Appearing in Ideas, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1999

Icon or Altarpiece?
Kahn Madonna
The Kahn Madonna (c. 1260). Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels in Medallions. Panel painting (1.23 x .72 m). (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)*
Mellon Madonna
The Mellon Madonna (c. 1260-85). Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels in Medallions. Panel painting (.84 x .53 m). (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)*
Icon or Altarpiece? Reflections on the Kahn and Mellon Madonnas
Icon or Altarpiece?
Jaroslav Folda is N. Ferebee Taylor Professor of Art History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His research concerns the art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land in the period 1187-1291. Among other works, he has written The Art of the Crusaders in the Holy Land, 1098–1187. This essay is an edited version of an address given at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on November 12, 1998, in honor of Allen W. Clowes.

atrons of the Indianapolis Museum of Art will be familiar with Renaissance images of the Virgin and Child, such as Albrecht Dürer’s "Holy Family with Butterfly," an engraving done about 1495, or Giuliano Bugiardini's "Madonna and Child with St. John," a painting from about 1508. These examples feature images of the Virgin and Child in garden landscapes and family settings that emphasize their human experience and represent the baby Jesus and his Mother in everyday circumstances.

Here, let us look back into the thirteenth century at images of the Virgin and Child that are completely different in content, context, and function. They are, as it were, ancestors of the Renaissance images, medieval images that focus instead on the spiritual presence of the holy figures in a heavenly throne room–like setting with symbolic angels attending.

The two images represented here are the Kahn and Mellon Madonnas, two of the most famous and memorable early paintings in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Located today in gallery one of the west building, they strike a strongly Byzantine iconic note in the midst of the Italian panel paintings and altarpieces with which they are exhibited. But are they in fact Byzantine and are they indeed icons? As one scholar, Hans Belting, has recently written: "The so-called Byzantine Madonnas in the National Gallery of Art present one of the unsolved riddles in the history of medieval panel painting. Attempts to identify their painters or attribute them to a specific school have either failed or not met with general agreement."

The Kahn Madonna, which came to the National Gallery in 1949 as a gift of the Otto Kahn Collection, is the larger of the two panel paintings (1.23 × .72 m). Her outer garment is characteristically dark blue, and her tunic is a rich plum color. She and the Child sit on a straight-backed, elaborately carpentered wooden throne.

The Mellon Madonna, formerly part of the collection of Carl Hamilton and given to the National Gallery in 1937 as part of the Andrew Mellon Collection, is about half the size of the Kahn Madonna (.84 × .53 m). She wears an eye-catching cherry red outer garment, an unusual color choice, and her tunic is a bright medium blue. The throne on which she sits holding the child could be gilded wood or ivory and has a circular shape with a round back, which is also very unusual.

It is obvious that these Madonnas, holding the blessing Jesus and accompanied by two half-length angels in medallions, are closely related to each other as a type. Iconographically, both images are reflections of the imperial Byzantine Virgin Hodegetria enthroned full length against a gold ground. Stylistically, they also reflect a strong Byzantine tradition in terms of their softly painted faces and hands bathed in shadow, their voluminous and complex draperies with systems of otherworldly highlights known as "chrysography," and their hieratic compositions with the Virgin seated upright on the central axis.

Closer inspection, however, reveals more differences than similarities between the two. The contrast between the two thrones, though clear, goes well beyond their types and shapes. Differences include their positions relative to the onlooker and to the way one throne—in the Mellon Madonna—closes off the gold ground behind, whereas the other is, to some extent, dematerialized by the gold ground shining through it. Other less immediately obvious, but important, differences are found also in the poses of the Virgin and Child, their relationship to each other and to the viewer, and the handling of the chrysography.

ooking first at the Kahn Madonna, she is seated with her knees and upper body turned slightly to our right. The Child sits on her proper left arm and hand. Tenderly she touches his right knee: to steady him, possibly as a sign of affection, but certainly as a gesture to direct our attention to him as the infant redeemer. It is the Virgin Hodegetria, a type well known in Byzantium, derived from an icon in the Hodegon Monastery in Constantinople, in which the Virgin gestures toward Christ as the way to salvation. To emphasize the importance of the Virgin in her role, regal and enthroned, she occupies the central axis of the picture and looks directly at us as she inclines her head gently toward her son. He in turn gazes up at her, blessing and holding a scroll signifying the new dispensation. Jesus wears garments signifying at once his regal stature—the luxurious orange-red tunic—and his infant status—the deep blue cloth harness and tiny sandals. Indeed, the imperial presence of mother and child is evident throughout: not only from the impressive throne with scarlet cushion and its footstool, and the attending angels in Byzantine courtly attire but also from the sumptuous costumes, including the red buskins, or slippers, worn by the Virgin to indicate her as Empress of Heaven in Byzantine art.

Stylistically, the artist succeeds in representing the Virgin as a sculptural, upright yet enveloping figure by elongating her torso and making the lower body quite broad and substantial with rather short legs and ample draperies. Despite her monumental presence, however, and the large and impressive throne notwithstanding, the Virgin seems to be suspended in front of it, not really sitting on it. A clear tension is in fact set up between the three-dimensionality of the diagonally placed throne and the two figures and the dematerializing effect of the two-dimensional decorative network of golden highlights, haloes, and the gold ground behind. Yet, as one can see, the chrysography does not touch the softly painted hands and faces of the Virgin and Child, even though the seemingly ephemeral and immaterial golden haloes, signifying the radiance of the sanctified, block out our view of part of the back of the wooden throne. This interaction between the spiritual and the corporeal is part of the essence of the art of Byzantine icon painting, and the artist of the work effectively carries on the tradition.

In the Mellon Madonna, we can see that in almost every important feature corresponding to the Kahn Madonna, the artistic result is somewhat different. The Mellon Madonna is also positioned on the central axis of the panel, but her body twists in two different directions along that axis. The upper body is turned to our right, but the legs move off to the left. The Child again sits on her proper left arm and hand and again the gesture indicating Christ is combined with a tender touch on the knee, so it is the Virgin Hodegetria again. Mary's role, however, is subtly altered here by the shifting of her glance off to the right above the head of Jesus. It is now Christ himself who faces the onlooker with a frontal pose, more of independent enthronement than childlike dependency. Likewise, his costume, consisting of orange mantle and green tunic, and the fact that he holds a scroll encased in a scarlet container bound with golden strings—like an imperial chrysobull—focuses our attention on his imperial presence and deemphasizes aspects of his infancy. Christ the God-man is presented to us even in his childhood as the majestic ruler.

The nuances and variations seen in this version of the Virgin Hodegetria are no less apparent in other stylistic aspects as contrasted with the Kahn Madonna. The Virgin's torso is more slender, and she has slightly longer legs, but her presence receives its most striking prominence through the enhancement of her maphorion, which is emphasized by its cherry red color. This overgarment is arranged differently with V-shaped folds, few in number but very emphatically deeply shaded in contrast to the shallower swinging curves across the torso of the Kahn Madonna. Furthermore, the composition of the Mellon Madonna has been substantially changed to be much more insistently frontal, not only in the placement of the Child and the balanced axiality of the Virgin but especially in the way the throne has been swung around to an almost exact frontal position to enclose the seated group, with only the footstool at an angle, echoing the placement of Mary's legs. Finally, we should note the chrysography as well. In the Kahn Madonna, the system of golden highlights is essentially consistent for both figures and the footstool; in the Mellon Madonna, however, there seem to be at least two sources of supernatural light for the Virgin and additional sources for the child and the footstool. Furthermore, the Mellon Madonna features larger splashes of golden light, more often triangular in shape, from which linear rays emanate along the drapery.

Scrutiny of the technique and condition of the two paintings also reveals dramatic differences, as the studies of the art historian Hans Belting and the National Gallery conservator, Ann Hoenigswald, have shown. X-ray examination of the Kahn Madonna reveals that typical Byzantine procedures for icon painting were followed. Underneath the painted surface on a layer of gesso, or fine plaster, is a ground of thin fabric, glued directly to the wood, that covers both the flat panels and the frame in one continuous piece. The handling of the actual painting of the figures shows characteristics no less Byzantine: in the execution of the faces and hands of Mary and Jesus, the artist started with green underpaint on the gesso surface and built up the flesh tones in many layers; in order to articulate the head of the Virgin as separate from her halo and the gold ground, there is an incised outline along the edge of her veil. On the Mellon Madonna, thin fabric was also used over the panels, but these panels have been cut down at the top and bottom, and the original frame is lost; the current frame is modern and was provided by either Lord Duveen's restorer or the National Gallery. Moreover, although the Mellon Madonna artist attempted on the gesso ground to achieve a result that looked similar to the technique of Byzantine icons as seen in the Kahn Madonna, in fact he mixed the paint before applying it and did not build it up in layers. The result in the Mellon Madonna is a harsher contrast of light and dark and a loss of some of the softness and chromatic richness that we see in the face of the Kahn Madonna. Further, whereas the Mellon Madonna master elegantly outlines his figures in gold, he uses no incision. Finally, even the type of wood used is different. In the Kahn Madonna the three flat planks of the main panel are poplar and the frame is fir; in the Mellon Madonna the two flat planks of the main panel are linden, or what we also call basswood.

The condition of the two works is also dramatically different. The Kahn Madonna is in outstanding condition, with its original paint surface essentially intact. On the other hand, the Mellon Madonna was heavily restored in 1928–29 before being sold by Lord Duveen to Andrew Mellon. In particular, the entire gold ground and the haloes of the Virgin and Child were replaced. Moreover, their heads and faces were repainted, and the golden highlighting was retouched where it had flaked or was rubbed. The restorer who worked for Duveen apparently followed the original scheme of the chrysography very carefully, but a prerestoration photograph of the Mellon Madonna shows that there was no tooled decoration of the haloes prior to 1928. In fact, the restorer may have used the Kahn Madonna as a general model for his work—at least we know that the Kahn Madonna was in New York at the same time that the Mellon Madonna was being restored there.

On the basis of these observations, it appears that the Kahn Madonna is a work that reflects the tradition of Byzantine icon painting more closely, with canonical Byzantine technique being followed to produce an unusually large and monumental icon. Although it also has a few important "Western" features—such as the Latin blessing gesture of the Child, the tooled and stippled haloes of Christ and the Virgin, and the idea of a full-length Virgin and Child Enthroned on this large scale—the essential Byzantine character of the artist's training and technique of execution here is undeniable.

The artist of the Mellon Madonna was also interested in Byzantine icon painting, but, unlike the Kahn Madonna master, he did not follow canonical Byzantine technique and style. Thus, as Belting has persuasively argued, it appears that the panels are the works of different artists. The use of different woods suggests they were even made in different locations. Moreover, the different iconographic choices of the thrones, the color schemes, and the poses of the figures and the smaller size of the Mellon Madonna all suggest a different patron and a different function.

These considerations immediately raise again the vexed questions of where and when the panels were created. The controversy over the place and date of their origin has raged since the early part of this century. Four major arguments have been proposed. In 1921, the famous connoisseur of Italian painting, Bernard Berenson, studied the panels shortly after they came on the art market in Madrid in 1912. Instinctively perceiving their extraordinary artistic quality and clearly realizing from their Byzantinizing style that they were not Italian, Berenson attributed them to a Greek artist working in Constantinople around 1200. This dating is more than half a century earlier than we think them to be today, however, because in the 1920s the study of thirteenth-century Crusader and Byzantine painting in the Latin East had not yet begun.

(More, to Part 2 of 3)

*Please note: The National Gallery of Art does not permit copying of their digital image files for distribution from other Web servers. However, they have allowed us to display their images via small thumbnails. The above images link back to their site for various kinds of information about the artist and object, as well full-screen images and details.

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Revised: December 1999