A Pair of Reliefs with the Angel Gabriel and Virgin of the Annunciation, Pisan Master, employee of L

A Pair of Reliefs with the Angel Gabriel and Virgin of the Annunciation

Pisan Master, employee of Lupo di Francesco (Bonaiuto di Michele?)
A Pair of Reliefs with the Angel Gabriel and Virgin of the Annunciation

Antique Carrara marble, 1st – 2nd century A.D.
Italy, Pisa, c. 1320 – 1325


Angel Gabriel

47 cm; 1 ft. 6½ in.
30.5 cm; 1 ft.
20 cm; 7 ⅞ in.


47 cm; 1 ft. 6 ½ in.
30 cm; 11¾ in.
18 cm; 7⅛ in.


Private collection, Spain
Private collection, Spain

Related literature

G. Kreytenberg, ‘Drei Reliefs in Pizzighettone, die Pisaner Skulptur 1320-1340 und eine Frage nach Bonaiuto di Michele’ in Studi di Storia dell’Arte, Vol. 25 (2014), pp. 23-36
G. Kreytenberg, ‘Ein unpubliziertes Fragment vom Grabmal für Kardinal Luca Fieschi von Lupo di Francesco und ein neuer Vorschlag zur Rekonstruktion des Monuments’ in Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Band LVI (2014), Heft 2, pp. 152-169
J. Polzer, ‘S. Maria della Spina, Giovanni Pisano and Lupo di Francesco’ in Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 26 (2005), no. 51, pp. 9-36
R. Bartalini, Scultura gotica in Toscana. Maestri, monumenti, cantieri del Due e Trecento, (Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo, Milano, 2005)
G. Kreytenberg, Andrea Pisano und die toskanische Skulptur des 14. Jahrhunderts (Bruckmann Verlag, München 1984)

These two extraordinary marble reliefs depicting the Annunciation to the Virgin are fascinating examples of the appropriation in early gothic Tuscany of ancient architectural elements and the conversion of classical remains into Christian works of art.

Technical analysis of the marble blocks reveals the material to be Carrara in origin and dating from the 1st – 2nd century. The lower four-fifths of the reverses of the reliefs are roughly carved with protruding sections (one with a deep cavity) and flat finely chiselled strips next to the outer edges. The upper fifth of the blocks comprises the ends of two ornamental bands (one with acanthus leaf), both of which are framed by small leaf friezes. Ornamental marble blocks of this type were used in Roman buildings as pendants as part of ceiling structures. The Romans built temples, basilicas, baths and theatres in many places around the Mediterranean with Carrara marble having been used more in the western Mediterranean. In all these locations such buildings were used as marble and stone quarries in post-ancient times. For example, it is known that in 1324 Robert of Anjou, King of Naples, instructed his vicar in Rome, to procure marble for the tomb of his daughter, Catherine of Austria, and again in 1325, for the tomb of his mother, Mary of Hungary. The use of ancient marble as spolia continued throughout the middle ages, the medieval representations of the reworked material often providing, as with the present reliefs, an indication of the location where the stone or marble was first used and its original purpose or function.

The two reliefs are consistent in material and dimension. The two figures together represent the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to her to reveal that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God. Both the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin are shown within the same tabernacles, framed by pilasters and pinnacles. The middle pilasters and the spire above are divided. The slopes of the gables rise between the pinnacles, which are adorned with ‘crab’ decoration, ending in a finial. Triangular depressions are recessed in the spandrels on the pediments. A base plate on which the tabernacles and the figures stand runs through both reliefs clearly separated from the lower border. A simply bevelled frame encloses both tabernacles in such a way that the one to the Virgin’s left and that to the Angel’s right respectively do not interfere with the framework or impact on the background. It is clear that there is no middle section of the representation missing and that the two blocks were intended to and do form a composite whole. At approximately 47 cm high and 60 cm wide, the work is of small size and is likely to have been designed for private devotion or commissioned for a family chapel as a sculpted ‘altarpiece’.

The Angel Gabriel stands almost in profile with a very slight twist to the side. The right arm is stretched out, the hand raised with index and middle fingers in a greeting and blessing gesture, the left arm held tightly to the body, holding the drapery of the cloak, the long sleeves gathered. With the right leg bent, the crease of the knee visible beneath the cloak, the right toe emerges from underneath the folds which fall to the ground. A straight deep crease extends down the Angel’s robe in a heavy cascade from beneath the left hand. Between the right arm and right knee, three ‘bowl’ folds fall within each other. The head of round shape inclines forward slightly, a mane of hair falling over the neck and down the back. The Angel Gabriel looks toward the Virgin, his small, closed mouth offering a friendly smile, his two large wings with long beautiful tail feathers displayed in all their splendour.

His momentous message having just been delivered, Mary, head erect and tuned slightly in the direction of the Angel, does not look at him, her arched brows demarcating the eyes from the forehead. With small nose and closed small mouth, her expression is serious and introspective as she digests the enormity of the proclamation made. The Virgin is wrapped in a dress with long sleeves and a cloak which covers her head. Her right hand placed on her upper breast, a devotional motion to God, her left hand holds the book she had been reading, now closed. Over the left forearm, the fabric of her cloak gathers, hanging in folds. A straight deep fold splits the cascade of fabric from the right leg, both toes visible from underneath the garment. Under both arms drape ‘bowl’ folds of cloth.

The sculptor has not sought, deliberately so, to replicate precisely the organic or anatomical structure of his figures. And so, for example, we see the right toe of Mary from underneath the fabric folds sitting in a straight line with the left foot. The two figures and the tabernacles are relatively crudely carved and, although smoothed, are not finely polished. The form of the figures speaks nevertheless in the most powerful of artistic language, clearly that of a master craftsman. Kreytenberg is of the opinion that the four angels from the tomb of the Conti della Gherardesca, today in the Camposanto of Pisa, are the works closest stylistically to the present reliefs. The squat proportions of the figures are consistent as are the round shapes of the heads and the facial features. So too, the steep deep fabric fold from the right foot to the left hand side of the two relief figures is found in the angel with the raised right hand from the Gherardesca monument. In this figure, and in the angels holding a ball in the left hand, can be seen also the graduations of ‘bowl’ fabric folds similar to those present in the drapery of the figures of the present Annunciation. Like our relief figures, the surfaces of the garments of the angels of the Gherardesca tomb are chiselled smooth but are not polished.

The study of Pisan sculpture produced between 1320 – 1340 remains a difficult subject area with the identification of artisans having proved the subject of considerable debate. One matter is, however, now clear: that Lupo di Francesco was the most important sculptor of this period. Born between 1285 – 1290 and influenced in his formative years by Giovanni Pisano to whom he was apprenticed, this master craftsman has been assigned various names over the course of the last century including the ‘Maestro dei Tabernacoli’, the ‘Maestro del sepolcro Gherardesca’, the ‘Maestro del pulpito di S. Michele in Borgo’, the ‘Maestro dell' Arca di S. Eulalia’ and the ‘Maestro della tomba Fieschi’. Due in large part to the relatively recent scholarship of Polzer (op. cit.) the prominence of Lupo di Francesco has become clearer as has the fact that many of the ‘masters’ of the period were really ‘extensions’ of the man himself, either directly associated with him or his workshop or engaged by him, the master invariably utilising his workshop or other highly skilled staff to complete his commissions. The ‘Maestro degli angeli Gherardesca’ and the Master of our Annunciation are properly to be identified and classified as direct employees of Lupo di Francesco.

The identification of the sculptor likely to have carved our relief can be made with a reasonable degree of confidence. It appears very probable that Bonaiuto di Michele, a highly talented master in his own right, was employed by Lupo di Francesco, at least on a temporarily basis. Kreytenberg (op. cit.) has recently attributed to him three extraordinary reliefs – the Annunciation, the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi – in Saint Bassiano, Pizzighettone, Cremona, works likely to have been created around the mid-1330s, following the 1331 fire and subsequent restoration of the Church of the Annunciation in Milan. The figures of the present Annunciation share with those in Pizzighettone the round shape of the heads and the facial features. In terms of proportion, the figures are, however, more like those of the angels from the Gherardesca tomb, suggesting a relatively early date of c. 1320 – 1325.

Significantly, in 1315, both Bonaiuto di Michele and Lupo di Francesco worked on the tomb for Emperor Henry VII as part of the workshop of Tino di Camaino, the virtuoso of early 14th century Tuscan sculptors. It is fascinating to note that both Lupo and Bonajuto are listed on 14 January 1318 in the same payroll book for the construction of the Pisa Cathedral (as 1. and 18. respectively) recording their individual daily wages. As director of building works, Lupo di Francesco earned twice as much as Bonaiuto. He was also the superior of Bonaiuto and likely therefore to have been older. A further example of the sculpture of Bonaiuto di Michele is found above the south portal of the Palazzo Sclafani in Palermo in the form of a flat tabernacle with heraldic emblems and a powerful console supporting an eagle with outstretched wings holding a rabbit in its claws, this work having been sculptured in 1330. Court documents show that Bonaiuto di Michele was present in Pisa in 1340. He was ‘capomaestro’ of the Pisa Cathedral between 1344 and 1348, before quite likely falling victim to the great plague of 1348.

The condition of the present reliefs is excellent with minor imperfections only, the tabernacles and figures being well preserved.

We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Gert Kreytenberg, former Professor of Art History, Kunstgeschichtliches Institut, Ruhr-Universität, Bochum, for confirming the attribution to a Pisan Master and employee of Lupo di Francesco and for suggesting Bonaiuto di Michele as the probable sculptor of this work.

A report on analysis from the Institut Català d’Arqueologia Clàssica, Unistat of d’Estuds Arqueomètrics, Tarragona, indicates that the marble was quarried in Carrara in the 1st – 2nd century A.D.