- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

On April 6, a powerful earthquake shook central Italy, killing more than 300 people while destroying centuries-old churches and museums. Most of the devastation occurred in L’Aquila, the capital city of the mountainous Abruzzo region, where the Group of Eight summit will be held in July.

The first artwork to be transported out of this medieval city is a late Gothic altarpiece now on view in the National Gallery of Art’s rotunda through Labor Day. The Italian government lent the painting in gratitude to the United States for its assistance to the Abruzzo region after the earthquake.

On June 15, during his Washington trip to meet with President Obama, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi visited the artwork with assurances that L’Aquila’s artistic heritage would be fully restored.

The painting belongs to the National Museum of Abruzzo, a converted 16th-century fortress severely damaged during the earthquake. Part of the building’s roof and facade caved in, prompting local officials to remove the collection of artworks for safekeeping and close the museum.

The 5-by-6-foot altarpiece was one of the few treasures to survive intact with only minor scratches on its left panel. After repairing the piece, conservator Francesca Capanna of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage accompanied the painting to Washington where it was displayed at the Embassy of Italy in early June before being transferred to the National Gallery.

Titled “The Madonna and Child With Scenes From the Life of Christ and the Virgin,” the work is commonly known as the Beffi Triptych because it once hung in the church of Santa Maria del Ponte in Beffi, a town to the southeast of L’Aquila. The painting was removed from that church in 1915 after an earthquake.

The name of the artist who painted its gold-framed panels isn’t known. He may have been a follower of the Siena-born artist Taddeo di Bartolo based on the similar figures and vibrant colors in their paintings. Referred to as the Master of the Beffi Triptych, the anonymous painter illuminated manuscripts (one is now in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art) and created frescoes, including the vault and walls inside the church of San Silvestro in L’Aquila.

“It’s an important painting for the region, but not an innovative painting in terms of art history,” says Gretchen Hirschauer, associate curator of Italian and Spanish painting at the National Gallery. “It’s an intact triptych from the early 15th century and you don’t often see that. The fact that the three panels are still together is important. In the 19th century, paintings such as this were often dismembered and their panels sold off.”

The exact date of the painting isn’t known, but the work is thought to have been created between 1400 and 1410 based on its Gothic style. Ms. Hirschauer notes the elegant, gold-trimmed drapery and canopy in the central scene are similar to the flowing garments in Gentile da Fabriano’s “Madonna and Child Enthroned,” an Italian painting from around 1420 in the National Gallery’s collection.

In his triptych, the Beffi master portrays Christ in a more forward-looking manner, as a playful infant tugging at his mother’s veil rather than as an idealized figure. This depiction portends the humanism that would later flower in the Italian Renaissance.

The painting also bears influences of Byzantine art, as in the left panel, where Christ’s Nativity takes place in a cave.

In the right panel, the death of the Virgin is depicted with more unusual iconography. A seated figure in the foreground represents a disbelieving priest whose hands were frozen after he attempted to overturn Mary’s bier, according to a popular legend. Above this scene, Christ is shown carrying an infant representing his mother’s soul ascending to heaven.

In the lower corner of the left panel, the donor of the altarpiece is portrayed as a kneeling figure wearing red and black stockings. His identity isn’t known, adding yet another unsolved puzzle to this magnificent altarpiece.

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