Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64b, The Simon Sainsbury Gallery

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
TitleThe Birth of the Virgin (generic title)
Materials and techniques
Mosaic
Brief description
Mosaic with The Birth of the Virgin and the Prophets Isaiah and Nahum, Giovanni Leonardelli and Ugolino di Prete Ilario, Orvieto, 1365 (with later modifications)
Dimensions
  • Height: 342cm
  • Width: 277cm
Measured for the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries
Marks and inscriptions
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.
Associated object
3125-1912 (Reproduction)
Bibliographic references
  • Luzi, Lodovico. Duomo di Orvieto. Florence: Le Monnier, 1866, p. 43
  • Della Valle, Guglielmo. Storia del Duomo di Orvieto dedicata alla santità di nostro signore Pio Papa Sesto Pontefice Massimo. Rome: I. Lazzarini, 1791, p. 191
  • 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, p. 47
  • Fumi. 'L'Orcagna e il suo preteso mosaico nel museo di Kensington' in Rivista d'Arte 3 (1905): 21-2, 214, 226
  • Fumi, Luigi. Il Duomo di Orvieto e i suoi restauri. Rome: La Società Laziale, 1891, pp. 123-64
  • Perali, Pericle. Orvieto. Note storiche di topografia: note storiche d'arte, dalle origini al 1800. Orvieto: Marsilio Marsili 1919, pp. 278-80
  • Van Marle, Raimond. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting: Volume 5. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1925, pp. 94-96
  • Harding, Catherine. 'I mosaici della facciata (1321-ca. 1390),' in Il duomo di Orvieto, ed. Lucio Ricetti. Rome: Laterza, 1988, pp. 123-38
  • Harding, Catherine. 'The production of Medieval Mosaics: The Orvieto Evidence' in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 43 (1989): 73-102
  • Satolli, Alberto. 'Il mosaico del Duomo al Victoria & Albert Museum' in La Città, September 2000, pp.6-13
  • Ricetti, Lucio. '"Fare di necessità virtù": l'uso delle tessere in ceramica nei mosaici del Duomo di Orvieto nei secoli XIV-XV,' in Mosaics of Friendship: Studies in Art and History for Eve Borsook, ed. Ornella Francisci Osti. Florence: Centro Di, 1999, pp. 61-74, esp. p. 64, fig. 2
  • Manieri Elia, Gulio and Tucker, Paul. '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: sulla circolazione internazionale delle opere d'arte, 1870-1914, ed. Flaminia Gennari Santori and Laura Lamurri, Ricerche di storia dell'arte 73 (2001): 21-36
  • Tucker, Paul. '"Responsible outsider": Charles Fairfax Murray and the South Kensington Museum,' Journal of the History of Collections 14 (2002): 115-37, p. 129
  • Ricetti, Lucio. 'Luigi Fumi: le richerche e gli studi sul Duomo di Orvieto,' in Luigi Fumi: la vita e l'opera nel 150° anniversario della nascita, ed. Lucio Riccetti and Marilena Rossi Caponieri. Selci-Lama: Pliniana, 2003, pp. 195-340, esp. pp. 288-96
  • Bertelli, Carlo. 'The Last Judgment Mosaic: Bohemian Originality and the Italian Example,' in Conservation of the Last Judgment Mosaic: St Vitus Cathedral, Prague, ed. Francesca Piqué and Dusan C. Stulik. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2004, pp. 33-38, esp. pp. 37-38
  • Ricetti, Lucio. 'Leandro Mazzocchi, Filippo Antonio Gualterio, il giovane Luigi Fumi e la scoperta del Medioevo a Orvieto,' in Erudizione cittadina e fonti documentarie: archivi e ricerca storica nell'Ottocento italiano (1840-1880), volume 2, ed. Andrea Giorgi et al. Florence: Firenze University Press, 2019, pp. 721-78, esp. pp. 732-34
  • Manfredi, Carmen Vincenza. 'Cronologia critica del duomo di Orvieto (1280-2019),' in Studi sull'architettura del Duomo di Orvieto, ed. Piero Cimbolli Spagnesi. Rome: Sapienza Università Editrice, 2020, pp. 217-85
Collection
Accession number
256-1891

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Record createdNovember 24, 2005
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