Object of the week: C14 altarpiece by Nuzi

POST BY JGraffius

Allegreto Nuzi
Allegreto Nuzi

The Pieta gallery in Stonyhurst College contains a remarkable 14th century painting.  This beautiful altarpiece on wood, in its original frame, repays taking a few minutes out of a busy day to appreciate.

It was painted by Allegreto Nuzi, a little-known 14th century painter from Fabriano, in Ancona in northern Italy. He served his apprenticeship as a painter in Florence and Siena in the 1340s, where he fused the traditional Sienese Byzantine linear style of painting with the more three-dimensional early Renaissance forms of Giotto.

The Stonyhurst painting is the earliest known work by Nuzi, dating from 1345. It shows the Virgin enthroned in majesty, holding the Christ Child surrounded by angels. Mary is depicted as Queen of Heaven, with richly decorated robes, and the infant Jesus wears expensive embroidered garments. The angels hold a canopy of beautiful fabric and make music to reflect the glory of Mary and Jesus. This sort of painting is known as a Maesta, or Majesty, and uses expensive pigments such as ultramarine blue (made from lapis lazuli) and gold leaf.

The technique is impressive. The wooden panel was covered with a thick layer of gesso, a form of egg-enriched plaster. This was painted and gilded over while still soft, and metal tools were used to make impressions into the plaster, adding to the three-dimensionality of the painting.

It originally hung in a church in northern Italy, but was probably sold to a dealer in the late 19th century when Italy was going through much political upheaval, and its artworks were not given the protection they have today. It was bought in the 1930s by Martin d’Arcy SJ, a renowned art collector, Master of Campion Hall, and friend of Evelyn Waugh. Fr D’Arcy donated this painting to Stonyhurst in 1953.