The Dormition of the Virgin
Tempera and gold leaf on panel
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ray Winfield Smith, Class of 1918; P.975.5
This predella panel represents the Dormition of the Virgin, a subject with a long history in early Christian and Byzantine art. The apostles, led by Peter, appear to be conducting a funerary Mass over Mary’s remains, while a priestly, mandorla-framed Christ at center blesses his mother’s immortal and therefore “sleeping” body with his right hand and cradles her living soul (in the form of a baby) in his left arm. Predelle, set at the foot of altarpieces, served to elevate and render more visible the iconic images of the main panels, which provided a backdrop to liturgical rites. The smaller predelle provided artists with the opportunity to develop stories and appeal to the attentive viewer seeking a more narrative approach to devotion. In this case, the sensitively represented gestures and expressions of the funeral cortège relate the human tragedy of death. Some of the apostles wring their hands, others find refuge in the appurtenances of the ceremony (the book and the holy water), and still others seem to turn to one another in disbelief and grief.
Although the panel has suffered some damage and has been restored a number of times, the artist originally responsible for painting it was clearly very skilled. The figures on the far right, especially, demonstrate that this artist not only received up-to-date training but also was able to offer nuanced interpretations of human physiognomy. Standing with his back toward the viewer, the figure on the far right is especially striking; few painters before Masaccio (1401-1428) could represent weighty sculptural form so convincingly. If the artist is indeed Gherardo Starnina, this panel would tend to support those art historians who consider him to be a participant in the revival of interest in Giotto’s art in the early fifteenth century; conversely, it would seem to undermine arguments that see Starnina, following his return from Valencia, as spurring an interest among Florentine artists in the style modern art historians have labeled “International Gothic.”
Last Updated: 7/9/09