This is the oldest picture in the National Gallery's collection, and a fitting start for our new series. By Margarito d‘Arezzo, it shows the Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the Christ Child on her lap, enclosed within an almond shape called a mandorla. Around them are eight scenes of the lives of various saints.
This simple design is striking. The contrast of the gold leaf background with the decorative black borders and the limited use of colour – red, black, brown and gold – makes it clear and easy to read. Its horizontal shape resembles altar frontals, paintings placed in front of the altar table and used before altarpieces placed above the altar became more conventional. However, vertical channels on the reverse of our panel probably once held battens, which were inserted into the altar table to secure it – proving that it sat on top of the altar.
This depiction of the Virgin and Child stresses that Christ is the embodiment of the Old Testament notion of divine ’wisdom‘ and a spiritual ruler. The carved lions on either side of the throne are intended to bring to mind the throne of the wise Old Testament king, Solomon, described in 1 Kings: 10. In Byzantine art (the art of the Eastern Christian empire), when the Virgin is shown in this frontal pose she is known as the Theotokos (’Mother of God‘). This pose and the inclusion of the throne also reflects a tradition of sculpted images of the Virgin and Child in the West, known as the Mary maiestas (’Mary of Majesty') which emphasised her rank and status as the mother of God. The Virgin wears a crown embedded with jewels, and the strips of jewels that hang down alongside her face recall the type of headdress worn by Byzantine empresses. Christ too is depicted with authority: he looks like a small man, not a baby. He makes a blessing gesture with his right hand and holds a scroll – a reminder that he is the incarnation of logos, the word of God – in his left.
The scene at the far left of the top row shows the Nativity, followed by Saint John the Evangelist being boiled in a cauldron of oil on the orders of the Roman Emperor Domitian, a torture that he survived. In the following scene, the saint brings a woman named Drusiana back to life. The naked man in the next scene is Saint Benedict, who, having been tempted by beautiful women he saw in Rome, threw himself on the brambles outside his cave in order to overcome his desires.
The bottom row shows the decapitation of Saint Catherine of Alexandria followed by two miracles of Saint Nicholas. On the left he appears to a group of pilgrims and warns them to throw away the oil that was given to them by a nun – actually the devil in disguise. When they emptied it in the sea it burst into flames. Next, the saint intervenes to save the lives of three innocent men about to be beheaded. In the final scene we see Saint Margaret being swallowed by a dragon and then miraculously bursting out of its stomach, an episode that led to her becoming the patron saint of childbirth.
It seems most likely that the picture was made for a church dedicated to either Saint John the Evangelist or Saint Nicholas, possibly the church of Saint Nicholas in Arezzo (Text courtesy of The National Gallery).
The painting had last been restored in the early 19th century, and during this treatment the old gilding was stripped off the frame and it was re-gilded with fresh new gold, while the border was overpainted with reddish-brown paint. Though this kind of treatment was considered normal for the time, today we would instead value and preserve the original layers. Recently it was decided that the restored frame and overpainted border looked out of keeping with the rest of the painting, and we undertook a conservation treatment to restore these areas of the painting in a more sympathetic way. In the video below Kristina Mandy shows the steps involved in restoring a painting that is over 750-years-old: