This Annunciation is the only painting in the United States firmly attributed to Guido da Siena, an important Sienese artist active in the last quarter of the thirteenth century. It depicts the Archangel Gabriel alighting in front of the Virgin, who shrinks back in surprise. The dove of the Holy Ghost symbolizes the incarnation of Christ, which occurs at the same moment. This composition, repeated many times in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, is the opening scene in the narrative of Christ’s life on earth. The Princeton example may be based on a nearly identical fresco that was recently discovered beneath the Cathedral of Siena. Both compositions rely on Byzantine conventions while suggesting characteristics of early Renaissance art.
The panel was part of an altarpiece that may have stood on the high altar of Siena Cathedral. The work is executed in egg tempera on a support of several poplar planks, held together with glue and dowels and covered with a layer of gesso. Technical research on the Princeton panel and related panels has determined the original form of the altarpiece: a large, half-length Virgin and Child (Madonna del Voto, Siena Cathedral) that was flanked by narrative panels with scenes from the life of Christ, six on each side. The Annunciation occupied the upper left corner, and above was a gable with the Coronation of the Virgin (Courtauld Institute, London). At an unknown time, the twelve narrative scenes, central panel, and gable were cut apart and dispersed. The eleven other panels, with scenes of the Nativity and Passion of Christ, are in museums in Altenburg in Germany, Paris, Siena, and Utrecht in the Netherlands.
Scholars attribute this Annunciation and eleven related scenes of the Nativity and Passion of Christ to Guido da Siena. Along with a central panel, they formed an altarpiece that was later dismantled. Together in Badia Ardegna in the nineteenth century, the panels are now in museums in Altenburg, Paris, Siena, Utrecht, and Princeton. The Annunciation came from the upper-left corner of the altarpiece. The Virgin stands in an enclosed garden near a tower—symbols of her purity taken from the Song of Songs. As the archangel Gabriel rushes toward her in an unusual running pose, she shrinks back in fear. In 1999, frescoes made around the same time, including an Annunciation closely related to the Princeton panel, were found in the crypt of the Siena Cathedral. This discovery supports the hypothesis that the panels from Badia Ardegna were originally part of an altarpiece made for the high altar of the cathedral.
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An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)