In addition to prestigious altarpieces and civic commissions, among which was a large panel of the Madonna and Child for the Palazzo Pubblico in 1438 and the decoration of one of the principal gates of the city (the Porta Romana) with a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin, Sassetta painted a number of small-scale devotional panels of the Madonna and Child for a domestic setting. These date at intervals during his career and are distinguished by their preference for showing the Virgin full-length, seated on the floor, holding her child—a formula that emphasizes the Virgin’s humility. In one example, known from a copy by Sano di Pietro in the Museo Civico in Montalcino, she is, uniquely, shown in an enclosed garden of roses—the hortus conclusus of the Song of Solomon 4:12 ("A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up"). In this preference, Sassetta looked back to the great tradition of Sienese painting established by Simone Martini, who is credited with inventing the Madonna of Humility. Most other Sienese artists embraced the alternative tradition of showing the Virgin half-length (see the examples by Sano di Pietro in the Metropolitan). A further embellishment was the addition of angels suspending a crown over the Virgin and, in the gable, the figure of the blessing Christ suspended by seraphim, thereby exalting Mary as the Queen of Heaven—the Regina coeli, as she is lauded in one of the most ancient and popular antiphons (its composition dates back to the twelfth century): "Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia / For He whom you did merit to bear, alleluia . . . . "
Together with a less well preserved panel in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, the MMA panel is among Sassetta’s latest formulations of the theme and may date to the 1440s (for a discussion of these, see Christiansen 1988). Instead of a rectangular panel, such as he more frequently used, the Museum’s picture has a Gothic gable and is framed like a small altarpiece (however, most of the framing elements are replacements). A candle burn in the lower right testifies to its use as an object of devotion.
Although the blue cloak of the Virgin has darkened so that the modeling is no longer legible, the rest of the picture—of exceptional refinement—is well preserved. Many of the garments have been created by painting over the gold leaf of the background and then scratching through the pigment with a pointed instrument to create rows of short, regular gold hatchings. The veil of the Virgin is painted as a transparent glaze over the gold leaf. The full effect of these technical features could only be fully appreciated by candle light. Whereas both Giovanni di Paolo and Sano di Pietro established busy workshops and produced an enormous quantity of paintings, Sassetta produced only a very small corpus, painting for an elite clientele who prized the subtle and delicate effects he incorporated into his materially splendid paintings.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
F. Mason Perkins. "Quattro tavole inedite del Sassetta." Rassegna d'arte 7 (March 1907), p. 46, attributes it to Sassetta, mentioning that it has recently been discovered in a private collection.
F. Mason Perkins. "Alcune opere d'arte ignorate." Rassegna d'arte 18 (1918), pp. 112–13, ill. p. 108, as in the Hendecourt collection, Paris; compares it with the artist's Madonna and Child in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, suggesting that both works derive from the same sketch.
Stella Rubinstein-Bloch. Catalogue of the Collection of George and Florence Blumenthal. Vol. 1, Paintings—Early Schools. Paris, 1926, unpaginated, pl. XXV.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 9, Late Gothic Painting in Tuscany. The Hague, 1927, pp. 342–43, 346, groups it with the Berlin picture and a third Madonna in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, dating all three pictures prior to 1436 and discussing the influence of Giovanni di Paolo.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 512.
[F. Mason] Perkins in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 29, Leipzig, 1935, p. 482.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 441.
John Pope-Hennessy. Sassetta. London, 1939, pp. 69, 91 n. 33, pp. 113–14, 208, pl. XVI A, dates it 1436.
Cesare Brandi. Giovanni di Paolo. Florence, 1947, p. 73 n. 34.
Cesare Brandi. Quattrocentisti senesi. Milan, 1949, p. 190 n. 32, calls it close to Sassetta but of inferior quality.
Enzo Carli. Sassetta e il Maestro dell'Osservanza. Milan, 1957, pp. 38, 40, 127, discusses it in relation to similar compositions attributed to Sassetta, including the Madonna in Berlin, and additional works in the Strossmayer Gallery, Zagreb, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and a private collection, Florence (now Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City); finds the MMA picture to be superior to those in Berlin and Zagreb, and the one in the private collection to be the best of the series.
Guy-Philippe de Montebello. "Four Prophets by Lorenzo Monaco." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 25 (December 1966), p. 166, fig. 15.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, p. 386.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 183, 331, 608.
Piero Torriti. La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena: I dipinti dal XII al XV secolo. Genoa, 1977, p. 246, under no. 325, lists it, together with the works in Washington, Berlin, Zagreb, and Vatican City, as an inferior version of the painting in Siena and probably executed in part by assistants.
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. 84–85, pl. 47, call it perhaps the latest of Sassetta's paintings of this subject, dating it after about 1444; consider the version in Zagreb to be stylistically closest to the MMA painting.
Vinko Zlamalik. Strossmayerova Galerija Starih Majstora Jugoslavenske Akademije Znanosti i Umjetnosti. Zagreb, 1982, p. 40, under no. 8.
Keith Christiansen in Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420–1500. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1988, pp. 86–88, no. 4, ill. (color), discusses Sassetta's depictions of the Madonna of Humility, adding to the group a picture in the Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh; dates the MMA panel to the end of the artist's career.
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, pp. 81, 287, 352, 440, ill. p. 352 (detail of punch mark), classifies the punch marks appearing in this painting.
Matteo Mazzalupi in Pittura di luce: la "Madonna col Bambino" del Maestro di Pratovecchio. Exh. cat., Pinacoteca di Brera. Milan, 2011, pp. 43–44 n. 3, records his discovery of the red wax seal on the back of this painting, identifying it as the seal of the Manifattura Tabacchi di Roma and noting that the significance of the seal is not clear; lists four more paintings on which the seal is found.
Old Master & British Paintings. Christie's, London. July 3, 2012, p. 120, under no. 30.
Fausto Nicolai. "'Primitives' in America: Frederick Mason Perkins and the Early Renaissance Italian Paintings in the Lehman and Blumenthal Collections." Journal of the History of Collections (April 28, 2018), pp. 11, 20 n. 104, online fig. 21 (color) [https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhy005], assigns Blumenthal's acquisition of the picture to about 1917 on the basis of a letter of December 28, 1916, from Bernard d'Hendecourt to Perkins.
Over the last two decades of his career, Sassetta painted a series of works depicting the Virgin seated on a cushion on the ground, a compositional type known as the Madonna of Humility. The other versions are in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh; Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena; Strossmayer Gallery, Zagreb; and Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Except for the panel in Siena, they are all small works, probably painted for private devotional use. Like the MMA picture, the versions in Pittsburgh, Zagreb, Siena, and Berlin include the motif of two angels holding a crown above the Madonna's head. The MMA picture reverses the composition of the other versions, depicting the Madonna on the left of the Christ Child.
The red wax seal on the reverse of the panel—MANIFAT[tura] DI ROMA, with the papal umbrella and two stars, the letter T for Tabacchi, and the year 1814 (see Additional Images, fig. 1)—has been identified as that of the tobacco factory of Rome, founded under Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century at the convent of Santa Caterina a Magnanapoli, and reformed in 1814 by Pope Pius VII and moved to the convent of Santa Maria Maddalena delle Convertite; in 1863 it was moved to Trastevere. Four additional paintings are known to have the same seal, but its exact meaning is uncertain (Mazzalupi 2011).