Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
In a pale, biscuit-coloured terracotta, the angels wear robes glazed in white, with stoles in deep blue, collars and armbands glazed in yellow, and wristbands glazed in white and green. Their heads, their hands and their sleeves are unglazed, and there are substantial traces of white paint on these areas. At the back of each is the inventory number of the Liechtenstein Collection, "F.198", painted in red, and the right-hand angel also has the number "260" painted twice on its back.
When in the Liechtenstein Collection the angels were ascribed to Giovanni della Robbia (1469-1529), and this ascription was reiterated by Heinemann. However, in the light of more recent studies by Pope-Hennessy of the productions of Andrea della Robbia and his workshop, which have established sounder criteria, it is clear that they are late products of Andrea´s workshop. They are components of a lunette, of a type established by Andrea probably early in the last quarter of the 15th century, in which they might have flanked a seated group of the Virgin and Child, a saint, or a half-length figure of God the Father blessing, and which might have been placed above a doorway. Such lunettes were fired in interlocking sections and assembled in situ, and the two angels have been salvaged intact from one which was dismantled; each carries a part of the background of the lunette, and their wings and haloes would have been carried on separate sections. An early lunette of this type is that above the altarpiece of the Madonna della Cintola in the church of S. Maria degli Angeli at La Verna, made by Andrea della Robbia probably around 1480, in which adoring angels flank a figure of God the Father. Similar adoring angels can be seen in later lunettes above doors by Andrea, at Pistoia over the doorway into the cathedral, where they flank the Virgin and Child (1505), and at Viterbo above the two lateral doorways of the façade of S. Maria della Quercia, where they flank respectively the half-length figures of St. Peter Martyr and St. Thomas Aquinas (1507-1508).
The angels were heavily worked up in the damp clay between moulding and firing, and it is clear that each was worked up by a different hand, the treatment of the left-hand one being comparatively perfunctory and coarse, if perhaps more vigorous, and that of the right-hand one being notably more sensitive and punctilious, if more timid. Neither has the qualities that one would expect in a work by Andrea himself, and both must be the work of assistants of varying degrees of sensitivity. In their handling, especially in the highly elaborated treatment of their hair, they correspond closely with the two standing angels by assistants that flank the tabernacle in Andrea's late altarpiece in S.S. Apostoli, Florence (1512).
The angels are unusual for their class in being only partially glazed. They are also exceptional for their size, being some 15-20 cm taller than even the very large angels of the lunette at Pistoia. A fragmentary head of God the Father in the Victoria and Albert Museum is on the same scale and is also only partially glazed, the hair, the face and part of the drapery being left bare. It has the same green and yellow glazes on part of the robe, and the fragment of background adhering to it has a light blue glaze identical to that on the sections of background attached to the angels. As noted by Pope-Hennessy, it must be a fragment of a half-length figure of God the Father from a lunette from the workshop of Andrea della Robbia. As such, it would typically have been flanked by figures of adoring angels of the type of the present angels. A close analogy for its style is to be found in the figure of God the Father flanked by angels in the lunette of an altarpiece from the workshop of Andrea della Robbia in the church of S. Pietro at Radicofani. The handling of the Victoria and Albert Museum head, especially in the treatment of the hair, is notably close to that of the Thyssen-Bornemisza angels. It seems possible that it came from the same dismantled lunette as these: if not, it must have come from a closely analogous one produced during an identical late phase of activity in Andrea's shop.