This panel is a type of small altarpiece probably produced for private use, or for a private chapel within a larger church. The saints who flank the Madonna and Child have almost certainly been selected to reflect the devotional interests of a private patron. At the upper left is the Apostle James, whose martyred body, according to tradition, was buried at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, a destination for Christian pilgrims through the ages. Opposite him is Nicholas of Bari, a saint long associated with the festival of Christmas. At the lower left is St John the Evangelist, and to the right is St John the Baptist.
The Christ Child tugs playfully at the Virgin’s veil, and clasps in his right hand a tiny goldfinch (a symbol of the Passion, for the goldfinch was seen to perch and feed on the thorn bush, thus presaging the crown of thorns worn by Christ at the time of his death). The delicate and delightful angels who hover above the Virgin’s head support a golden crown, making this panel not only a representation of the Madonna Enthroned, but also an image of the type known as the Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven).
This panel is in an exceptional state of preservation, with the quality and refinement of the painting suggesting that this is an autograph work, entirely by the hand of Gaddi himself. The panel may be favourably compared with major autograph works such as Gaddi’s Coronation of the Virgin, c.1370, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
Text by Dr Gerard Vaughan from Painting and sculpture before 1800 in the international collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 8.