Painted in the 1280s, this head is a fragment of a large painting of the Madonna and Child (whose blessing hand and knee can be seen). The artist was a close follower of Cimabue, the principal painter in Florence before Giotto. It was not uncommon to excise the head of the Madonna from a venerated image and encase it in another work of art as a focus of devotion.
The Master of the Magdalen is the name given by Osvald Sirén (1922) to the anonymous artist who painted a panel in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence representing Saint Mary Magdalen and eight episodes of her life, and a group of stylistically related paintings. The finest of these pictures date from the last third of the thirteenth century and reflect the work of Cimabue—the most important Florentine painter prior to Giotto. The MMA panel is a fragment and includes, in addition to the head of the Virgin and her right hand holding a flower, the blessing hand and bent knee of the Christ Child. The keyhole-shaped fragment was presumably cut from a large panel of the Madonna and Child enthroned of the sort known as a Maestà—the Madonna in Majesty. It was fairly common practice to salvage the head of the Madonna in a work of art that had gone out of style but had become an object of veneration. It would then have been incorporated, like a relic, into a later canvas. The original work from which the Metropolitan’s panel has been excised may have been close in size and format to one ascribed to Cimabue in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi, Bologna, which measures 218 x 118 centimeters and shows the Madonna and Child enthroned accompanied by two diminutive angels. The position of the Christ Child’s leg in that work may give some idea of the original posture of the Christ Child in the MMA fragment, which is likely to date soon after ca. 1285. Cimabue’s Maestà in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, provides the closest stylistic point of comparison; that work has been dated by Luciano Bellosi to the mid-1280s (see Luciano Bellosi, Cimabue, Milan, 1998, pp. 102–13). The sidelong glance of the Virgin and the blessing gesture of the Christ Child can be compared to a number of paintings dating from the 1280s, including Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna of 1285–86 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The degree to which the artist was indebted to these models to update his style is evident from an earlier, small, portable triptych in the Metropolitan’s collection (41.100.8) that may date around 1270. A small panel in the Acton Collection, Florence, seems to depend from the Metropolitan’s fragment, though the child in that work is seated rather than standing.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
?Jean Dollfus, Paris; Alphonse Kann, Paris (by 1920–27; his sale, American Art Association, New York, January 7, 1927, part 2, no. 45, as "The Virgin," by Cimabue, for $3,700 to Straus); Jesse Isidor Straus, New York (1927–d. 1936); Irma N. Straus, New York (1936–64)
Florence. Palazzo degli Uffizi. "Mostra Giottesca," April–October 1937, no. 74 (as Attributed to the Master of the Magdalen, lent by the Strauss [sic] collection, New York) [1943 ed., no. 73].
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Oswald Sirén. Toskanische Maler im XIII. Jahrhundert. Berlin, 1922, p. 271, as in the Alphonse Kann collection, Paris, in 1920; calls it a fragment of a large Madonna picture and attributes it to the Master of the Magdalen, the name given here to an anonymous painter of the second half of the thirteenth century [see notes].
The Alphonse Kann Collection. American Art Association, New York. Vol. 2, 1927, unpaginated, no. 45, ill., as "The Virgin," by Cimabue, from the Dollfus collection; erroneously states that it was in one of the Dollfus sales in Paris in 1912.
Benjamin Rowland Jr. "Notes on the Magdalen Master." Art in America 19 (1931), p. 127–28, fig. 5, attributes it to the Master of the Magdalen, comparing it to a panel in the Acton collection, Florence, a Madonna and Child in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass., and a triptych then in the Blumenthal collection, New York, now in the Metropolitan Museum (41.100.8).
Raimond van Marle. Le scuole della pittura italiana. Vol. 1, Dal VI alla fine del XIII secolo. The Hague, 1932, p. 347, accepts the attribution to the Master of the Magdalen.
Giulia Sinibaldi and Giulia Brunetti, ed. Pittura italiana del duecento e trecento: Catalogo della mostra giottesca di Firenze del 1937. Exh. cat., Galleria degli Uffizi. Florence, 1943, p. 237, no. 73, ill. p. 236, as in the Straus collection, New York; attribute it to the workshop of the Master of the Magdalen.
Gertrude Coor-Achenbach. "A Neglected Work by the Magdalen Master." Burlington Magazine 89 (1947), p. 120 n. 12, attributes it to the Master of the Magdallen.
Roberto Longhi. "Giudizio sul Duecento." Proporzioni 2 (1948), p. 44, cites Sinibaldi and Brunetti [see Ref. 1943] as attributing it to the workshop of the Master of the Magdalen.
Edward B. Garrison. Italian Romanesque Panel Painting. Florence, 1949, p. 231, no. 640, ill., attributes it to the Master of the Magdalen, dating it about 1270–80; suggests the traces of cloth behind the Madonna could indicate that she was enthroned.
Dorothy C. Shorr. The Christ Child in Devotional Images in Italy During the XIV Century. New York, 1954, p. 111, mentions it in connection with the Acton Madonna and Child, noting that the formal gesture of the Child's hand raised in blessing seen in the MMA picture has, in the Acton work, been "humanized" and transformed into the Child reaching for the flower held by His mother; adds that this may be the earliest instance of this gesture.
Carlo Lodovico Ragghianti. Pittura del Dugento a Firenze. Florence, 1955, p. 102 [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1971], accepts the attribution to the Master of the Magdalen and calls it an early work.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, p. 5–7, ill., consider it a fragment cut from a large altarpiece of the Madonna and Child enthroned; attribute it to the Master of the Magdalen himself, date it about 1280, and note the influence of Meliore Toscano.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 131, 545, 609.
Keith Christiansen. "Fourteenth-Century Italian Altarpieces." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 40 (Summer 1982), p. 19, fig. 17 (color), suggests dating it to the very end of the thirteenth century based on similarities with the Madonna and Child in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Bologna, attributed to Cimabue
Angelo Tartuferi. La pittura a Firenze nel Duecento. Florence, 1990, pp. 44, 93, fig. 161, considers it a late work of the Master of the Magdalen, and dates it about 1285–90.
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, p. 436, classifies a punch mark appearing in this painting.
Victor M. Schmidt. Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250–1400. Florence, 2005, pp. 183, 202 n. 63, fig. 124.
Stefano G. Casu. The Pittas Collection: Early Italian Paintings (1200–1530). Florence, 2011, p. 127.