Master of Varlungo, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels

Artist Master of Varlungo, Florence, active last quarter 13th century
Title Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels
Date ca. 1285–90
Medium Tempera and gold on panel
Dimensions overall, including modern engaged frame: 81.0 × 43.3 cm (31 7/8 × 17 in.); original panel: 76.7 × 40.5 cm (30 1/4 × 15 7/8 in.); picture surface: 73.6 × 36.3 cm (29 × 14 1/4 in.)
Credit Line Bequest of Maitland F. Griggs, B.A. 1896
Inv. No. 1943.202
View in Collection
Provenance

Art market, Florence; Maitland Fuller Griggs (1872–1943), New York, by 1927

Condition

The panel support, of a vertical wood grain, retains its original thickness, varying between 2.3 and 2.8 centimeters, except where it has been planed to a bevel along its outer edges to match the thickness of the modern engaged frame with which it is surrounded. It has been cut irregularly on all sides but more so along the bottom edge, which may have been cropped within the original painted surface. A triangular insert, roughly 4 centimeters tall and 6 centimeters wide, replaces original, damaged wood at the peak of the gable. Approximately 3 centimeters at the top of the picture surface is visible as new gilding on this insert; the rest of the insert is covered by the engaged frame.

Fig. 1. Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, after 1968

Three short segments of the frame are original—on the left edge at the height of the cushion on the Virgin’s throne and on the left and right edges of the gable (fig. 1). These segments were incorporated into a complete modern molding, including a projecting, capping molding that runs the full outer perimeter of the frame and probably has no relation to the original profile. The entire frame, including the original segments, was regessoed and regilt during a restoration in 1998–99. This restoration also regilt losses in the background, especially between the head of the Virgin and the angel on the left, and repainted large, complete losses in the Virgin’s face and scattered throughout her blue draperies, especially in the area below her right knee. The rest of the paint surface is abraded and has been liberally retouched—above all, in the pink of the Virgin’s dress and in the architectural forms of her footstool.

Discussion

This unusually small-scale rendering of the Virgin in Majesty was identified as an important work by the Master of Varlungo by Edward Garrison in 1949.1 It had previously borne an attribution to the Lucchese painter Deodato Orlandi2 as well as more generic references to the Florentine school3 or the Tuscan school.4 Only Charles Seymour, Jr., appears to have questioned Garrison’s claims for its significance in the evolution of Florentine painting between the mature style of Cimabue and the early works of Giotto by advancing an attribution to the Pisan Master of San Martino.5

Fig. 2. Master of Varlungo, Virgin and Child with Angels, ca. 1285–95. Tempera and gold on panel, 115 × 50 cm (45 1/4 × 19 5/8 in.). San Pietro in Varlungo, Florence

Appraisals of the significance of the Master of Varlungo—an artist who was first isolated by Evelyn Sandberg-Vavalà in 1934 and whose career was more fully outlined and characterized by Giulia Sinibaldi, Giulia Brunetti, and Roberto Longhi over the following decade6—have vacillated widely in recent scholarship, but the place of the Griggs Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels within his oeuvre has never been doubted. Longhi considered the artist one of Cimabue’s greatest and most advanced pupils, while Sinibaldi and Brunetti, who named him after a fragmentary Virgin and Child in the church of San Pietro in Varlungo, Florence (fig. 2), emphasized the more archaic aspects of his style, linking him to the tradition of the Magdalen Master during the last quarter of the thirteenth century.7 Giovanni Previtali expanded on Longhi’s encomium, describing the Master of Varlungo as the only thoroughly modern artist in Florence in the last two decades of the thirteenth century—the one Florentine painter who had so completely absorbed the lessons of Cimabue’s innovative style that he could be considered a true precedent to Giotto rather than an early consequence of Giotto’s impact.8

For Previtali, the eight works then known by the Master of Varlungo displayed a wide range of quality and iconography, presupposing a development over time. No subsequent writers, however, have agreed on the criteria for establishing a linear progression among these paintings. Previtali, for example, considered the Griggs Virgin and Child as necessarily one of the Master’s earliest works, not as fully Cimabuesque as a related but more animated composition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,9 which must itself have been painted relatively early in the sequence of works by the artist. He bolstered that assessment by observing that in the Griggs painting, the angels’ hands disappear behind the Virgin’s throne rather than resting on its back in a more spatially demonstrative manner, and the draperies cast over their shoulders are not knotted in the front, as they are in the Master’s later paintings, such as the Virgins at the churches of Santa Maria, Stia, or San Pietro, Romena (now in the Cappella del Crocifissio in the Propositura, Arezzo). No later writer repeated these observations. Anna Maria Maetzke considered the Griggs painting a pallid reflection of the Stia and Romena Virgins, assuming therefore that it must postdate them.10 Angelo Tartuferi concurred with Previtali in placing the Griggs Virgin and Child earlier but differed from him in rejecting altogether the influence of Cimabue, seeing the painting as a derivation from the example of the Magdalen Master and probably datable around 1285.11 Tartuferi also differed from other writers in considering three of the works in the Master of Varlungo’s catalogue—the Metropolitan Museum Virgin and Child, a Saint Michael dossal formerly in the Fiammingo collection, Rome, and a dossal from the James Jackson Jarves Collection also at the Yale University Art Gallery (see Virgin and Child with Saints James, John the Baptist, Peter, and Francis)—as imbued to a far greater extent than any of the others with the plasticity and compositional conceits of Giotto’s earliest works. To him, this indicated a different artistic personality rather than the logical evolution of a single pictorial imagination. Tartuferi designated this splinter group the “Pseudo-Master of Varlungo,” a name of art-historical convenience that has not been adopted by later scholars. Daniela Parenti rejected the suggestion that two different painters might be involved in the Varlungo group, suggesting that the three paintings isolated by Tartuferi represent the last phase of the artist’s maturation.12 She placed the Griggs panel at a midpoint in the Master’s career, more naturalistic than the name-piece in Florence but less Giottesque than the Virgins from Stia or Romena. Luciano Bellosi considered the Griggs and Varlungo paintings the most Cimabuesque of all the artist’s works, without, however, drawing definite chronological implications from that fact.13 Similarly, Miklós Boskovits noted the unusual gabled form of the back of the Virgin’s throne in the Griggs panel but hesitated to ascribe it chronological significance.14

Some of the disagreement within this range of proposals is clearly attributable to the varying states of conservation and restoration in which the Griggs panel has been known to European scholars as well as the small percentage of them who have had an opportunity to study it in person rather than in photograph only. The strongly Cimabuesque cast of the Virgin’s features is a creation of the last campaign of restoration on the panel, for example, which covered a large loss in the upper half of the Virgin’s face. The outer raised molding of the engaged frame was added in relatively modern times, imitating a format more common in the trecento than in the duecento. The clumsy execution of the feathers of the angel’s wing on the left is not an indication of an earlier stage of the artist’s development but a vestige of an early twentieth- or late nineteenth-century repainting. Details such as these offer conflicting clues to the relative dating of the painting and must be discounted entirely, but they are not easy to detect in photographs of the work. The painting’s strong but severely limited palette, the simplified lozenge decoration of the cloth of honor draped over the back of the Virgin’s throne, and the distinctive application of white highlighting atop the azurite blue of the Virgin’s robe—rather than blended with it—imply a derivation of technique and style from the practice of the Magdalen Master and suggest a relatively early date for the panel, almost certainly within the penultimate decade of the thirteenth century. Iconographic details like the flowers loosely held in the Christ Child’s left hand in place of a parchment scroll, the simple geometric decoration of the wooden throne, or the spatially confusing disposition of the Virgin’s feet are typical of several different paintings by the Master of Varlungo and must be considered deliberate archaisms on his part rather than indicators of chronology. On balance, it is necessary to agree with those scholars who see the Griggs panel as appearing near the beginning of the Master of Varlungo’s career, even though assigning a specific range of dates to that beginning is largely inferential and ultimately dependent on subjective assessments of the artist’s greater or lesser originality relative to the work of his contemporaries.

Parenti, who ably summarized the vacillations of opinion and interpretation inspired by the career of the Master of Varlungo, pointed out that no documentary indications have yet been discovered that could help identify him as a known personality. Reconsidering Tartuferi’s attempts to isolate three paintings as the work of another artist and Parenti’s rejoinder that these must instead represent the late style of the Master himself may offer a clue, however. While two of the three works in question—the Metropolitan Museum Virgin and the ex-Fiammingo dossal—do appear, as Parenti contends, to be late works by the Master of Varlungo, the aforementioned Jarves dossal at Yale can now be attributed to a painter of a younger generation, Lippo di Benivieni. Lippo is documented as the son of a painter, who has sometimes been identified as Benivieni Chiarini, and as the brother or, more likely, nephew of another painter, Dino di Benivieni.15 It is conceivable that one of these might be identical with the Master of Varlungo, if, as seems likely, the evident morphological similarities that exist between the Yale dossal and the Metropolitan and ex-Fiammingo panels may be ascribed to the possibility of Lippo’s collaboration in the execution of the two latter works. —LK

Published References

, pl. 11; , pl. 12; , 29; , 2; , 45, 47, no. 1; , 82, no. 192; , 28, 30, fig. 28; , 15–17, no. 4; , 600; Anna Maria Maetzke, in , 36; , 130; , 16n15; , 214, 287, fig. 273; , 51–52, 58–59n23; , 64, 111, no. 229, fig. 229; , 36, 38, 40, 138n47, fig. 29; , 267; Daniela Parenti, in , 118

Notes

  1. , 82, no. 192. ↩︎

  2. Richard Offner, verbal opinion, 1927, recorded in the curatorial files, Department of European Art, Yale University Art Gallery. ↩︎

  3. , pl. 11; and , pl. 12. ↩︎

  4. , 2; and , 45, 47, no. 1. ↩︎

  5. , 15–17, no. 4. ↩︎

  6. , 34; , 299; and , 19, 48. ↩︎

  7. For more on the Magdalen Master, see Master of the Yale Dossal, Virgin and Child Enthroned between Saints Leonard and Peter and Scenes from the Life of Saint Peter. ↩︎

  8. , 28, 30, fig. 28. ↩︎

  9. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 49.39, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437023. ↩︎

  10. Anna Maria Maetzke, in , 36. ↩︎

  11. , 51–52, 58–59n23; and , 64, 111, no. 229. ↩︎

  12. Daniela Parenti, in , 118. ↩︎

  13. , 267. ↩︎

  14. , 16n15. ↩︎

  15. , 26nn72–73. ↩︎

Fig. 1. Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels, after 1968
Fig. 2. Master of Varlungo, Virgin and Child with Angels, ca. 1285–95. Tempera and gold on panel, 115 × 50 cm (45 1/4 × 19 5/8 in.). San Pietro in Varlungo, Florence
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