Paolo di Giovanni Fei
(Siena, documented between 1369 and 1411)
The Virgin of Mercy between two Angels and Saints Peter and Francis.
1400 – 1405.
Tempera and gold on panel, 9 ¼ × 17 ⅛ in (23.5 × 43.5 cm).
This delightful little panel, painted on a single vertically-grained wood panel, thinned down on its back, shows the Madonna della Misericordia (the Virgin of Mercy) between Saint Peter and Saint Francis of Assisi. Under the Virgin’s mantle, which is held open by two pink-robed Angels whose orange-toned wings are defined with sgraffito work over the underlying gold, a kneeling crowd of devotees have assembled, wearing habits of three different colours, all belted with a knotted cord around their waist. Judging by the little sticks tied around their wrists, used for scourging, and by the opening in the backs of their robes, these acolytes appear to be members of a flagellant confraternity of Franciscan tertiary friars, perhaps dedicated to Saint Peter, who is depicted in the position of honour at the Virgin’s right.
Bearing this mind, we may wonder whether our panel formed part of a processional image, carried during ritual events held by the brotherhood, whose members appear under the Virgin’s mantle.
During the 1800s the panel entered the important collection of the Nazarene painter Johann Anton Ramboux, mainly formed of Sienese paintings, many of them acquired during his last Italian sojourn (1833-1842). On the death of Ramboux, together with many other paintings in his collection – a truly salient episode in the history of the “fortuna dei primitivi”, both in quality and quantity – it was offered for sale at the Heberle (Lempertz) auction house in Cologne as a work by Lippo Memmi. Although chronologically incorrect, the attribution to the Sienese painter was an entirely acknowledgement of the work’s stylistic idiom, which is strictly based on the art of Simone Martini. This is evident in the subtle linear elegance of the drapery, the bright and rich colour scheme, and the refined tooling of the gold leaf.
Indeed the work reflects the climate of deliberate revival with respect to the great Sienese tradition of the early Trecento, a phenomenon favoured by a careful, first-hand reading of the prestigious works of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi enacted in the later 1300s by such painters as Bartolo di Fredi, Andrea Vanni, Francesco di Vannuccio, and Paolo di Giovanni Fei. This phenomenon is clearly conveyed by our refined painting, which can in my opinion be ascribed to the mature phase of Fei, subsequent to his Bartolo di Fredi-inspired period of the 1380s and 1390s, when the master’s language opened itself to a more explicit Gothic elegance. This is demonstrated by the softness of the flesh passages and delicate rosy cheeks, and the richness of certain details like the precious materials of the hems along necklines and belt.
There are further specific parallels to be found in the oeuvre of Paolo di Giovanni Fei: suffice it to compare the Angels in our panel – marked by elongated faces, high brows, pointed noses, and small, almost flattened eyes, with heavy eyelids that almost seem engraved – with those of the Angelic choir flanking Mary in the small panel with the Assumption in the Kress Collection in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, a work datable to the middle of the first decade of the 1400s, as underlined by Boskovits. There, wrapped in a sumptuous white robe adorned with gold sgraffito work, the Virgin recalls ours in her polished face and small, swollen lips. Our Madonna is also quite close to the figure of Eve lying in the foreground of another small panel, the Virgin between Angels and Saints in the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where the Saint Peter closely recalls the corresponding figure in our panel.
The sinuous movement of the latter’s cloak, with its two twisting gold-trimmed openings revealing the pink inner lining, resembles that worn by the aged John the Evangelist in the New York panel, not to mention the elegant calligraphy of the reddish-purple fabric worn by the Baptist in the right lateral of the triptych commissioned by Cardinal Enrico Minutolo in 1407, now housed in Naples Cathedral. The Saint Francis in our panel is comparable to other figures that frequent Fei’s mannered world, like the sorrowful Saint John the Evangelist in the Crucifixion formerly on the British art market that formed part of a predella also including the two scenes housed in the Lindenau Museum in Altenburg. Francis’ broad-sleeved habit, animated by deep folds, is the same found in the Saint in the polyptych from Sant’Andreino at Serre di Rapolano, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, in Siena.
In conclusion, the acolytes under the Virgin’s mantle, their rounded noses, slightly grim expressions, and eyebrows and lips enlivened with subtle touches of highlighting, are not distant in character from the figures in the crowd gathered below Saint Augustine’s throne in the Accarigi Chapel in San Domenico, now reduced to fragments, which can be dated to 1387.