The Minnesota Chapter
The foreground of this triptych depicts the Madonna and the Christ Child united in a tender embrace. The left lateral shutter door displays St. John the Evangelist with the Gospel and a martyr holding a palm frond symbolic of the victory of martyrs. The right lateral shutter displays St. Catherine of Alexandria with a crown, palm frond, and spiked wheel, the instrument of her torture, and Saint John the Baptist wearing a cloak over his traditional camel hair garment and displaying a scroll with the inscription: Ecce Agnus Dei.
The figure of the Madonna depicted in the oversized, central compartment of the triptych is most likely derived from an older model, one that was particularly revered at the time of the artist but has since been lost. This older model would have been created by a copyist closely imitating the Byzantine iconography of the Theotókos Glykophilousa, or “the Mother of God who sweetly loves her Son.” In this triptych, the artist has renewed and enriched this venerated, popular icon model by modifying the appearance of the Madonna’s mantle, which the artist has painted with sumptuous fabric preciously embroidered with phytomorphic and floral motifs. The artist has also inscribed the halo of the Madonna with the Gothic script: ave maria gratia plena dominus tecu(m). As narrated in the Gospel of Luke (1, 26-38), it is with these words that the Archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin, gathered in prayer, that she is to give birth to the Son of God. It is precisely this scene that is depicted in the center of the triptych, at the center of which appears the figure of God the Father amidst the celestial spheres.
The images of the characters stand out against the background of thickly-applied gold leaf decorated with leaves and flower clusters on the lobed margin. This type of ornamentation of the late Gothic style recalls the work of goldsmiths in Northern Europe, but such techniques in metalwork were also present in central-southern Italy and in the region of Umbria and Orvieto.
This triptych was originally believed to be of Senese origin around the years 1355-1388, and was attributed to the artist Niccolò di Bonaccorso. Later dating by the Vatican Museums pushed the estimated date of the triptych to the second decade of the fifteenth century based on the precise choices made by the artist and the archaizing character of the work. It was during the studies of the painting performed by the Vatican that the triptych was identified as belonging to the early work of an anonymous painter active from the second to the fourth decades of the fifteenth century in the Marche and in Rome, known conventionally as the “Master of the Brancaccio Triptych” after his well known triptych created for the Cardinal Rinaldo Brancaccio in c. 1425-1427, now kept in the Piersanti Museum of Matelica. This work reinforces the historical conception of fifteenth century Italy, particularly its central regions, as alive with an interest in the ancient icons and their repetition by means of copies or newly created icons due to a strong cultural link with the iconographic heritage tradition nascent in ancient history and continued into the Early Renaissance period. In Rome, for example, the last decades of the fifteenth century would feature well-known painters such as Antoniazzo Romano and Melozzo da Forlì creating famous copies of ancient Madonna icons widely-used in popular devotion, such as those in Santa Maria Maggiore, the Salus Populi Romani, and Santa Maria del Popolo.