the Evangelist) and probably Saint Catherine of Alexandria. The central medallion on the Virgin's cloak is also in verre églomisé and depicts the head of Christ.
An early work by the artist, the picture is usually dated to the 1370s. Its composition, with an actively posed child set against a rigidly frontal Madonna, recalls works by Ambrogio Lorenzetti such as his landmark Madonna and Child of 1319 (Vico Alto, Siena). Like his contemporaries Lippo Vanni and Bartolo di Fredi, Fei was attentive to the innovations of his great forebears, translating some of their most memorable compositions into works of refined elegance. His paintings are invariably more planar and the execution is always exquisite. In this case the brushstrokes delicately follow the form, endowing the features of the figures with the effect of a shallow relief.
The picture, whose provenance cannot be traced prior to the twentieth century, may have been painted for a domestic setting, but it is worth noting that occasionally pictures of this format were also adapted for use on an altar. Such, for example, is the case with a Madonna of Humility by Fei, which was incorporated as the centerpiece of an elaborate altar in the cathedral of Siena commissioned from Andrea Bregno by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini in the 1480s.
Among the interesting technical details is the evidence that a compass was used to mark out the tondi in the spandrels and the series of arches decorating the main arch above the Madonna. As is so often the case, the blue of the Madonna’s mantle has darkened and the modeling is no longer visible.
[Keith Christiansen 2011]
Sir R. Torrens; F. C. Clift, London (until 1925; sale, Christie's, London, July 17, 1925, no. 118, as Sienese School, for 780 gns. to Sekeyan); [Sekeyan, Paris, from 1925]; ?[Durlacher, Paris and New York, 1925]; George Blumenthal, New York (by 1926–d. 1941; cat., vol. 1, 1926, pl. XXIII bis, as by Paolo di Giovanni Fei)
Corning, N.Y. Corning Museum of Glass. "The Origin and Development of Verre Églomisé," May 1–September 15, 1961, no catalogue.
Hartford. Wadsworth Atheneum. "An Exhibition of Italian Panels & Manuscripts from the Thirteenth & Fourteenth Centuries in Honor of Richard Offner," April 9–June 6, 1965, no. 34.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Italian Renaissance Frames," June 5, 1990–January 6, 1991, no. 3.
Stella Rubinstein-Bloch. Catalogue of the Collection of George and Florence Blumenthal. Vol. 1, Paintings—Early Schools. Paris, 1926, unpaginated, pl. XXIII bis, as by Paolo di Giovanni Fei.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 183.
[F. Mason] Perkins inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 26, Leipzig, 1932, p. 211.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 158.
Dorothy C. Shorr. The Christ Child in Devotional Images in Italy During the XIV Century. New York, 1954, pp. 68, 73, 191, ill. p. 82, states that the motif of the suckling Child who grabs his foot first appears in a panel by a Paduan follower of Lorenzetti (Museo Civico, Padua), and that Fei depicts the motif a second time in a picture formerly in the Platt collection, Englewood, New Jersey.
Colin Eisler. "Verre Églomisé and Paolo di Giovanni Fei." Journal of Glass Studies 3 (1961), pp. 30–37, ill. (overall and details of medallions), discusses the technique of "verre églomisé" used to create the medallions on the engaged frame and the Virgin's cloak, suggesting that they may have been done by Fei himself; identifies the heads on the medallions in the frame as (from top left to bottom right): the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Annunciate, Saints Paul and Peter, Saints John the Baptist and Matthew, and Saints John the Evangelist and (tentatively) Catherine of Alexandria; identifies the head on the Virgin's cloak as Christ; suggests that the lost medallion at the top center of the frame may have depicted the dove of the Holy Spirit.
Michael Mallory. "Toward a Chronology for Paolo di Giovanni Fei." Art Bulletin 46 (December 1964), p. 530, calls it an early work.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, p. 129.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 69, 346, 608.
Simona Grazzini inJacopo della Quercia nell'arte del suo tempo. Exh. cat., Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Florence, 1975, p. 18, fig. I.2.
Michael Mallory. The Sienese Painter Paolo di Giovanni Fei (c. 1345–1411). PhD diss., Columbia University. New York, 1976, pp. 32–38, 41–55, 225, 227–28, no. 2, pl. 5, discusses the artist's sources for the composition, including two works by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (San Francesco, Siena, and Vico l'Abate) and one attributed to Ceccarelli (formerly San Martino, Siena); relates it to a similar work by Fei then with Wildenstein, London (formerly Platt collection, Englewood, New Jersey), cataloguing both paintings as Fei's earliest works, from about 1380.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sienese and Central Italian Schools. New York, 1980, pp. 58–59, pl. 32, state that although the work cannot be securely dated, the fact that the composition is based on a much earlier Simonesque prototype may indicate that it was made early in the artist's career; relate it to the Madonna by Ceccarelli (San Martino, Siena); depart slightly from Eisler's [see Ref. 1961] identification of the saints in the medallions, tentatively placing John the Evangelist opposite Saint John the Baptist and calling the head at the bottom left unidentified.
Keith Christiansen. "Fourteenth-Century Italian Altarpieces." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 40 (Summer 1982), pp. 10, 12, fig. 13 (color), believes that the composition is probably based on a lost work by Ambrogio Lorenzetti; dates it about 1380, early in Fei's career when he was most influenced by Ambrogio.
David Alan Brown. Andrea Solario. Milan, 1987, p. 202 n. 152, fig. 152.
Timothy J. Newbery and Laurence B. Kanter inItalian Renaissance Frames. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1990, pp. 34–35, no. 3, ill. (color), describe the frame, dating it about 1390.
Adam S. Labuda inOpus Sacrum. Ed. Józef Grabski. Exh. cat., Royal Castle, Warsaw. Vienna, 1990, pp. 43–44, fig. 2.
Erling S. Skaug. Punch Marks from Giotto to Fra Angelico: Attribution, Chronology, and Workshop Relationships in Tuscan Panel Painting. Oslo, 1994, vol. 1, p. 56 n. 54.
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, pp. 219, 318, classifies the punch marks appearing in this painting.
Renaissance. Christie's, New York. January 29, 2014, p. 64, fig. 1 (color), under no. 125.
Miklós Boskovits. Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art, Systematic Catalogue. Washington, 2016, pp. 103, 114, 117 n. 14, under no. 13.
An exceptionally elaborate, original engaged frame with raised gesso (pastiglia) designs, embellished with glass medallions (verre églomisé) painted by the artist.