This exceptionally rare and strikingly beautiful panel once formed the right wing of a small, portable devotional diptych representing the Annunciation. The left wing, which has since been lost, would have depicted the angel Gabriel as he announced the news of Christ's birth to the young Virgin. Although published by Richter as early as 1929 as the work of Simone Martini, the attribution of the present panel has since been the subject of much scholarly debate, with various historians and connoisseurs preferring attributions to other artists from Martini's immediate circle, including Naddo Ceccarelli, Lippo Memmi and even Martini's probable teacher, Duccio (see Literature). More recent study, however, has led to a renewed scholarly consensus and has returned this remarkable panel to Simone's oeuvre, dating it on the basis of the punchwork to his late Sienese period, shortly before he left his native city for Avignon.1
The present work is closely related to a group of Annunciations by Simone, the most famous of which is the large-scale retable that was completed by the artist and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi for the altar of Saint Ansano in Siena Cathedral (see fig. 1; now in the collection of the Uffizi, Florence). Considered Simone's masterpiece, the Annunciation with Saints Ansano and Margaret is signed and dated 1333 and represents a revolution in the depiction of this popular biblical scene. Simone's representation of the story is located in a real physical space, in which the Virgin is seated upon a throne to the right. As the Angel suddenly appears to her, leans forward and begins to speak -- Simone's work brilliantly depicts Gabriel's spoken words moving towards Mary, as if they are about to literally slap her across the face -- the young girl almost involuntarily shies away from him. She clutches her cloak more tightly about her breast in a display of fear and modesty, and turns her upper body from him, as if recoiling in shock and fear. This element of immediate, visceral human emotion is new to the depiction of the Annunciation, which tended to focus more on Mary's acceptance and devotion. The palpable tension between the angel and the Virgin introduces a challenging element of realism into Martini's refined and lyrical style, and although we know that the Virgin will ultimately submit to God's will, Simone's image helps us to understand more fully the personal sacrifice involved in her acceptance.
The Virgin's contorted figure must have had a profound effect upon Simone's contemporaries. Not only does she figure prominently in other works by Simone Martini himself, but her type is also taken up by the other artists in his circle and beyond. Dating to the artist's period of activity in Avignon, and thus slightly later in date than the present image, are the panels of the Orsini Polyptych, which are currently housed in both the Musée du Louvre, Paris and the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp.. The Antwerp museum houses two panels that depict the Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation which not only show how the present image of the Virgin must have worked with its pendant wing, but which also demonstrate how Simone adjusted the scale of the Siena Cathedral composition to the more intimate size of the diptych (see fig. 2).
The present panel builds upon this iconography and adapts it for even greater emotional depth. The Virgin is here shown off-center, pushed against the right-hand border of the panel. Although her delicate hands grasp at her cloak and hold her prayer book in much the same way that they do in the Uffizi altarpiece, the Virgin is no longer seated upon an elaborate throne or dais, but is seated instead upon an embroidered cushion on the floor. This simple change makes the scene more immediate and humane; it is at once more appropriate to the intimate scale of the private commission and more psychologically penetrating. Majesty is traded in for pathos and the Virgin becomes a real young woman, frightened and alone, learning her fate from a stranger and humbly accepting it. As Richter pointed out in his 1929 article on the Stoclet panel, this richly ornamented composition is one of, if not, the first representation of the type known as the "Madonna of Humility," which only later became the fashion for depicting the Virgin Annunciate -- especially north of Italy -- but which may have been introduced by Simone in this wonderful Sienese commission (see Literature).
The history of the attribution of the present painting provides interesting insight into the still evolving scholarship on Simone Martini and the artists in his circle. When this picture entered the Stoclet collection in the early 20th century, historians did not have a clear understanding of the artists working with and around Simone Martini in Siena and Avignon. Given this confusion, it is not surprising that anything that looked simone-esque was given to Martini in full. Thus, a great number of inferior and unrelated works came to be grouped together causing confusion for scholars, museum curators and hopeful collectors. In response to this situation, a new type of scholarship developed, headed first by the German specialist Weigelt, which sought to reduce Martini's oeuvre to only those "pure" works which could be unreservedly given to the master based not only on stylistic grounds but also on signatures, documentation, known commissions and so forth.2 Given the paucity of records that survive from trecento Italy, it is not surprising that this approach severely reduced Simone's oeuvre, and was used as a method for rejecting anything which, due to condition or other factors, was deemed to be in any way disappointing.
Such was the fate that befell the Stoclet panel. De Rinaldis and Paccagnini were among the first to question the attribution in writing in the 1950s. However, it was de Benedictis and her general revision of trecento Sienese attributions which has had created the longest lasting confusion on the subject (see C. de Benedictis, La pittura senese 1330-1370, Florence 1979). She had rejected Martini's authorship of the painting in favor of one to Naddo Ceccarelli (see Literature), to whose oeuvre she also added works which have generally been given other artists entirely. Comparison of this work to another Virgin Annunciate in a private collection which can be attributed to Ceccarelli with certainty (published as fig. 2 in de Benedictis's article) confirms their different authorship. That work, in all its rhythmic elegance, is clearly indebted to the simone-esque idiom, but the conception and presentation of the two are quite different, as is the physiognomy of the Madonna herself. 3 Old restorations before a recent cleaning no doubt added to the confusion over the panel, to judge from old photographs of the painting while it was in the Stoclet collection.
A technical and scholarly reexamination of the painting, which was begun by the present owner, has led to renewed scholarly consensus that this panel is the work of Simone Martini. Not only do all of the refined details completely concur with his lyrical and emotive manner, but the richness of the commission itself also speaks to his authorship. In addition to the finely punched and tooled gold, the back of the panel must once have been covered in silver. The preparatory layer which is currently visible bears the etched and punched decoration that was once inlaid into the precious metal (see fig. 3). Similarly, the cushion on which the Virgin sits was also once adorned with silver decoration, as the orange dots that are now visible are the remnants of the preparatory layer for the application of the silver. The large expanse of the Virgin's rich, saturated blue cloak, with its golden trim and green-glazed interior folds are also signs of an extravagant commission. Under ultraviolet, one can also detect remnants of red glaze on top of the blue, which would have added dimension and movement to the beautiful garment. When one thinks that this panel was originally paired with an equally magnificent Angel, it becomes clear how rich, opulent and magnificent this commission truly was. That fulfilling the desires of such an important and wealthy client would be left to a mere studio assistant (Ceccarelli) would seem highly improbable, and the virtuosity of the whole again attests to Simone's masterful execution.
Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949) came from a prominent family of Belgian bankers. On the death of his father in 1904, Stoclet took over the family business and rose to prominence as an engineer and financier. It is, however, as an art collector and connoisseur that he is best remembered today; his adventurous spirit of discovery and eclectic tastes coalescing into a collection that was truly global in its scope. Stoclet was joined in his aesthetic pursuits by his young and vivacious wife, Suzanne Stevens, daughter of the art historian and critic Arthur Stevens and niece of the painter Alfred Stevens. Shortly after their marriage, the young couple spent extensive time traveling in Italy, where they developed an interest in the Italian "primitives" -- the then still overlooked group of pre-Renaissance masters -- and it may even have been at this time that they acquired their beautiful Simone Martini. The couple's interest in the Italian trecento was to prove indicative of the larger-scope of their collection: not afraid to take risks or to dive into unchartered territory, the couple favored works of art that were deemed too controversial or were otherwise marginalized by the mainstream collectors of their day. In addition to European paintings and works of art, the Stoclets collected works from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian Mexico, dynastic China, Japan and tribal Africa.
To house both their growing collection and family, Adolphe and his wife commissioned Josef Hoffmann, the leading figure of the Vienna Secession, to design and build them a home and garden in Brussels, Belgium. Stoclet proved to be both a generous and avant-garde patron, as he provided Hoffmann with an unlimited budget and was enthralled by modern designs put forward by the architect. The resultant "Stoclet House" is considered to be a watershed monument of early 20th century architecture, in which the forms and structures of Art Nouveau begin to harden and anticipate the more geometric idioms of Art Deco and the Modern style. Hoffman created a truly cohesive home for the Stoclets -- his designs included interior fittings, furniture and decorations, many of which were executed by other leading members of the Vienna Secession, including Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser, which were all made to fit the new structure. Although much of the art collection has since been sold, the house still stands and is almost perfectly aesthetically preserved in the state in which Stoclet and Hoffman first envisioned it. It was continuously occupied by members of the Stoclet family until 2002, and in 2009 was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We are grateful to Laurence Kanter, Keith Christiansen and Andrea De Marchi (based on photographs), who have each independently confirmed the attribution to Simone Martini.
1. Comparison of the punch work with known examples suggests that the tooling was likely done in the workshop of the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. It was not uncommon at the time for artists to collaborate or share other specialized studios for such detail-oriented work, and certainly Simone and the Lorenzetti would have known one another. If this comparison is correct, it places Simone Martini in Siena when this work is executed, and not in Avignon, as had been previously postulated. This suggests an execution of circa 1334 for the present panel, around the time of the San Ansano altarpiece, and before 1336, the latest date for Simone's arrival in Avignon.
2. Ironically, this approach tended to eliminate an inordinate number of small-scale works, such as the present panel, due to the lack of paperwork and signatures that could be traced for such private commissions. Thus, if one were to follow the extreme "restrictionist" approach to Simone's oeuvre, only large-scale altarpieces and altarpiece fragments are generally accepted as completely autograph.
3. Now in a private collection, but sold New York, Christie's, 31 May 1990, lot 12, for $407,000, on an estimate of $60,000 - $80,000.
Tempera on panel, gold ground, in an engaged frame
Brussels, Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Primitifs Italiens de la Renaissance, opening 20 December 1921, no. 19 (as Simone Martini);
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Chefs-d'oeuvre de l'art ancien dans les musées et collections belges, 29 May - 24 June 1953, no. 17 (as Simone Martini);
Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, La Madone dans l'art, 28 August - 14 November 1954, no. 50 (as Simone Martini);
London, National Gallery of Art, on loan 1999 - 2001 (as Workshop of Simone Martini, probably Naddo Ceccarelli).
11 1/2 by 8 1/8 in.; 29.2 by 20.6 cm.
P. Bautier, "Primitvi italiani della collezione Stoclet a Bruxelles," in Cronache d'arte, 1927 (as Simone Martini);
G.M. Richter, "Simone Martini Problems: The Stoclet Madonna," in The Burlington Magazine, vol. LIV, April 1929, pp. 166-173, reproduced p. 174 (as Simone Martini);
A. de Rinaldis, Simone Martini, Rome 1936, p. 62, reproduced fig. LXXI (as Simone Martini, a beautiful variation on the Uffizi Madonna);
P. Toesca, Il Trecento, Torino 1951, p. 542, note 65 (amongst a list of works by Martini, or close to him [);
G. Paccagnini, Simone Martini, Milan 1955, pp. 168-169, reproduced fig. 90 (as a questioned attribution);
J.P. van Goidsenhoven (English translation by F.C. Jedson), Adolphe Stoclet Collection, Brussels 1956, pp. 85-86, reproduced (as Simone Martini);
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. A List of the Principal Artists and their Works with an Index of Places. Central Italian and North Italian Schools, London 1968, vol. I, p. 402 (as Simone Martini);
G. Contini and M.C. Gozzoli, L'Opera completa di Simone Martini, Milan 1970, p. 106, no. 60, reproduced (under "Ulteriori opere attribuite" as Studio of Martini);
C. de Benedictis, "Naddo Ceccarelli," in Commentari, vol. 25, July - December 1974, pp. 139-140, reproduced fig. 1 (as Naddo Ceccarelli);
M. Lonjon, "Naddo Ceccarelli," in L'Art gothique siennois: enluminure, peinture, orfèvrerie, sculpture, exhibition catalogue, Avignon, Florence 1983, pp. 191-192 (as by the same author as the Madonna in the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum, attributed hesitantly to Lippo Memmi by F. Zeri in 1972);
P. Leone de Castris, "Problemi martiniani avignonesi: il 'Maestro degli Angeli Ribelli' i due Ceccarelli ed altro," in Simone Martini, Sienna 1988, pp. 229-230 (grouped with a number of other works, all as possibly by Petrus Ciccarelli).
Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949), Brussels, by the 1920s, and thence by descent in the family;
Acquired by the present owner on the French Art Market in the late 20th century.