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The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen

The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen
tempera on gold ground panel, arched, the original engaged frame regilded
25 1/8 x 15 in. (59.7 x 34.2 cm.)
(Probably) William Bingham Baring, 2nd Lord Ashburton (1799-1864), Bath House, London, and by inheritance to his widow, Louisa, Lady Ashburton (1827-1903), Kent House, London or Melchett Court, Hampshire, and through her daughter,
The Hon. Mary Florence Baring (1860-1902), wife of William Compton, 5th Marquess of Northampton (1851-1913), and their second son, Lord Spencer Compton (1893-1915).
F. Russell, ‘An Early Crucifixion by Fra Angelico’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXXVIII, May 1996, pp. 315-7, where dated between altarpieces assigned to 1419-21 and 1424-5.
G. Bonsanti, Beato Angelico: Catalogo completo, Florence, 1998, p. 118, no. 15, where dated to around 1424.
L. Kanter, in ed. L. Kanter and P. Palladino, Fra Angelico, exhibition catalogue, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and New Haven, 2005, pp. 76-7, fig. 46, where dated to around 1421-2.
D.C. Ahl, Fra Angelico, London, 2008, pp. 31-3, pl. 29, where dated to around 1419-20.
G. de Simone, in ed. A. Zuccari, G. Morello and G. de Simone, Beato Angelico: L’alba del Rinascimento, exhibition catalogue, Musei Capitolini, Rome, 2009, p. 152, where dated to just before the Pisa Madonna di Cedri of around 1423.
G. Utari, in ed. G. Damiani, Fra Angelico et les maîtres de la Lumière, exhibition catalogue, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, 2011, p. 154, under no. 25, as an ‘oeuvre de jeunesse de l’artiste’.
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Lot Essay

This panel, overlooked until it was published by the compiler in 1996, is a significant early work by Fra Angelico, one of the greatest and most influential masters of the early Florentine Renaissance. It established the composition of the artist’s subsequent treatments of Christ on the Cross, and in particular the remarkable sequence of frescoes in which this is shown at San Marco (fig. 1), the monastery in Florence transferred in 1436 to his order the Dominican Observants, including that in the first (Cell 38) of the two cells there reserved for its patron, Cosimo de’ Medici.


We do not know when Guido di Piero was born, who is first recorded by his monastic name, Fra Giovanni da Fiesole in June 1423, and known posthumously as Fra Angelico. On 31 October 1417, as ‘Ghuido di Piero’, he was proposed for membership of the Confraternità di San Nicola di Bari and referred to as a painter. In the following January and February, as ‘Guidoni Pieri’ (S. Orlandi, Beato Angelico, Florence, 1964, p. 169), he was paid for completing an altarpiece begun by the elderly Ambrogio di Baldese, who himself had been a collaborator of Nicolò di Pietro Gerini. Still then referred to as Guido di Pietro, he must have entered the Dominican Observant Order, with which his name is so indissolubly linked, by June 1423, when he is first documented with his monastic name, as ‘frate Giovanni di san Dominicho da Fiesole’ (Orlandi, op. cit., p. 173). Visual evidence leaves little doubt that Guido had been, if not trained by Don Lorenzo Monaco, an assistant of his, not least in the predella panels of the great Coronation of the Virgin (Florence, Uffizi) from Santa Maria degli Angeli of about 1411-3. His own Thebaid, also in the Uffizi, was long given to the older master, who was the most lyrical exponent of Late Gothic, as opposed to Early Renaissance, painting in Florence and had become a monk of the Camaldolese Order in 1391, thus setting an example for Fra Angelico himself.

Recent scholarship has amplified our understanding of Fra Angelico’s early development, as indeed the reattribution of the Thebaid demonstrates. But significant lacunae remain. Of the undertakings for Santa Maria Novella, mentioned by Vasari as early works of the artist, the only survivors are four reliquaries that probably postdate 1424. The painter’s first major commission for his order was for the high altarpiece of San Domenico di Fiesole (fig. 2), datable on stylistic grounds to around 1419-21; the main panel remains in situ, albeit ‘updated’ by Lorenzo di Credi, while the predella panels are in the National Gallery, London and other lesser components have been identified.


Laurence Kanter correctly associated this panel with the lateral ones of Saints Catherine and John the Baptist on the left, a Bishop – perhaps Zenobius – and Agnes on the right (New York, private collection; op. cit.), all of which are most probably somewhat, but not significantly, later in date. In 1996, the compiler considered the Crucifixion to be ‘somewhat later’ than the San Domenico di Fiesole altarpiece but unlikely to postdate that from San Pier Maggiore, which Carl Strehlke dates to 1424-5. Bonsanti, who regarded it on the basis of the 1996 reproductions as ‘un’opera di grande qualità’, considered that it preceded the San Domenico altar; Ahl, also on the basis of a reproduction, placed it to around 1419-20; Kanter – who had seen the original – proposed a date of about 1421-2 for the Crucifixion; while, on the basis of a high resolution image, Angelo Tartuferi suggests 1422-5 (private communication with Carl Strehlke).

Given the influence of Lorenzo Monaco on the young Fra Angelico, it is not surprising that this Crucifixion was formerly ascribed to his school. The panel transcends even the most subtle of Lorenzo’s panels showing Christ on the Cross and can be demonstrated to have had a significant place in the development of Florentine quattrocento painting. While painted crucifixes had been shown frontally since the thirteenth century, most other painted representations of the Crucifixion had been shown in false perspective, with the cross depicted frontally but in false perspective to show the right hand side of the shaft. Cimabue treated the Cross in this way in his great fresco in the upper church of San Francesco at Assisi. While Duccio showed it in the same way in his altarpiece at Grosseto, it is seen in correct perspective in his late triptych at Boston; his most accomplished Sienese successors, Ugolino di Nerio, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, not least in his Calvary in the lower church at Assisi, all, however, showed the flank of the shaft. So did Giotto, in a fresco at Padua and a panel now at Munich. He set the pattern for over a century not only in Florence, as the work of such younger contemporaries as Pacino di Bonaguida and Jacopo del Casentino indicates, but also at Rimini and elsewhere. Bernardo Daddi maintained the tradition, often placing Crucifixions on the right wings of devotional triptychs in which such treatment of the Cross had a degree of visual plausibility. Daddi was followed by most masters active in Florence in the late trecento and, not least, on a dozen occasions by Lorenzo Monaco. The latter, however, in his representations of the Man of Sorrows of 1404 in the Accademia in Florence, and the related panel probably of 1408 at Prague, showed the Cross frontally, as would his younger contemporary Giovanni dal Ponte in representations of the Trinity of 1418 and 1420-4. Many other examples could be cited.

It has long been understood that Fra Angelico was keenly aware of the work of the revolutionary Tuscan sculptors of the early Quattrocento, not least Ghiberti and Brunelleschi, and the frontal treatment of the Cross in this panel very clearly demonstrates this. The only earlier representation of the subject generally attributed to the artist is the Griggs Crucifixion, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In this, the body of Christ bears an inevitable relationship to earlier prototypes, but has a plasticity that has suggested a knowledge of Brunelleschi’s Crucifix in the Gondi Chapel at Santa Maria Novella; the crowded composition with two contradictory viewpoints would certainly not be characteristic of the mature Angelico, and the right side of the cross shaft is shown in what had become the conventional way. It is difficult to conceive that Fra Angelico would have thought in this fashion after 1418-9. If the dating of this panel soon after the San Domenico di Fiesole altarpiece is accepted, which is supported by both Kanter and Gerardo de Simone, it antedated the two celebrated works by Masaccio in which the Cross is shown in consistent frontal perspective: the pinnacle of the Crucifixion with the Magdalen from the Pisa altarpiece of 1426 (fig. 3); and the great fresco of the Trinity at Santa Maria Novella, which is generally dated to around 1425-8. With a single exception, the intimate double-sided roundel in the Museo di San Marco, all Fra Angelico’s many subsequent depictions of the Crucifixion, including the twenty frescoes executed by him or under his supervision in the cells at San Marco, were to show the Cross in correct perspective. Many painters, however, continued to adhere to the earlier pattern: Masolino in the Vatican Museum Crucifixion; Alvaro Portugese (1434); Bicci di Lorenzo for Bibbiena (1435); Parri Spinelli in Arezzo (1444); Paolo Schiavo in Florence itself (1448), among many others. In Perugia, Mariano di Antonio could follow tradition a decade later, and numerous examples in more remote centres might be mentioned.

We do not know for which patron the devotional triptych of which this Crucifixion was the main panel was commissioned, although the selection of saints for the wings must offer clues as to his or her identity. Whether the patron was aware of the pioneering character of the design is equally uncertain. De Simone, who had not seen this panel, observed of the triptych as a whole: ‘delle supreme note di purezza cromatica, timbrica e di modellato di questi tre pezzi avrebbe fatto tesoro Masaccio, caricandole del suo aggressive plasticismo’ in the Pisa pinnacle (op. cit.).

As was written in 1996:

If Fra Angelico found scope for invention in his treatment of Christ, with his figures of the Virgin, of St. John and the Magdalen, he was yet freer from the bonds of convention. In these he achieves an emotional expression of a different, but not less fervent, cast than that of Lorenzo Monaco: the dramatic silhouette and implied movement of the Virgin, the hieratic distinction of St. John, the pathos of the kneeling Magdalen. Fra Angelico’s types belong to a very different world from those of Masaccio, less plausible as physical presences no doubt, but uniquely eloquent of that poignancy of which he was so apparently the instinctive master. The beauty of the rippling silhouettes of the draperies is matched by the conviction of Fra Angelico’s understanding of the human predicament. We see how the Magdalen clings to the Cross, with what reverent sadness the Virgin gestures to her son and the fervency with which St John’s hands are clasped in prayer. Every gesture is perfectly weighed. For with Fra Angelico nothing is accidental.

The Magdalen embraces the side of the Cross so closely that her halo is shown behind it, with the tension of her unseen left arm implied by that of the fingers of her left hand that clasp it, implying that its width corresponds with that of her unseen forearm. The ground on either side of the standing saints is aligned on the top of the polychrome marble on which the saints of the wings are placed, but it rises slightly behind the Cross to indicate the setting, Golgotha.

The exceptional condition of the figures means that Fra Angelico’s wonderful chromatic sense can still be experienced. While the timbre of these attests to the artist’s personal taste, the colours of the Virgin’s robes and the Magdalen’s dress were of course determined by convention. Moreover, these were subtly deployed to bind the panel with the wings. The pink of the Evangelist’s cloak and the Virgin’s dress is echoed by that of Saint Agnes’ mantle and the robe of the Baptist, the deep blue of the Virgin’s mantle by Saint Catherine’s dress and the bishop saint’s cassock. The greens of the underside of Her mantle and of the Magdalen’s right sleeve, as well as the Crown of Thorns and the fronds against which the pelican is set, are matched in the bishop saint’s cope. The red of the Magdalen’s mantle, itself echoing that of the blood of Christ and of the pelican, is taken up in Saint Catherine’s mantle and the lining of the bishop’s cope and parts of his mitre.

Diane Cole Ahl, who knew the picture only from the 1996 article, wrote about this with particular perception:

The anatomy of Jesus is not defined by line, but modelled in subtly graduated light and shadow to suggest its musculature and volume. The body’s weight is conveyed by the tension of Christ’s arms and shoulders. … The neck and lifted wing of the symbolic pelican above the Cross are consistent with the perspective of the head of Christ, underscoring his Eucharistic sacrifice (op. cit.).

As she noted, the angels, unlike those of Lorenzo Monaco’s Crucifixion in the Accademia in Florence, do not hold chalices to collect Christ’s blood but are shown in prayer, that on the right with wings turned downward depicted on a trajectory that would pass behind the Cross. She continues:

The sensibility of Angelico is best expressed in the mourners below the Cross. The artist created the illusion of depth by varying the angles at which they are portrayed and through perspective. The Virgin Mary, her features and costume luminously modelled, engages the gaze of the beholder directly as she gestures towards her son. The Magdalen embraces the Cross, which she wraps with her brilliant scarlet mantle. John the Evangelist dramatically balances the women. Instead of facing forwards, as was conventional, he turns from them to gaze upon the Cross. The slope of his shoulders, prolonged by the fall of his mantle, expresses the weight of his sorrow (ibid.).

Ahl convincingly proposed that the figure was inspired in reverse by that of the servant in Ghiberti’s bronze trial piece of 1401-3 for the Sacrifice of Isaac (Florence, Bargello) for the north door of the Baptistry and points out that the features of the face are similar to those of Isaac in this. The saint’s cascading mantle is indeed modelled in sculptural terms. Ahl observes that the ‘extraordinary pathos of the Evangelist, whose enraptured face is lifted to Christ, discloses an engagement that seems intensely personal’. She suggests that Guido di Pietro chose the name ‘Giovanni’ when he joined the order at San Domenico di Fiesole in homage not to the Baptist, patron of Florence, but to the Evangelist, ‘the apostle most beloved by Christ’. She concludes: 'With eloquent piety and passion, the Crucifixion reveals the artist’s spirituality as well as his mastery. It may have marked the decisive moment in Angelico’s life when he relinquished wealth and worldly success to take holy vows' (ibid.).

Utari noted parallels with the drapery and other elements in the illumination of the Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John in the Gerli Missal (no. 54, folio 182v; Milan, Biblioteca Braidense; op. cit.) which is, however, of somewhat later date. Fra Angelico himself cannot have been dissatisfied with the composition. The assistant who some twenty years later executed the fresco in Cell 25 at San Marco, the Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint Dominic and the Magdalen, evidently based his composition on that of this panel, as is demonstrated by the pose of the Magdalen and the angles at which the heads of the Virgin and of Saint Dominic – who took Saint John’s place in the mural – are shown.


John Baring, who settled in Exeter in 1717, was a wise businessman and built up a fortune that enabled his eldest son, Francis (1740-1810) to set up the banking house of Baring Brothers. Francis Baring, who was created a baronet in 1793, was a discriminating collector of pictures and a determined patron of both painters and architects. His great collection of Dutch pictures was acquired en bloc by the Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and thus survives intact. Two of his sons, Thomas, the 2nd baronet and Alexander, 1st Lord Ashburton (1774-1848), and one of his grandsons, the former’s second son, Thomas were among the outstanding English collectors of the first half of the nineteenth century. Sir Thomas acquired Raphael’s Madonna della Tenda (Munich), while his son, who also assembled a notable collection of Dutch pictures, bought such masterpieces as Mantegna’s Agony in the Garden, Antonello da Messina’s Saint Jerome in his Study and Sebastiano del Piombo’s Holy Family with a Donor (all London, National Gallery). Lord Ashburton also was a significant buyer of northern pictures, but in addition made significant acquisitions from Spain and had by 1836, when Dr. Waagen visited Bath House, his mansion on Piccadilly, obtained some fine Italian pictures including two attributed incorrectly to Leonardo and the Correggio altarpiece now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The summary of the collection in the 1838 English edition of Waagen’s survey was repeated in that of 1854: this does not include any of the Italian masterpieces from Bath House that his daughter-in-law Louisa, Lady Ashburton subsequently owned. These are also not recorded in the surveys of the collection in the April 1847 issue of the Art Union or Henry Bohn’s Pictorial Handbook of London of 1857. In 1854, Waagen stated that the 1st Lord Ashburton had ‘many other fine pictures’ at the Grange (Treasures of Art in Great Britain, London, II, p. 112), the Hampshire mansion enlarged for him by C.R. Cockerell, but while it cannot be absolutely excluded that he bought some of the Italian masterpieces that were to be inherited by his daughter-in-law, it is altogether more probable that these were acquired by her husband, William, 2nd Lord Ashburton. Waagen lunched with him in 1851 and recorded that he had ‘inherited with the collection the taste to appreciate and the desire to increase it’ (ibid., p. 97). He seems to have done so with considerable vigour, concentrating on Italian works in his last years. It is likely that he bought the Dosso Dossi Allegory with Pan (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum) after this was exhibited at the British Institution in 1859, and, bidding in the name Bath House at the Davenport Bromley sale at Christie’s, 12-3 June 1863, Ashburton bought no fewer than nine lots, including two versions of Botticelli’s Venus Pudica, the less expensive of which (Turin, Galleria Sabauda) he sold to his friend the sculptor, Baron Marochetti – also a buyer at the sale – as well as signed works by two relatively obscure artists, Vincenzo Pagani and Girolamo da Cotignola. This suggests that he also purchased the signed altarpieces by Andrea da Salerno and Marco Palmezzano, which his widow inherited, and also such celebrated masterpieces as the Mantegna Adoration of the Magi (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum), the fine Bellini Madonna (Private collection) and the Paris Bordone Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, on loan). After the Davenport Bromley sale, he bought two further lots from this, panels of Saints Dominic and George by Carlo Crivelli (New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), which Farrar had secured. The earliest in date of Ashburton’s purchases at the sale were a panel of a youthful saint given to Memmi and a cassone front then ascribed to Pollaiuolo, but now known to be Sienese (exhibited, London, National Gallery, Renaissance Siena, 2007-8, no. 53). Fra Angelico’s Crucifixion would thus have been very much in keeping with his taste.

Louisa, Lady Ashburton was herself a very remarkable woman. The daughter of James Stewart Mackenzie and a substantial heiress, she married the 2nd Lord Ashburton in 1858. She was a friend of the Carlyles, Browning, Tennyson and other of the great literary figures of her time, as the fastidious biography by Virginia Surtees demonstrates (The Ludovisi Goddess, Tisbury, 1984). She was a discriminating patroness of artists and craftsmen at Kent House in London and Melchett Court, for both of which she employed the architect Henry Clutton. She commissioned works from Lear, Rossetti and Watts as well as sculptures from Marochetti, Wolner and the American Harriet Hosmer. There is no evidence that she acquired old master pictures or, apparently, earlier works of art, and indeed admitted to suffering an ‘indigestion of bric-a-brac’ when seeing the prodigious collection of Baron Meyer de Rothschild at Mentmore (ibid., p. 140).

The loan of this picture has been requested for the exhibition Fra Angelico to be curated by Arturo Galansino and Angelo Tartuferi at Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 26 September 2025 to 25 January 2026. The compiler is indebted to Carl Strehlke for reading an early draft of this catalogue entry and to Charles Sebag-Montefiore.

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