This intensely sensitive late 14th-century painting has echoes of the Franciscan order. The work by Florentine artist Mariotto di Nardo comes from a Breton collection.
Mariotto di Nardo (active between 1394 and 1424), Virgin and Child with St. Anthony Abbot, St. Catherine, St. Julian and St. Lucy, tempera with gold background on wood panel, upper section in three-point perspective, 81 x 44 cm/31.9 x 17.3 in.
Until recently, this important painting was surrounded by Renaissance furniture and paintings dating from the 15th to 17th centuries in a house in the Brittany village of Parigné, near Fougères. As well as this devotional panel bought around 2000, Dr. Jean Lambert and his wife also owned The Wedding Gifts attributed to Pieter Bruegel III (“Hell” or the Younger Bruegel), also up for auction here (€20,000/30,000). Having no heir, the collectors decided to auction four paintings from their estate for the benefit of their hometown.
Apart from a central crack in the panel, this late 14th-century painting is in remarkable condition. The gilded background is original, as is the pastiglia ornamentation in low-relief on the arcade and punched haloes. With its pointed arch, this unique devotional piece must have been intended for a private chapel, with its eminently appropriate themes. The central scene shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by St. Anthony Abbot, St. Catherine, St. Julian and St. Lucy, each recognizable from their attributes, like Julian’s sword and Lucy’s lamp. The upper section features a particularly moving scene of Christ and the two thieves crucified, with the Virgin, St. John the Evangelist and St. Mary Magdalene seated at the foot of the Cross. The pain-racked bodies of the crucified men express their humanity, while the figures below in their colorful mantles, with their averted gaze, emanate humility. The predella in the lower section contains an inscription: "Ave Gratia Plena DNS (dominus)"—the beginning of the prayer to the Virgin—and three figures: a Franciscan saint and the Angel and the Virgin of the Annunciation. All this is vital in terms of iconography, offering the faithful the two dogmas of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Redemption. "This elegant panel must have been created within a Franciscan community, as indicated by the presence of the monk in the center of the predella," say the experts. The profoundly human spirit of the scenes depicted, the suffering of the characters and the tender relationship between the Mother and Child are all in perfect keeping with the thinking of Saint Francis of Assisi.
The mixed media combining egg tempera paint and gilding, as well as the ogival format of the panel and its division into two superimposed registers, are characteristic of late 14th-century Florentine work. Though long attributed to Giovanni di Paolo, this work has been linked—notably by Bernard Berenson in 1965—with the corpus of Mariotto di Nardo, an artist active in Florence between 1394 and 1424, who worked on the building of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and in Orsanmichele. According to the specialists Miklós Boskovits and Sonia Chiodo, this is an early work from before 1400 and Mariotto's adoption of the neo-Giotto style. At the time, he was much influenced by the miniaturists of the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent in Florence, and several small works, like the one here, are in a style that can be described as "late Gothic". There is still great delicacy in the forms, especially in the undulating, graphic lines and the shimmering, subtly gradated colors, and a highly personal sensitivity in the treatment of the figures. A work fitting for sincere and fervent devotion and contemplation.