x Triptych of Perugia (Marzolini Triptych) – Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria

Master of the Perugia Triptych

active in Perugia c. between 1275 and 1300

Triptych of Perugia (Marzolini Triptych)


With a wealth of iconography and the highly sophisticated style of its artist, this tabernacle has a strong didactic and descriptive vocation. The central panel depicts the ‘Affectionate Madonna’ (Glikophilousa), with Mary holding on her lap a playful Jesus, standing in a pose known as ‘walking’. The stories told on the doors, like the scenes that follow one after another in an illustrated book, are episodes inspired by the canonical and apocryphal Gospels, each complete with an explanatory inscription. The oldest reports link this painting to the Sant’Agnese nunnery of the Poor Clares in Perugia, although it was actually founded in 1296, some years after the painting was executed. The presence of the figures of Saint Francis and Saint Clare on the external sides of the doors nevertheless confirms that its original provenance should be sought among the Franciscans and most probably in a female foundation, because it was in the nunneries established by the Poor Clares in the second half of the thirteenth century that the model of the tabernacle with opening doors was most widespread. This therefore undermines the veracity of the hypothesis that identified the painting’s original home in the church of the Knights Templar of San Bevignate in Perugia, based on the saltire cross visible in the scene of the Presentation at the Temple. The panel was presented to the public for the first time at the Exhibition of Ancient Umbrian Art in 1907, when it was given the name by which it is still sometimes known today by Monsignor Marzolini, then its owner. The artist, whose identity is still unknown, is considered to have been one of the most sophisticated painters of thirteenth-century Umbria, here achieving sublime results in his interpretation of the ‘lingua franca’ that incorporated elements of the Oriental art that had travelled the maritime routes of the Mediterranean to reach Italy from the Holy Land. One interesting feature worth noting among the range of lively stories about Christ is the scene of the Temptation in the Desert, where the Devil is depicted with feathered wings, a legacy of the iconography depicting him as a fallen angel that had preceded the one still in use today, which shows him with ribbed wings, much like those of a bat.

Triptych of Perugia (Marzolini Triptych)
tempera on panel
172 x 211 cm
Hall 1
Inv. 877.0
Madonna and Child enthroned; panels, inside: Stories from the Life of Christ; outside, left: Saint Francis; right: Saint Clare

Art-historical notes

In addition to its wealth of references to Middle Eastern taste, there are several details in the representation of the Madonna and Child painted by the Master of the Perugia Triptych that capture our attention: the intimate relationship between mother and child… the Christ Child rests his right cheek against the face of the Madonna and caresses her neck, while his mother holds him in a tender close embrace. The painting’s sacred nature slips into the background for a moment when we realise that Christ’s pose as he stands on his mother’s knee is not formal, but the happy kicking typical of a contented infant. The lively narrative of the images in this tabernacle continues in the two doors at the sides, each of which functions like an illustrated book to tell nine stories from the life of Christ. There is a curious detail in the ninth scene, the one where Satan tempts Christ in the desert: the devil has feathered wings. This is a legacy from an iconography in which Satan was still seen as a fallen angel: the representation that persists today, in which Satan’s wings are similar to those of a bat, had not yet taken hold at the time. We still do not know who the Master of the Perugia Triptych was, but he is considered to be one of the most sophisticated painters of thirteenth-century Umbria. One of the characteristic traits of his style of painting is his ability to include with such skill the elements of eastern art that reached Umbria from the Holy Land, travelling along the shipping routes of the Mediterranean.

Convent of Sant’Agnese

Accessible description

The tabernacle comprises three panels: the central one, topped by a cusp, and a door on either side. All three of the panels are painted on a golden background.

The central panel depicts the Madonna and Child. The clothing of both figures and of the floral decorations at their feet are painted in a bright and bold red colour. The Madonna holds the Child on her knee, enclosing him in a tender embrace with both arms. The Christ Child is standing gently and resting his right cheek against the face of the Madonna, while he touches her neck delicately with his left hand. 

Each of the two side doors is divided into nine small frames that tell stories from the life of Christ. Each story is accompanied by an explanatory inscription in black on a red background (making them difficult to read).

These are the scenes shown on the door on the left, from the top: 

  • the Archangel Gabriel prepares for the Annunciation;
  • the Madonna visits Saint Elisabeth;
  • the Nativity;
  • the Adoration of the Magi;
  • the Presentation of Christ at the Temple;
  • the Flight into Egypt;
  • Christ among the Doctors in the Temple;
  • the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist;
  • the Temptation in the Desert, with Christ resisting the Devil.

On the rear (outside) of this door is a painting of Saint Francis. 

There are other scenes shown on the door on the right, from the top:

  • the Virgin receives the Annunciation;
  • Judas kisses Christ, while the apostles look on;
  • the Flagellation of Christ;
  • the Crucifixion;
  • the Deposition from the Cross, with the Madonna lamenting as she collapses on her son’s body;
  • the Visit of the three Marys to the Sepulchre, where they find that Christ is no longer there (“Non est hic”);
  • Mary Magdalene kneels at the feet of the risen Christ after recognising him (“Noli me tangere”);
  • the Ascension of Christ into Heaven;
  • Pentecost.

On the rear (outside) of this door is a painting of Saint Clar