Embarking on my second teaching practicum at the Getty—a departure from the grandeur of a mid-18th Century French bed in my first assignment—I find myself floating into a Renaissance painting titled “Madonna and Child,” dating back to 1290-1295. At an initial glance, it seems to be a rather typical church piece, the kind that might tempt you to casually stroll past in a museum due to its ubiquitous and overdone subject matter. In my secular life, untouched by the dominance of any particular faith, I pride myself in maintaining a healthy aversion to valuing a woman’s worth based on the status of her virginity or perceived purity.

‘Madonna and Child’ (c.1290-1295) by Master of St Cecilia. Tempera and gold leaf on panel
85 × 66 cm (33 7/16 × 26 in.) Getty Museum. Image Source: Getty

But that’s fodder for another type of post.

Instead, what strikes me is the anonymity shrouding the artist of this painting. Their name hasn’t endured alongside their creation, yet their skill is evident through the attribution of multiple art pieces. Given the Notname (a German term in art history denoting a “contingency name” or “emergency name”) of the “Master of St Cecilia”, the artist is linked to works like the altarpiece of ‘St Cecilia Enthroned’ now housed in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence, after which he was named. Several other works are credited to this master, including one painting at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena— the “Madonna and Child Enthroned with St. Francis,” circa 1315.

‘Madonna and Child Enthroned, with St. Francis’ (c. 1315) by Master of St Cecilia. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, with pointed top. 49-3/4 x 27-1/8 in. (126.4 x 68.9 cm). Norton Simon Museum. Image Source: Norton Simon

The peculiar scale of this piece catches my attention, especially the diminutive portrayal of Saint Francis. His left foot appears to push off against the frame, almost asserting his tangible existence—an intriguing trompe-l’oeil illusion!

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a closer look at both works side by side.

According to the timelines provided by art historians, the Getty piece predates the Norton Simon painting by a good 20 years. I find this earlier work to be a more expertly rendered representation of Mother and Son. Mary exudes a sense of realism and softness, with less defined outlines reminiscent of a cartoon drawing. The shading and highlights on their gowns possess a dynamic quality that infuses the drapery with subtle movement around the elbow that bends toward her heart. Jesus, lightly resting on her other forearm, appears like a sweet infant lovingly reaching up to her as she gently holds his little hand.

Interestingly, the slight loss in realism in the later Norton Simon painting doesn’t appear to be a matter of time, but of stylistic choice. The artist had ample opportunity to include various details, such as the gilded throne and soft red cushion upon which Mary and Jesus sit. There’s even another person present. Saint Francis, on his knees, an expression of sadness washing across his face, prays to them. Notably, the artist even incorporated a European Goldfinch, its head displaying the characteristic red hue (legend has it that as Jesus was being crucified and his captors placed a thorn crown on his head, a goldfinch flew by, plucked a thorn, and Jesus’s blood fell onto its head. A fascinating little tidbit about Christian iconography!) Even more interesting is the way infant Jesus, adorned with blonde curls, sits upright and proud in his mother’s arms, straight as an arrow, distinct from the typical restlessness of an ordinary child. This Jesus is stoic and mature – a thoughtful infant of God.

What initially appeared flat and uninteresting to me has transformed into an exciting revelation. I now recognize the presence of a human being behind these paintings—a creator who envisioned Mary, the epitome of purity, with distinctive features: a long, slim nose, closely-set eyes, and a rounded chin, barely defined by a jawline. The artist has developed a visual grammar to depict the pair. In both paintings, Mary and Jesus are shown 3/4 quarter, leaning into one another. The two Marys stare intently at us, and both showcase robes adorned with a star emblem. The star, I just learned, is a subtle nod to Mary’s epithet as Stella Maris, the Star of the Sea—a title dating back to the early medieval period preceding the early Renaissance. And finally, I notice that every human character depicted has an opaque golden halo around their head, effectively making them more than human. They are divine, so divine that their bodies do not cast actual shadows. These are people just outside of our reach.

The two Madonna and Jesus paintings aren’t drastically different, though. They appear to share a common origin. Whether crafted by the same hand or, at the very least, within the confines of the same workshop, the connection is palpable. What captivates me is the realization that, even 800 years later, someone like myself—someone not particularly religious—can still recognize and appreciate the evident love and meticulous care invested in creating these artworks.

It makes me wish I knew this Master of St Cecilia by name.

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