The Madonna and Child are flanked by diminutive figures of Saints John the Baptist and Francis of Assisi while the nine choirs of heavenly angels—as described by the fifth-century neo-platonic writer known as the Pseudo-Dionysius—ornament the pinnacle. Other saints are shown in an arcade. Lippo attains a refinement of execution equal to that of his famous brother-in-law Simone Martini. The panel formed a diptych with a Crucifixion (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Its frame is modern.
The exquisite panel is almost certainly the left wing of a portable diptych, the right wing of which can be identified with a Crucifixion formerly in the Von Kaufmann collection and now in the Louvre, Paris (see Zeri and Gardner 1980; see Additional Images, fig. 1). Unfortunately, at some point in its history the frame of the MMA panel was removed, and the row of saints beneath arches was separated from the Madonna and Child and set into the modern, pseudo-Gothic frame. However, the tooled decoration on the reverse side of the panel, which is silvered (now oxidized), clearly establishes that originally the panel bottom and upper pieces were contiguous and the panel had the same dimensions as well as tooling as the Crucifixion in the Louvre. The attribution of the two panels has been widely discussed, it having been proposed that the MMA painting is by the fictive Barna da Siena (an artist mentioned by Ghiberti in his Commentaries but otherwise undocumented; today he is usually identified with Lippo Memmi himself or with Lippo’s brother, Federico Memmi, or his brother-in-law, Donato Martini). The MMA panel seems, however, a characteristic, if exceptionally fine, work by Lippo himself, possibly dating from the years around 1340, though that too has been debated. The Louvre panel seems, if anything, even higher in quality (it retains its original frame). Given the presence of the figures of Saint John the Baptist and Francis on the MMA panel, the diptych was probably commissioned for the private devotions of a Franciscan friar or nun or for a supporter of the Franciscan order.
The fictive predella with a row of saints is unusual for a picture of this size, but it is not without parallels: we find it also in a Crucifixion by Lippo Memmi in the Pinacoteca Vaticana and in a Madonna and Child in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum that has been ascribed alternatively to Lippo Memmi or to Simone Martini (Leone di Castris 1989). More important is the presence along the upper edges of the gable of the angels in accordance with The Celestial Hierarchy of the Pseudo-Dionysius, a theologian of the fifth century whose name derives from his one-time identification with Dionysius the Areopagite—a follower of Saint Paul. The neo-Platonic, mystical works of the Pseudo-Dionysius had a deep influence on medieval Christianity. The Celestial Hierarchy sets out three triads of angels marking the ascent to God (chapters 6–9). Thus: "The Word of God has designated the whole Heavenly Beings as nine, by appellations, which show their functions. These our Divine Initiator divides into three threefold Orders. He also says that that which is always around God is first and is declared by tradition to be united closely and immediately, to Him, before all the rest. For he says that the teaching of the Holy Oracles declares, that the most Holy Thrones, and the many-eyed and many-winged hosts, named in the Hebrew tongue Cherubim and Seraphim, are established immediately around God, with a nearness superior to all. This threefold order, then, our illustrious Guide spoke of as one, and of equal rank, and really first Hierarchy, than which there is not another more Godlike or immediately nearer to the earliest illuminations of the Godhead. But he says, that which is composed of the Authorities, and Lordships, and Powers is second; and, as respects the lowest of the Heavenly Hierarchies, the Order of the Angels and Archangels and Principalities is third." Beatrice explains the meaning and configuration of the celestial hierarchy of angels to Dante in the twenty-eighth canto of the Paradiso: "what one can see are spheres becoming ever more divine as they are set more distant from the center. . . . These orders all direct—ecstatically—their eyes on high; and downward, they exert such force that all are drawn and draw to God" (trans. Allen Mandelbaum).
Lippo Memmi follows the canonical arrangement. At the top is the first triad: Seraphim, "those who burn", designated by their six wings; Cherubim, signifying the fullness of knowledge or wisdom, holding books; and Thrones, the seat of exaltation, bearing faldstools. Next come: Dominions, standing for Justice (they hold censers); Virtues, for courage and virility (holding girdles); and Powers, for order and harmony (holdinging staffs). And, finally: Principalities, symbolizing authority (with branches of lilies); Archangels, emblematic of unity (with swords); and Angels, bringers of revelation (with wands). In Lippo’s panel the Virgin is thus depicted as the Queen of the Heavenly Hosts and her halo is surrounded by rays incised into the gold background.
The saints in the predella can be identified as, left to right, a male martyr, Clare (holding a lamp), Lawrence (with his martyr’s grill), Peter (with the keys to heaven), Louis of Toulouse (in his bishop’s cope), Catherine of Alexandria (crowned, holding a book to signify her learning), and Cecilia. Two of the saints are Franciscans and, indeed, the writings of the Pseudo-Dionysius were much studied by the great Franciscan Saint Bonaventure.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
Inscription: Inscribed: (on neck of Madonna's dress) AVE; (on Madonna's right sleeve) GRA[TIA]
?[art dealer, Italy, until 1849; sold to Smith]; Mrs. Martin Tucker Smith, Shirley, Surrey (1849–92; as by Duccio); her son, Francis Nicholas Smith, Wingfield Park, Ambergate, Derby (1892–1910; sale, Christie's, London, February 5, 1910, no. 146, as early Italian School, sold with its pendant "The Annunciation" for £105 to Sulley); [Sulley & Co., London, 1910; sold to Norton]; Richard Norton, Boston (1910–d. 1919; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 26, 1919, no. 149, as by Simone Memmi, for £840 to Pawsey & Payne); [Pawsey & Payne and Agnew, London, 1919, as by Lippo Memmi; sold to Duveen]; [Duveen, New York, 1919–23; sold to Hamilton]; Carl W. Hamilton, New York (1923–24); [Duveen, New York, 1924; sold for $8,000 to Griggs]; Maitland F. Griggs, New York (1924–d. 1943)
New York. Duveen. "Early Italian Paintings," April 17–May 3, 1924, no. 48 (as by Lippo Memmi, lent by Mr. Carl W. Hamilton).
New York. Century Association. "Italian Primitive Paintings," February 15–March 12, 1930, no. 24 (lent by Maitland F. Griggs).
New York. World's Fair. "Masterpieces of Art: European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300–1800," May–October 1939, no. 256 (lent by Mr. Maitland F. Griggs, New York).
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "Arts of the Middle Ages," February 17–March 24, 1940, no. 53 (lent by Maitland F. Griggs, New York).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Maitland F. Griggs Collection," Winter 1944, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Giovanni di Paolo: Paintings," August 14–October 8, 1973, no. 15.
Richard Offner. "A Remarkable Exhibition of Italian Paintings." Arts 5 (May 1924), p. 245, ill. p. 246, attributes it to Lippo Memmi and dates it about 1340 based on its similarity to the artist's Crucifixion in the Vatican and his Nursing Madonna in Berlin.
W. R. Valentiner. A Catalogue of Early Italian Paintings Exhibited at the Duveen Galleries New York: April to May, 1924. New York, 1926, unpaginated, no. 27, ill., attributes it to Memmi.
Raimond van Marle. Letter. February 1, 1926 [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1980], rejects the attribution to Memmi, tentatively suggesting that the picture is by Barna da Siena.
"Panel by Lippo Memmi." Bulletin of the Associates in Fine Arts at Yale University 1 (December 1926), p. 45, ill., mentions that it was exhibited at Yale for several months in the spring of 1926.
Raimond van Marle. "Due tavole di Barna da Siena." Balzana, n.s., 1 (November–December, 1927), p. 243, figs. 1, 2, 4 (overall and details), calls it an early work by Barna da Siena.
[Curt H.] Weigelt inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 23, Leipzig, 1929, p. 276, lists it, and the Munich Assumption with which he compares it, among doubtful attributions to Memmi; finds Van Marle's [see Ref. 1927] attribution to Barna untenable.
Curt H. Weigelt. Sienese Painting of the Trecento. Florence, 1930, p. 83 n. 63, calls it very close to Memmi.
Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pl. LVIII, attributes it to Memmi.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 360, lists it as by Memmi.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 1, Romanesque and Gothic. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 73.
Raimond van Marle. Le scuole della pittura italiana. Vol. 2, La scuola senese del XIV secolo. The Hague, 1934, pp. 322–23, lists it among works attributed to Barna.
Anna Maria Gabbrielli. "Ancora del Barna pittore delle storie del nuovo testamento nella Collegiata di S. Gimignano." Bullettino senese, n.s., 7 (1936), pp. 127–28 n. 4, rejects the attribution to Barna and calls it close to Memmi.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 309.
Alfred M. Frankfurter. "The Maitland F. Griggs Collection." Art News 35 (May 1, 1937), p. 155, ill. pp. 40 (detail), 41, attributes it to Barna.
Margaretta Salinger. "An Early Sienese Panel in the Griggs Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 11 (February 1944), pp. 181–83, ill., attributes it to Barna.
Dorothy C. Shorr. The Christ Child in Devotional Images in Italy During the XIV Century. New York, 1954, pp. 116, 122, ill. p. 127 (detail), based on information provided by Offner, attributes it to Barna.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, p. 269, lists it as by Memmi.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 15, 141, 313, 381, 388, 395, 412, 422–23, 440, 459, 462, 608, as by Barna or Memmi.
Sebastiana Delogu Ventroni. Barna da Siena. Pisa, 1972, p. 64, no. 25, erroneously as in the Maitland Griggs Museum, New York; rejects the attribution to Barna, ascribing it instead to the circle of Simone Martini, possibly Lippo Memmi.
Arno Preiser. Das Entstehen und die Entwicklung der Predella in der italienischen Malerei. PhD diss., Julius-Maximilians-Universität, Würzburg. Hildesheim, 1973, pp. 118–20, pl. 94, accepts the attribution to Memmi, but rejects a late dating; discusses the painted predella with arches and half-length saints.
Cristina De Benedictis. La pittura senese, 1330–1370. Florence, 1979, p. 79, fig. 43, attributes it to Barna da Siena, whom she tentatively identifies as Federico Memmi, with Lippo Memmi.
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. 52–53, pl. 13, call it "a typical late work by Memmi, datable about 1340"; state that it originally formed part of a diptych, the other half of which was probably a Crucifixion formerly in the Kaufmann collection, Berlin, and later in the Henkell collection, Wiesbaden (now Musée du Louvre, Paris).
Joseph Polzer. "The 'Master of the Rebel Angels' Reconsidered." Art Bulletin 63 (December 1981), pp. 578–81, fig. 32, calls it a late work by Memmi.
Keith Christiansen. "Fourteenth-Century Italian Altarpieces." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 40 (Summer 1982), pp. 10–11, fig. 11, accepts the identification of the Louvre Crucifixion as the other half of the diptych [see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1980]; calls the diptych a late work by Memmi, dating it perhaps about 1350.
Henk W. Van Os inL'art gothique siennois: enluminure, peinture, orfèvrerie, sculpture. Exh. cat., Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon. Florence, 1983, p. 140, under no. 42, states that a new examination of the Louvre Crucifixion (then in a private collection, The Hague) might establish whether it formed the other half of the diptych with the MMA work; attributes the Crucifixion to Barna, who is tentatively identified as Federico Memmi.
Dominique Thiébaut inMusée du Louvre: Nouvelles acquisitions du Département des Peintures (1983–1986). Paris, 1987, p. 180, ill., lists the Louvre Crucifixion as attributed to Lippo Memmi and dates it about 1340; accepts the identification of the Louvre and MMA panels as wings of the same diptych; discusses the authorship of the panels.
Giovanni Previtali. "Introduzione ai problemi della bottega di Simone Martini." Simone Martini: atti del convegno. Ed. Luciano Bellosi. Florence, 1988, pp. 162, 166 n. 35, figs. 38, 41 (detail).
Joseph Polzer. "'Symon Martini et Lippus Memmi me pinxerunt'." Simone Martini: atti del convegno. Ed. Luciano Bellosi. Florence, 1988, pp. 170, 172, fig. 5 (detail), attributes it to Memmi and dates it to the 1330s.
Pierluigi Leone de Castris. Simone Martini: Catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1989, p. 145, in connection with a Madonna and Child in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, mentions it as possibly by Memmi's brother and collaborator "Tederico".
Eliot W. Rowlands. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Italian Paintings, 1300–1800. Kansas City, Mo., 1996, p. 38, calls it a late work by Memmi, from around 1340; accepts the identification of the Louvre Crucifixion as the other half of the diptych.
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, pp. 118, 247, 262, 311, 400, 413, 444, 446, 488, classifies the punch marks appearing in this painting.
Luciano Bellosi, ed. La collezione Salini: Dipinti, sculture e oreficerie dei secoli XII, XIII, XIV e XV. Florence, 2009, vol. 1, p. 143.