Not currently on display at the V&A

The Birth of the Virgin

Mosaic
1365 (made)
Artist/Maker
Place Of Origin

These mosaic panels, based on a design by Ugolino di Prete Ilario (active 1357, died after 1403) were originally displayed high above a doorway on the west front of Orvieto Cathedral. They were part of a larger decorative scheme. The large central panel of the Birth of the Virgin is flanked with panels showing the prophets Nahum and Isaiah. The mosaics at Orvieto have been restored many times over the centuries. These panels were removed during restoration in 1786 and replaced with a copy.


object details
Category
Object Type
Materials and Techniques
Mosaic
Brief Description
Mosaic, the Birth of the Virgin, by Friar Giovanni Leonardelli (active 1360-70) based on a design by Ugolino di Prete Ilario (active 1357, died after 1403), from Orvieto Cathedral, (Italy), 1365
Dimensions
  • Height: 342cm
  • Width: 277cm
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries
Marks and Inscriptions
JOANNES ET UGOLINUS DE URBEVETERI MCCCLXV
Object history
This mosaic is from Orvieto Cathedral in central Italy, displayed over the right-hand doorway of the west front of the cathedral. An inscription tells us that this was the work of Giovanni Leonardelli and Ugolino di Prete Ilario, which they dated 1365. Leonardelli was a Franciscan friar who worked as a mosaicist at Orvieto from March 1360 to September 1370, and di Prete Ilario was a painter who provided a cartoon on which this mosiac was based. The composition is very similar to that of a fresco of the same scene that di Prete Ilario produced between 1370 and 1377 for the choir of Orvieto Cathedral.
Historical context
Here we see represented in mosaic the birth of the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ. Mary's mother was St Anne, the figure reclining on the bed that bisects the mosaic. In the sky above are the prophets Nahum and Isaiah. Isiah prophesised the coming of Christ with the words 'A young woman is with child and she will bear a son.'



Nahum, meanwhile, is a prophet mentioned only once in the entire Bible (Nahum 1:1). His Hewbrew name, the shortened version of Nehemiah, means 'to comfort' or 'to console', and is a symbolic figure intended to comfort and console the oppressed and afflicted people of Judah. St. Jerome located the birthplace of Nahum ("Comment. in Nah." in P. L., XXV, 1232), to Elkozeh, in northern Galilee, but the significance of Nahum is more as a cosoling figure for the suffering people to which Mary and Anne belonged, and a hint of glorious future to come.



As already said, Mary was the daughter of Anne, in whom occured the Immaculate Conception, which refers to the conception of Mary, and not, as is so often supposed, Mary's virgin conception of Jesus by Mary. The Virgin was chosen by God to be vessel of Christ's Incarnation, indeed pre-ordained from the beginning of time, for which reason she alone was free of 'Original Sin' that haunted all other members of humankind. Whether the Immaculate Conception was possible was the subject of fierce debate by medieval thinkers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Dominican Order, among them St Thomas Aquinas, denied the possibility of the Immaculate Conception, but the Franciscans upheld it as fact, and it may therefore be significant that the author of this magnificent mosaic was himself a member of the Franciscan Order. From the later Middle Ages, a number of papal rulings came down on the side of the Franciscans.
Subjects depicted
Summary
These mosaic panels, based on a design by Ugolino di Prete Ilario (active 1357, died after 1403) were originally displayed high above a doorway on the west front of Orvieto Cathedral. They were part of a larger decorative scheme. The large central panel of the Birth of the Virgin is flanked with panels showing the prophets Nahum and Isaiah. The mosaics at Orvieto have been restored many times over the centuries. These panels were removed during restoration in 1786 and replaced with a copy.
Bibliographic References
  • List of Objects in the Art Division South Kensington Museum acquired during the Year 1891. Arranged according to the dates of acquisition, with appendix and indices. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1892. pp. 47
  • Fumi. 'L'Orcagna e il suo preteso mosaico nel museo di Kensington' in Rivista d'Arte. III. 1905. pp. 21-2, 214, 226
  • Fumi. il Duomo di Orvieto e I suoi restauri. 1891. pp. 123-36
  • Van Marle. Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. V. pp. 96-109, 145-6, 152, 159-60, 163-4
  • Harding, Catherine. 'The production of Medieval Mosaics: The Orvieto Evidence' in Dambarton Oaks Papers XLIII. 1989. pp. 73-102.
  • Satolli, Alberto. 'Il mosaico del Duomo al Victoria & Albert Museum' in La Città. September 2000. pp.6-13
  • G. Manieri Elia and Tucker, P. 'Reliquie, rappezzature, falsificazioni: vicende critiche e materiali del mosaico con la Natività della Vergine, già sulla facciata del duomo di Orvieto', in Mercato, patrimonio e opinione pubblica, Ricerche di Storio dell' Arti 73 (2001): 21-36.
Collection
Accession Number
256:1-1891

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record createdNovember 24, 2005
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