Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity [center]; Virgin and Child [base]; Annunciate Angel and Saints Anthony Abbot, Catherine of Alexandria, Nicholas of Bari, and James Major [left wing]; Virgin Annunciate and the Crucifixion [right wing]

Triptych

Niccolò di Tommaso, Italian (active Florence, Naples, and Pistoia), c. 1346 - 1376

Geography:
Made in Florence, Italy, Europe

Date:
c. 1375-76

Medium:
Tempera and tooled gold on panel with vertical grain

Dimensions:
25 x 20 7/16inches (63.5 x 51.9cm) Left wing: 21 1/16 x 5 inches (53.5 x 12.7 cm) Right wing: 21 1/16 x 5 1/16 inches (53.5 x 12.9 cm)

Curatorial Department:
European Painting

Object Location:

* Gallery 210, European Art 1100-1500, second floor

Accession Number:
Cat. 120

Credit Line:
John G. Johnson Collection, 1917

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Label:
While on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1371–72, Saint Bridget of Sweden (1302–1373) had a vision of the Nativity of Christ. Her description of this vision became a popular subject in Italian paintings. This Florentine artist probably met Saint Bridget in Naples around 1372. He depicts her in prayer in the lower right corner of the central panel.

Additional information:
  • PublicationItalian Paintings 1250-1450

    There are four saints in the left wing: Anthony Abbot, with a walking stick; Catherine of Alexandria, with a crown, a martyr's palm, and a spiked wheel; the bishop Nicholas of Bari, with the three golden balls that he gave to an impoverished gentleman for his daughters' dowries; and James Major, with a pilgrim's staff. Above, the Annunciate Angel Gabriel kneels in a green meadow.

    In the right wing there is a scene of the Crucifixion with the mourning Virgin and John the Evangelist, and Mary Magdalene embracing the cross. Above, the Virgin Annunciate kneels before a lectern.

    The center section shows the vision of the Nativity of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1302-1373; canonized 1391), who kneels in prayer outside a grotto. She has a rayed halo and wears a black habit and white veil; a pilgrim's canteen hangs behind her. Inside the grotto, the Virgin kneels in adoration of the Christ Child. Her long blond hair is loose, and her mantle and shoes lie around her. Jesus is naked, but his swaddling clothes are on the ground in front of him. Joseph, folding his arms across his breast, is about to kneel. Rays of light form golden mandorlas around Christ and the Virgin, and a candle illuminates the back of the dark grotto. Two seraphim and two cherubim hover at the opening. God the Father, wearing a triangular crown and accompanied by a heavenly host, looks down from above. Inscriptions emanate from him, the Virgin, and the two seraphim.

    This unusual depiction, including the inscriptions and all the details, comes from Bridget's account of her vision, which occurred during a visit to Bethlehem on March 13, 1372:

    When I was present by the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem . . . I beheld a virgin of extreme beauty. . . . well wrapped in a white mantle and a delicate tunic, through which I clearly perceived her virgin body. . . . With her was an old man of great honesty, and they brought with them an ox and an ass. These entered the cave, and the man, after having tied them to the manger, went outside and brought to the virgin a burning candle; having attached this to the wall he went outside, so that he might not be present at the birth. Then the virgin pulled off the shoes from her feet, drew off the white mantle, that enveloped her, removed the veil from her head, laying it by her side, thus remaining in her tunic alone with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely down her shoulders. Then she produced two small linen cloths and two woollen ones, of exquisite purity and fineness, that she had brought, in which to wrap up the child who was to be born; and two other small articles with which to cover and bind his head, and these she put down beside her in order to use them in due time. . . . And when all was thus prepared, the virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger, but her face was lifted to heaven, towards the east. Thus with her hands extended and her eyes fixed on the sky she was standing as in ecstasy, lost in contemplation, in a rapture of divine sweetness. And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle, that St Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle, and so sudden and instantaneous was this way of bringing forth, that I could neither discover nor discern how, or by means of which member, she gave birth. Verily though, all of a sudden, I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty. . . . When therefore the virgin felt, that she had already borne her child, she immediately worshipped him, her head bent down and her hands clasped, with great honour and reverence and said unto him, Be welcome my God, my Lord and my Son. . . . When this was done, the old man entered and prostrating himself to the floor, he wept for joy.1

    Immediately after her vision, Bridget dictated it to secretaries, who translated her account from Swedish to Latin. She returned to Rome via Naples in February 1373. By March she was in Rome, where she died in late July. At the time of her death, her principal secretary, Alfonso Pecha di Jaén, was in Avignon, bringing the last of her visionary revelations to Pope Gregory XI de Beaufort. In 1375 Alfonso began working on a final text of all of Bridget's visions. It was finished in early 1377, when the canonization process was officially initiated. Alfonso's personal copy of the revelations (see New York, The Pierpont Morgan Library, M.498, folio 4 verso) was illuminated by a Neapolitan painter in these same years. In a letter written on January 15, 1378, Alfonso remarked on the many requests he received for copies of her accounts.2 His letter contains a postscript written by Bridget's daughter Karin Ulfsdotter, in which she comments on the many images of her mother that existed in Italian churches; she noted that even the pope kept one in his bedroom. Four portraits of Bridget were known to exist in Neapolitan churches.3 When Bridget was canonized in 1391, a Neapolitan pope, Boniface XI Tomacelli, was in office.

    Niccolò di Tommaso's triptych in the Johnson Collection shows Bridget with the rays of the beatified, indicating that it was made before her canonization. This is also the case with two other paintings by Niccolò, one in the Pinacoteca Vaticana (see Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana, no. 137 (172)) and the other in the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven.4 Of the three, the Johnson picture is the most important.

    At least one other depiction of Bridget's vision of the Nativity was painted before her canonization, for in 1380 Nicola Orsini, the lord of Nola, near Naples, and one of Bridget's former protectors, testified before a commission gathering evidence for Bridget's canonization about a painting in Naples "representing the birth of Christ in the manner in which the said lady related that it had been revealed to her."5 The painting was in the conventual church of the Antoniani a Foria, for which Niccolò di Tommaso painted a triptych for one of Bridget's best friends, Queen Giovanna I of Naples.6 Although Orsini identified neither its artist nor its patron, it is not unlikely that they were Niccolò di Tommaso and Orsini, respectively. Nicola Orsini was the son-in-law of Niccolò di Tommaso's other major Neapolitan patron, Raimondo Del Balzo,7 who had commissioned the artist to paint a mural in the family's castle at Casaluce.8

    Orsini is also a good candidate for the original owner of the Johnson triptych. Not only would he have known Niccolò through Del Balzo, he was an ardent supporter of Bridget, and his name saint-Nicholas of Bari-is in a position of honor in the left wing.

    Niccolò di Tommaso himself may have met Bridget on any number of occasions in Naples, where she had lived from 1365 to 1367 and again from November 1371 to early March 1373, briefly stopping there also on her return from Palestine in February 1373. Carl Brandon Strehlke, from Italian paintings, 1250-1450, in the John G. Johnson Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2004, pp. 342-345.

    Notes:

    1. Hendrik Cornell. The Iconography of the Nativity of Christ. Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift. Uppsala, Sweden, 1924, pp. 11-13.
    2. Carl Nordenfalk. "Saint Bridget of Sweden as Represented in Illuminated Manuscripts." In De Artibus Opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky (vol. 1, pp. 371-93). Edited by Millard Meiss. New York, 1961, p. 379.
    3. Nordenfalk 1961, p. 381.
    4. No. 1943.236; Charles Seymour, Jr. Early Italian Paintings in the Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, 1970, fig. 45. Both works are rectangular. The one in the Vatican was the center of a triptych. Offner (Richard Offner. "A Ray of Light on Giovanni del Biondo and Niccolò di Tommaso." Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz (Florence), vol. 7, nos. 3-4 (July 1956), p. 192) proposed that two other paintings also in the Vatican (inv. 212, 219; Francesco Rossi, ed. Catalogo della Pinacoteca Vaticana. Vol. 3, Il trecento: Umbria, Marche, Italia del Nord, con un'appendice sui toscani. Monumenti, Musei, e Gallerie Pontificie: Reparto per l'Arte Bizantina, Medioevale, e Moderna. Cataloghi. Vatican City, 1994, figs. 31-32 [as Policleto di Cola?]), showing Saints Anthony Abbot and John the Baptist in one and Saints Julian and Lucy in the other, were the side panels. This thesis has been rejected by Volbach (Wolfgang Fritz Volbach. Il trecento: Firenze e Siena. Catalogo della Pinacoteca Vaticana, 2. Italian translation and iconographic revision by Francesca Pomarici. Vatican City, 1987, p. 26). The painting in Yale was probably also part of a triptych.
    5. Cornell 1924, p. 15.
    6. The triptych is on deposit at the Museo e Gallerie di Capodimonte, Naples; (Ferdinando Bologna. Novità su Giotto: Giotto al tempo della cappella Peruzzi. Saggi, 438. Turin, 1969a, vii-78-79, figs. 101-3).
    7. Pompeo Litta. Famiglie celebri italiane. Issued in parts. Milan, 1819-85, Del Balzo, genealogical table xi.
    8. It depicted Saint Peter Celestine V enthroned with his monks, other saints, and Del Balzo and his wife as donors (F. Bologna 1969a, vii-80-82, figs. 104-10).

    Bibliography:

    Bernhard Berenson. Catalogue of a Collection of Paintings and Some Art Objects. Vol. 1, Italian Paintings. Philadelphia, 1913, p. 69, repro. p. 307 (following of Allegretto di Nuzio);
    Osvald Sirén. "Alcune note aggiuntive a quadri primitivi nella Galleria Vaticana." L'arte (Rome), vol. 2, no. 2 (1921), pp. 101-2;
    Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. vol. 4. The Hague, 1924, p. 238 n. 2;
    Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. vol. 5. The Hague, 1925, p. 182 n. 1;
    Richard Offner. Studies in Florentine Painting: The Fourteenth Century. New York, 1927, pp. 114-15, 117, fig. 9;
    Evelyn Sandberg Vavalà. "A Madonna by Niccolò di Tommaso." Art in America (New York), vol. 15, no. 6 (October 1927), p. 275 n. 6;
    Mario Salmi. Review of Offner 1927. Rivista d'arte (Florence), vol. 9, 2nd ser., vol. 1 (1929), p. 142;
    Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places. Oxford, 1932, p. 398;
    Arduino Colasanti. "Quadri fiorentini inediti." Bollettino d'arte (Rome), 3rd ser., vol. 27, no. 8 (February 1934), p. 345;
    Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento: catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi. Translated from the English by Emilio Cecchi. Collezione "Valori plastici." Milan, 1936, p. 342;
    Millard Meiss. "The Madonna of Humility." The Art Bulletin (New York), vol. 18, no. 4 (December 1936), p. 459 n. 77;
    John G. Johnson Collection: Catalogue of Paintings. Foreword by Henri Marceau. Philadelphia, 1941, p. 12;
    Frederick Antal. Florentine Painting and Its Social Background: The Bourgeois Republic before Cosimo de' Medici's Advent to Power, XIV and Early XV Centuries. London, 1948, p. 199;
    Millard Meiss. Painting in Florence and Siena after the Black Death. Princeton, 1951, p. 150 n. 73;
    Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: A List of the Principal Artists and Their Works with an Index of Places. Florentine School. 2 vols. London, 1963, p. 162;
    [Barbara Sweeny]. John G. Johnson Collection: Catalogue of Italian Paintings. Foreword by Henri Marceau. Philadelphia, 1966, p. 58, repro. p. 88;
    Charles Seymour, Jr. Early Italian Paintings in the Yale University Art Gallery. New Haven, 1970, p. 66;
    Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, 1972, p. 150;
    Miklós Boskovits. Pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del rinascimento, 1370-1400. Florence, 1975, p. 202 n. 108;
    Richard Fremantle. Florentine Gothic Painters from Giotto to Masaccio: A Guide to Painting in and near Florence, 1300-1450. London, 1975, fig. 363;
    Richard Offner. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Edited by Hayden B. J. Maginnis. The Fourteenth Century: A Legacy of Attributions. Suppl. New York, 1981, p. 91;
    Richard Offner with Klara Steinweg, continued under the direction of Miklós Boskovits and Mina Gregori. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Sec. 3, vol. 2, The Fourteenth Century, by Richard Offner. New edition by Miklós Boskovits. Florence, 1987, p. 110 n. 13;
    Wolfgang Fritz Volbach. Il trecento: Firenze e Siena. Catalogo della Pinacoteca Vaticana, 2. Italian translation and iconographic revision by Francesca Pomarici. Vatican City, 1987, p. 26;
    Philadelphia Museum of Art. Paintings from Europe and the Americas in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: A Concise Catalogue. Philadelphia, 1994, repro. p. 221;
    Katrin Seidel. Die Kerze: Motivgeschichte und Ikonologie. Studien zur Kunstgeschichte, 103. Hildesheim, Germany, 1996, p. 175, fig. 77;
    Erling Skaug. "St. Bridget's Vision of the Nativity and Niccolò di Tommaso's Late Period." Arte cristiana (Milan), vol. 79, no. 804 (May-June 2001), p. 198, 200, 202, figs. 6, 11


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