Angelo adorante (c.1495)

Lippi, Filippino (1457-1504)

Angelo adorante (An Angel Adoring)
Tempera on wood, 55.9 x 25.4 cm
National GalleryLondon

This painting is a damaged fragment of a larger composition by the Florentine painter Filippino Lippi. The original appearance of the complete picture may be echoed in a copy that survives in a private collection, which shows the Virgin Mary with the infant Christ flanked by two angels.

Our fragment contains the angel that would have been originally on the left-hand side. His hands are clasped in adoration of Christ, traces of whom may still be seen around the right edge of the picture. The top of another head, possibly belonging to the young Saint John the Baptist, is visible at the bottom of our painting. A fragment showing the other angel survives in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg. It’s likely that the original painting had become very damaged, and that the owner thought he could make two independent – and saleable – pictures by cutting out the best preserved sections and making them into stand-alone works of art.

The copy of the complete picture is of circular format and it is possible that our picture had the same shape. Circular paintings, known as tondi, were particularly appreciated in Florence, where Filippino established himself as one of the leading painters in the final third of the fifteenth century. Although not unique to Florence, the inclusion of the young Saint John the Baptist is especially common in devotional paintings made for the city. He was both the patron saint of Florence and dedicatee of the city’s most important church, the Baptistery. Whether circular or not, our painting is likely to have been made as an aid for prayer in a Florentine household.

Nothing is known about the painting’s original whereabouts. It is first documented in the nineteenth century, before the English politician Wynn Ellis acquired it. Well known as a liberal MP for Hertford and a political rival of the later Prime Minister Robert Peel, Ellis amassed a considerable fortune in the silk trade. The proceeds allowed him to buy more than 400 paintings by contemporary artists and old masters. They were the pride of his London home in Cadogan Square.

Ellis died in 1875. While his contemporary paintings were auctioned off at Christie’s, he had stipulated that the old master paintings were to be bequeathed to the National Gallery. They constitute one of the largest single gifts in the history of the institution. Seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, including major works by Jacob van Ruisdael, Jan Both and Nicolaes Berchem, made up the majority of Ellis’s collection. Of the works that aren’t Dutch, many are masterpieces, from Paolo Veronese to Claude and Canaletto. An Angel Adoring was among a small group of early Italian paintings, which also included Piero del Pollaiuolo’s Apollo and Daphne and Rosso Fiorentino’s Knight of Saint John. (NG)