We are much indebted to Gaudenz Freuler, who has studied this panel on the basis of transparencies, for the following note.
This small panel is an outstanding example of the production of small-scale altarpieces and panels for private devotion which became increasingly popular in Siena after the second plague of 1363. In those years and later, specialized workshops responded to the great demand for such pictures, including that of the so-called Master of the Pietà and from the late 1360s most prominently that of Niccolò di Buonaccorso, to name just a few. It is to the latter, as will be argued, that one should attribute this picture.
The stylistic formulas and typology visible in this panel clearly look back to the Sienese followers of Simone Martini, such as Lippo Memmi and the Master of Palazzo Venezia. This is true not only of the Virgin mourning over her son, that recalls types in the New Testament cycle which Lippo Memmi and his workshop (including his brother Tederigho Memmi) had painted in the Collegiata of San Gimignano in 1343, but also of the Christ on the Cross, which recalls such pictures as the Crucifixions by Lippo Memmi in the Louvre and in the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The compositional concept of this Crucifixion doubtlessly is a refined variation of that which Niccolò di Buonaccorso painted on the right panel of the diptych in the Galleria Nazionale di L'Aquila, which, however, is rendered in somewhat more emotional terms. In both pictures, it is Mary Magdalene, turned with determination frontally towards the beholder, who introduces the viewer into the picture. This is a characteristic of Niccolò's dramatic skill, used to induce the beholder to meditate. If in the panel in L'Aquila the painter tells his story with more emotional action (Saint John), the calm and composed atmosphere of this panel induces the beholder to join in the collective meditation expressed by Christ's mother and his favourite disciple John. The only person that directly speaks to the beholder is the slim Mary Magdalene, who stridently cries out her grief while grasping the foot of the Cross with her left hand; her red coat has dropped to the ground. The other mourners appear in silent grief and meditation, which in the case of the Virgin is implied by the gesture of her head lying on her left hand. The wonderful invention of Magdalene's mantle dropped to form sinuous folds, which makes it appear as if the waves of an agitated sea drenched in blood had broken on the shores, is also repeated in a somewhat less spectacular way in Niccolò's panel in L'Aquila. The outstanding dynamic character of these folds obviously aims subtly to underline the inner turmoil of the Saint. This detail must have impressed Andrea di Bartolo who, some decades later, used it in a similar way in his triptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena (no. 153). Undoubtedly such finesse in dramatic expression can only be credited to an artist of distinction and it was probably this very skill that helped Niccolò to become one of Siena's favourite painters in the particular field of producing pictures for private devotion.
The attribution to Niccolò di Buonaccorso is not as evident as is the case with most of his paintings and needs therefore some explanation. The figures are not yet formed according to his usual formulae, which in some cases make these appear as slightly mask-like beings. On the other hand Christ's finely drawn features with His thin elongated nose and Mary Magdalene's slim frontal face seem to belong to the same family as the many figures in two wings in the Alte Pinakotheke in Munich, which with good reason have been attributed by Miklós Boskovits, and more recently by Pia Palladino, to Niccolò (Boskovits, 'Su Niccolò di Buonaccorso, Benedetto di Bindo e la pittura senese del primo quattrocento', Paragone, 31, nos. 359-61, 1980, pp 4-5; Pia Palladino, Art and Devotion in Siena after 1350, Luca di Tommè and Niccolò di Buonaccorso, San Diego (California, 1997, pp. 46 ff.). Furthermore, the rounded face of the seraphim hovering on the lower right side of the Cross, especially his characteristically rounded lively eyes, compares precisely with the little seraphim in Niccolò di Buonaccorso's Annunciation in the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford.
Pia Palladino, who in 1997 made the first successful attempt to reconstruct a chronology for Niccolò di Buonaccorso, convincingly placed the Munich panels to the beginning of the painter's activity, which she thought began around 1370 (loc. cit.). If it is true that Niccolò was son of the painter Buonaccorso di Pace and could have been born around 1348, and considering that in the supplement added between 1378 and 1386 to the painter's guild of 1356 Niccolò di Buonaccorso was recorded after Andrea Vanni, the artist's career begun slightly earlier than envisaged by Palladino, most probably in the late 1360s.
The absence from the panel of the somewhat stylised formulae so characteristic of Niccolò's thus far known artistic production, as well as the lack of ornamental features, which appeared increasingly in his oeuvre make it highly probable that this Crucifixion should be placed to the very beginning of Niccolò's artistic career and a date around 1368 seems highly probable. Very soon afterwards Niccolò's style was to become of an increasingly precious miniaturist character, marked by an exhaustive use of sgraffito decoration and rich gilding of the frames. In his later phase in the 1380s, Niccolò's stylistic idiom developed under the direct influence of his prominent and somewhat older contemporary, Bartolo di Fredi.
The rediscovery of this fine panel and its attribution to Niccolò di Buonaccorso helps us to assess his earliest phase, which seems to have been inspired first by the late followers of Simone Martini and the Memmi brothers, such as the Master of Palazzo Venezia and Naddo Ceccarelli, and later on also by Jacopo Mino del Pelliciaio.