National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 5, 1981-1982

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Ugolino di Nerio: Saint Anne and the Virgin

by Laurence B. Kanter

Article en français

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Duccio di Buoninsegna (doc. 1278-1315) was certainly the most influential painter of the early Renaissance in Siena. But among his numerous close followers, amounting to almost an entire generation of artists, only two are known today by name: Segna di Bonaventura and Ugolino di Nerio. Ugolino is mentioned as a painter in three documents, of 1315, 1325, and 1327. (1) Though none of these refers to an identifiable work of art, Vasari wrote that Ugolino painted the high altarpiece in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, and the artist's signature, Ugolino da Siena, was still recorded beneath one of the panels of that altarpiece in 1837. (2) These panels are now scattered among museums in Berlin (fig. 6), London, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. They provide the foundation for an understanding of Ugolino's style, and based on resemblances to them dozens of other altarpieces, altarpiece fragments, and independent devotional works have also been attributed to him.

The National Gallery of Canada's recently acquired Saint Anne and the Virgin (3) is a beautiful and important example of Ugolino's mature style (fig. 1 and cover). Saint Anne is shown dressed in a fur-lined blue mantle. She supports her infant daughter in the crook of her left arm and gazes out of the picture to the (viewer's) right. The young Virgin, in a long skirt of bright orange-red and a pink vest with pale blue highlights, both sumptuously embroidered in gold, follows her mother's gaze. She pulls at the veil around Saint Anne's throat and plays idly with her right hand. A gold crown binds the child's long blonde curls. Both figures have elaborately decorated haloes stamped into the gold ground of the panel.

In 1953, the picture was transferred from its original poplar wood support to masonite. It was cleaned at that time, and just prior to its acquisition by the National Gallery of Canada, the gold ground was freed of modern overpaint. (4) In its present condition the ground is somewhat rubbed, exposing the red bole underneath, while the gold of the haloes is almost perfectly preserved. At some point the panel was cut across the top and slightly along the bottom and left side, truncating the original trefoil shape of the picture field and squaring the panel's arched profile. Notwithstanding these alterations, the painting is preserved in a remarkably pure state. Damages to the paint surface, other than losses along the bottom edge, are minimal and insignificant.

The subject of the Ottawa panel is unusual and deserves some comment. At a glance it could easily be taken for a more traditional representation of the Madonna and Child, but for the infant's longer hair and feminine attire and the lack of certain attributes mandatory in images of the Infant Christ and His Mother. The Blessed Virgin, when shown as the mother of Christ, always bears a star on her shoulder or on her cowl. The mother in the Ottawa painting, though clad in the Virgin's traditional colour, blue, displays no such star. The Christ Child in early Italian pictures is invariably portrayed with a cruciform nimbus. The child's halo in the Ottawa painting has no such distinguishing characteristic. Neither figure in the Ottawa painting can be positively identified on the basis of a specific attribute, but most early representations of Saint Anne and the Virgin are vague. They have in common only that they all borrow their compositions from the traditional Madonna and Child type, and that they are distinguished from the latter only by the gender of the child.

Though the cult of Saint Anne had been introduced in the West as early as the eighth century, (5) her iconography was not stabilized until the late fourteenth. From that time, representations of Saint Anne became popular throughout Europe in the form of the Anna Selbdritt or Sant'Anna Meterza: an abbreviated genealogy of Christ in which an elderly Saint Anne supports her (mature) daughter on her knees, who in turn holds her own infant Son. Masaccio's and Leonardo's are merely the most famous among the numerous examples of this type of image. Later, and particularly in the Baroque period, the domestic scene of Saint Anne teaching her young daughter to read replaced the Anna Selbdritt in popularity. But at the beginning of the fourteenth century Ugolino would have bad very few prototypes available for his imagery, which must explain the lack of explicit attributes identifying his figures. The most famous earlier example of a two-figure composition of the Virgin with Saint Anne is the sculptural group decorating the trumeau of the North Portal at Chartres Cathedral, (6) and the stained glass in the window above it. In Italy the image seems primarily to have been confined to byzantinizing contexts. (7) One significant exception is the late thirteenth-century dossal by Rainieri di Ugolino (fig. 2) in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo at Pisa. In this painting Saint Anne is represented enthroned with her infant daughter on her knee and two adoring angels behind. As in the Ottawa painting, the mother bas no identifying stars and the child, uncrowned but obviously female, does not have a cruciform halo (the mother's halo was improperly repainted by an untutored restorer). Final proof of their identities is offered by the inscription against the gold ground over the elder figure's right shoulder: SA ANNA.

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