This monumental, richly decorated panel is a rare and exceptionally fine work by Battista di Biagio Sanguigni, also sometimes known as The Master of 1419. Seated on a red cushion embellished with golden thread, the Madonna supports the standing Christ Child on her knee. In her right hand she holds a red rose, a striking spot of bright color which alludes to her son's eventual martyrdom; with her left, she holds aloft a diaphanous veil, which helps conceal the Christ Child's nudity as it links mother and child more closely. While the cushion on the ground beneath the Madonna identifies her as a Madonna of Humility, the intricate gold embroidery on her costume, the costly lapis lazuli of her mantle, and the sumptuous gilded cloth of honor behind--delicately incised and refined with oil glazes to enhance its volume and richness--simultaneously evoke imagery of the Madonna and Child Enthroned in the Kingdom of Heaven. This blending of iconographical types--as well as the inclusion of certain motifs, such as the vases of pink and white flowers at the lower corners--follows the example of Fra Angelico (c. 1395-1455), who was Sanguini's close friend and most significant artistic influence.
Battista di Biagio Sanguigni was born in 1393 and probably trained in the Florentine workshop of Lorenzo Monaco (1370/73-1425/30). In 1415 he enrolled in the Confraternity of San Nicola da Bari at the Carmine, in whose record books he signed as "Battista miniatore," a reference to his work as a manuscript illuminator. Indeed, much of Sanguigni's surviving oeuvre is comprised of works on parchment and vellum, of which well-known examples are illuminations in the choir books from San Gaggio (Florence, Museo di San Marco); those in a breviary from San Pier Maggiore dated 1411-1414 (Paris, Musée Martmottan); and two illuminated copies of Dante's Divine Comedy (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional and Florence, Biblioteca Riccardiana). In 1417 Sanguigni sponsored the entry of Fra Angelico into the Confraternity of San Nicola. At the end of the following decade, Sanguigni took the young artist Zanobi Strozzi (1412-1468) as his apprentice, and the two lived together at Palaiuolo, near San Domenico in Fiesole, until the latter's marriage in 1538.
It is difficult to consider the career of Battista di Biagio Sanguigni without close attention to those of Fra Angelico, Zanobi Strozzi and other artists in Fra Angelico's orbit. Strozzi and Sanguigni frequently collaborated on the production of both panel paintings and manuscript illuminations, and both seem to have been active in Fra Angelico's workshop in Fiesole from the late 1430s until the middle of the following decade, when Fra Angelico effectively closed his studio and moved to Rome. The present painting--a rare example of Sanguigni's work on panel--was first assigned to the Florentine follower of Fra Angelico, Domenico di Michelino (1417-1491), by Bernard Berenson (1923, unpublished), an attribution which Van Marle published five years later. In 2002, Miklós Boskovits, who misjudged the panel's unusually fine state of preservation from photographs, suggested an attribution to the young Fra Angelico himself, and indeed, Kanter has remarked that "the elegantly twisting hem of the Virgin's mantle" in the present picture "might seem an invention worthy of Fra Angelico" (L. Kanter in New York 2006, op. cit., p. 240). When the Madonna of Humility was sold in These Rooms in 1999, it was catalogued as a work by Zanobi Strozzi, and was first published with the correct attribution to Sanguigni by Kanter in 2002 (loc. cit.). One clear hallmark of Sanguigni's style is the idiosyncratic approach to foreshortening seen in the Madonna's hands and the vases of flowers in the lower corners, which are rendered from the same implausible di sotto in su angle. The Madonna's high forehead, narrowed eyes with faraway gaze, long straight nose and small mouth set very close to the chin are also characteristic of the artist (L. Kanter in New York, 2006, op. cit., p. 241).
As Kanter has observed, most of Sanguigni's extant panel paintings can be dated to 1430 or earlier, prior to his association with Zanobi Strozzi. Although no documented works from the last two decades of Sanguigni's career survive, visual and circumstantial evidence point to a dating of c. 1437-1445 for the Madonna of Humility, making it a rare example of the artist's mature production. The composition, as well as the motif of the vases of flowers mentioned above, are derived from Fra Angelico's 1437 altarpiece in Perugia (Galleria Nazionale), suggesting a terminus post quem in the late 1430s. On the other hand, the Madonna of Humility must have been executed prior to 1445, when Fra Angelico closed the workshop at San Domenico in Fiesole where Strozzi and Sanguigni had both been employed. This presents the possibility that the present painting might even have been executed while Sanguigni and Strozzi were still working in close proximity in Fra Angelico's workshop, prior to the end of their cohabitation in 1438 (L. Kanter in New York, 2006, op. cit., p. 241).
Since many of Sanguigni's paintings were likely executed in collaboration with Angelico and Strozzi, the Madonna of Humility also raises intriguing questions about the working interrelationships between the three artists during these later years. Was this panel independently designed and executed by Sanguigni and always meant to be recognized as a work by his hand? Might it have been commissioned to Angelico and delegated to Sanguigni as executant, to be considered a work of Fra Angelico himself? Or might it have been conceived by Strozzi and executed by Sanguigni? An identification of the picture with a recorded commission might help provide some answers. As Kanter has noted, the placement of the Christ Child to the Madonna's right is somewhat unusual (L. Kanter in New Haven, 2010, op. cit., p. 86), which might eventually help lead to a connection with a documented commission. While the subject of the Madonna of Humility is most commonly found in independent tabernacles, the size and format of panel are more typical of central elements of larger altarpieces.