The attribution to Matteo di Giovanni was first proposed by F. Mason Perkins and Professor G. de Nicola, Director of the Bargello Museum, Florence, who linked the physiognomy of the Madonna in the present composition with that of a Saint Barbara in San Domenico, Siena. The attribution has recently been reconfirmed by Dr. Laurence Kanter (written communication, 10 November 2004).
Matteo di Giovanni's large surviving oeuvre exemplifies the development of Sienese painting in the fifteenth century from an emphasis on line and pattern to an early interest in the innovations of contemporary Florentine art. It has been suggested that he was first influenced by Umbrian painting of the mid-fifteenth century, but he was already active in Siena by the early 1450s. This was a decade of transition in the artistic life of the city after the death of Sassetta, Domenico di Bartolo and Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio and before the influx of new ideas during the pontificate of Pius II. Matteo is first documented in Siena in 1452, when he was commissioned to gild an angel carved in wood by Jacopo della Quercia for the Cathedral at Siena. In 1457 he decorated the chapel of San Bernardino there. The modest nature of these projects suggests that he was still an apprentice. In this period he collaborated with Giovanni di Pietro (ii), the brother of Vecchietta, which supports the hypothesis that his early training was in the circle of Vecchietta.
Matteo's first dated work, the signed altarpiece of 1460, the Virgin and Child Enthroned with SS Anthony of Padua and Bernardino and Angels (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena), was recorded in 1478 in the chapel of San Antonio in the Baptistery, Siena. The pairs of angels behind the Virgin recall those in Piero della Francesca's Baptism, which suggests that the Baptism altarpiece was completed earlier. The Siena painting, with its careful depiction of space and sculptural figures, marks perhaps the most intense period in Matteo's artistic career.
Matteo, with masters of the previous generation, Giovanni di Paolo, Sano di Pietro and Vecchietta, was commissioned by Pius II to paint two altarpieces for the Cathedral at Pienza (in situ). The first, the Virgin and Child with SS Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine and Nicholas (1462-4), shows a new element of fantasy, with archaeological overtones, in the throne of the Virgin. The second panel, painted somewhat later and signed, the Virgin and Child with SS Catherine, John, Bartholomew and Lucy, suggests a broader range of influences, particularly the manuscript illumination of Liberale da Verona, who was in Siena from 1466.
The Virgin and Child with Angels of 1470 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) is still full of youthful freshness and charm, both in the delicate definition of the faces and hands and in the vivacity of the colours. These qualities characterize Matteos work of the 1470s and 1480s, which is full of charm and elegance but has an increasingly narrow vision. In the 1470s he produced some of his most ambitious works, including the Placidi Altarpiece (1476) and the Saint Barbara altarpiece painted in 1479 for the bakers' guild (both San Domenico, Siena), which which the present work has been linked, the Assumption (National Gallery, London) and the Cinughi Altarpiece (Santa Maria della Neve, Siena). All these are ornate compositions of great splendour, with a prevalence of decorative, flat forms, rather than the sense of space and volume found in his early works. He seems to have become increasingly conservative in this period, creating works of undoubted charm but somewhat insular and aristocratic in tone.
In his last phase Matteo made greater use of workshop assistance to execute the increasing number of his commissions. Important works of these years include three versions of the Massacre of the Innocents (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples; Santa Maria dei Servi, Siena), in which his late style is clearly defined. These paintings show the high level of Matteo's final phase, the tendency to abstraction, a recurring interest in fictive bas-reliefs and accents of lively imagination. Among his last works are the Virgin and Child with Saints (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena) for the altar of the Celsi family in Siena Cathedral, the large Saint Michael altarpiece (San Lorenzo, Montepescali) and the Virgin and Child with Saints (Sant'Agostino, Anghiari). The number and importance of Matteo's commissions indicate that he was highly esteemed in his lifetime, although his reputation later was overshadowed by such contemporaries as Francesco di Giorgio Martini.