The National Gallery of Art in Washington D. C. holds a wide selection of works of art from ancient times. Among these are Madonna and the Child (expressed in tempera on panel) and Madonna and the Child with Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist (also expressed in tempera on panel).
The themes of both works are similar in that both contain an interpretation of the Virgin Mary (Madonna) and her interaction with the Christ Child. However, the differing contexts in which these are placed add further levels of meaning to each individual piece as depicted by each artist. Despite this, similarities also exist between the two paintings, and these similarities range from the use of color and lighting, to the sizes and perspectives used by the artists. Therefore, superimposed upon the differences in style, context and (to an extent) subject matter; similarities of color, lighting and perspective are to be found in these two works of art.
The work Madonna and the Child was most likely painted some time between 1320 and 1330 AD. This was done in the late Byzantine Period in Italy by the artist Giotto, whose style is considered to be anticipatory of naturalism. The panel that holds this particular work represents Giotto in the later stages of his career and demonstrates the sobriety and restraint of an artist that had already spent his enthusiastic flare. Nardo (who died in his twenties), on the other hand, displays his 1360 painting in much brighter and vibrant colors that are typical of his youth and enthusiasm.
While in Giotto’s work one detects the deliberate strokes of a talented artist that seeks to display the natural portrait of a woman and her baby caught in motion, in Nardo one also sees the talent, but with a less naturalistic tint. Nardo represents a return to the more traditional portrait-like paintings where subjects appeared poised specifically to be captured in the medium.
Therefore, whereas in Giotto’s painting, the hands of the mother and child are caught in the act of brushing by her chest, Nardo’s painting depicts mother and child in absence of motion. Furthermore, Nardo’s painting includes the apostles on the side in adoration of these persons as saints, while Giotto represents them more on the side of human persons spontaneously experiencing life in solitude.
The colors and lighting techniques used by these two artists offer themselves up for scrutiny. Contrast and conceptualization are used to a large extent in both the Giotto and the Nardo paintings. Giotto uses a method of alternating between gold and black to emphasize the importance of the Madonna. A conceptual interpretation of the colors might also demonstrate that the Madonna is herself covered by a black shroud of humanity, though her gold-tinted skin demonstrates the worth of the person within the shroud.
The colors used for the Christ child corroborate this and elevate Him in relation to his mother, as he is given no dark-colored garment to attenuate the golden nature represented in the color of his body. In a similar fashion, the Nardo depiction of the Madonna, Peter and John features a stark black background that has the effect of focusing the eyes of the viewer upon the portraits within.
Yet, the pictures of Peter and John on either side of the Virgin take on less significance because of a reduction in their sizes and of the contrast between their color and that of the wall in front of which they stand. This has conceptual value in that is denotes that the Madonna and the Christ Child take more precedence than the apostles. The mother and child’s position at the center also highlights this idea.
One gets several feelings when one views these two paintings in the gallery. The immensity of the subject and the beauty of the golden and reddish colors give the idea that one is in the presence of highly exalted persons. Yet, one also gets the idea that the persons being viewed (especially in the Giotto painting) are also natural and in the middle of living their lives. With Giotto, the viewer has the sense that he/she witnesses “a quite drama” in which occurs “the human interaction between a mother and a child” (National Gallery).
In contrast with this, the Nardo portrait gives a more contrived picture which resembles the posing of the two for a portrait. According to interpretation by the Gallery’s art historians, “Nardo’s Virgin, despite her soft expression, appears removed from human concerns.” The Virgin is, in this picture, aware of being under the scrutiny of others: the Saints Peter and John that flank her on each side, and the artist himself for whom she poses.
Giotto. Madonna and the Child. (Tempera on Panel). Samuel H. Cress Collection. National Gallery of Art. Washington D. C., 1320/1330.
Nardo di Cione. Madonna and the Child with Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist. Samuel H. Cress Collection. National Gallery of Art. Washington D. C., 1360.
National Gallery of Art. “Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s.” Madonna and the Child. (Giotto.) Samuel H. Cress Collection. National Gallery of Art. Washington D. C., 1320/1330.