This important, unpublished relief in glazed terracotta is distinguished both by its relatively large dimensions, which suggest that it came from the chapel of a noble residence, and by being a unique exemplar that was modeled directly by the artist, rather than being cast in a mold. The latter point can be seen in fingerprints and tool marks in the clay on the back of the relief. The work shows the Virgin adoring the Christ child lying on a bed of hay (indicating the manger, which the gospel of Luke records as the place of Christ's birth). He stretches out his arms towards his Mother with loving gentleness, while from above the dove of the Holy Spirit descends, fulfilling the mystery of the Incarnation of the Word. In the sky are two curly-haired angels dressed as deacons of the church; they float upon little clouds, and unfurl a large scroll, on which at one time could have been an inscription in paint or gold, alluding either to the Virgin Mary or the birth of Christ.
Formerly attributed to Andrea della Robbia, owing to its general similarity with two well-known compositions produced in the Della Robbia workshop in numerous examples (Florence, Museo del Bargello; Washington, National Gallery of Art; etc.), this composition was not unique to the Della Robbia. In fact, it was relatively popular in Florentine painting of the 15th century, beginning with the famous pictures of the Nativity by Fra Filippo Lippi. In particular, one can compare the poses of the figures in the present work with those found in Lippi's altarpiece from the chapel in the Medici Palace (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie) and his altarpiece from the Annalena convent (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), both painted in the 1450s.
Buglioni's authorship of this relief is substantiated by its stylistic and technical features. Among the characteristics specific to Buglioni are the rippling and vibrant modeling of the garments of the angels; the more classical and simplified folds of the mantle of the Virgin; the pictorial treatment of the bed of hay; the clouds enlivened with touches of yellow; the subtle graphism which defines some details, like the Virgin's eyebrows; and the lively expression of the Christ child. The painting and glazing of the relief are also unique to Buglioni. Especially notable is the creamy density of the glaze, which shows characteristic irregularities (a fine craquelure, and a scattering of small marks left by the higher porosity of Buglioni's glazes), and the deep cerulean tonality of the background.
Buglioni was, next to the Della Robbia, the most important artist of glazed terracotta reliefs in Florence and Tuscany at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century. Possibly trained by Andrea del Verrocchio, he worked for a time in the Della Robbia bottega, and also was deeply influenced by Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino. His patrons included the Medici and other important aristocratic families and government institutions. Buglioni's high standing is also indicated by the fact that he served on the committee that decided upon the placement of Michelangelo's David.
We are grateful to Giancarlo Gentilini for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
with Julius Böhler, Munich, from whom acquired by
Oskar Mulert (1881-1951) in 1907.
with Julius Böhler, Munich, 1988.
Private collection, Europe.