Paolo di Giovanni Fei was among the leading Sienese painters of the 14th century. Influenced by the earlier masters of the Sienese Trecento including Duccio, Ugolino, the Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini, Fei also looked to the art of his closer contemporaries, Bartolo di Fredi and Andrea Vanni, as he developed his own style. First recorded as a painter in 1369, Fei's earliest secure works date from 1381. His name is mentioned in the 1389 register of painters enrolled in the Breve dell'Arte, and between 1395 and 1400 he is documented as working in the Siena Cathedral. Although he is known to have undertaken major public commissions, Fei's extant oeuvre mainly consists of small, exquisitely-wrought panels for private devotion, of which the present work is an important example.
This The Madonna Nursing the Christ child is a characteristic work by Fei, and a remarkable survival in its original engaged and richly decorated frame, inlaid with small cabochon stones and medallions of reverse-painted glass, or verre églomisé. Elements of the frame, as well as Mary's ornate fleur-de-lis crown, have been crafted in pastiglia and gilded to enhance the glittering, sumptuous effect. The crown, which presents Mary as Queen of Heaven, underscores the regal tone of the image, as do her sumptuous jewelry and extravagant garb, embellished with delicate borders and exquisite brocade. Mary's deep blue cloak is patterned with golden stars, a reference to her ancient title of 'Stella Maris', or 'Star of the Sea', which signified hope and guidance for worshippers.
In contrast to the slender, stoically expressionless Madonna, the plump Christ child and reaches playfully for his own foot. Like his mother, he looks outwards to engage the viewer directly as he suckles. The Nursing Madonna, or Madonna Lactans, is one of the oldest cult images of Mary, appearing frequently in Trecento Italian painting and remaining popular in Europe into the early 16th century. The particular iconography of the Nursing Madonna reflects the newfound interest in Christ's human life, emphasizing Mary's status as Holy Mother and underscoring her role in the nourishment of Christ, a central tenet of the dogma of Mary's motherhood and crucial to Christian theology.
The iconography of the Nursing Madonna was popularized in Tuscany by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, whose surviving work of that subject (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena), with its kicking, squirming Christ child, halfway turned to confront the viewer, is datable to c. 1325 and may indeed have inspired the present work. Ambrogio Lorenzetti was of particular influence in Fei's early career. Indeed, the present painting closely resembles a group of pictures depicting the Nursing Madonna considered to date from Fei's formative period, prior to 1390: one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inv. 41.190.13), also preserved in its original frame; a second from the Siena cathedral; and a third formerly in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu (sold Christie's, New York, 21 May 1992, lot 20).
The fleur-de-lis motifs in the Madonna's crown led Ferdinando Bologna (loc. cit.) to suggest that the present work may have been ordered for a member of the house of Anjou, rulers of Naples, for whom Simone Martini himself had worked over a half-century earlier. In Bologna's words, this 'most beautiful Madonna del Latte' ('bellissima Madonna del Latte') by Paolo di Giovanni Fei is 'a masterpiece of the earliest years of the Quattrocento' ('un capolavoro di anni non posteriori agile inizi del Quattrocento') (loc. cit.).
(fig. 1) Paolo di Giovanni Fei, Madonna and Child, bequest of George Blumenthal, 1941 (41.190.13). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ©: Art Resource, NY.