Ugolino di Nerio (1280? – 1349) was active in his native city of Siena and in Florence between the years 1317 and 1327.
He was a follower of Duccio di Buoninsegna, from whose Maestà some of his scenes are clearly derived. He was a leading master who contributed to the spread of Sienese painting in Florence by earning commissions to paint in the two main basilicas there, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce. Ugolino’s major work was the altarpiece for the church of Santa Croce in Florence.
Nerio was born around 1280 in Siena to a family of painters. His father as well as his siblings, Guido and Muccio, were artists. His only signed work is his altarpiece for the main altar of Saint Croce, dated around 1325; the signature has been lost but is recorded by Vasari. The work was moved from the main altar in 1566 to make way for a ciborium designed by Vasari, and it was broken up and the surviving parts sold to W. Young Ottley, an English collector. Today the panels are scattered in several museums around the world; the National Gallery, London has eleven. Studies of this work have resulted in it being reconstructed.
He emerges as an independent master around 1315, with some early paintings like the Madonna Contini Bonaccossi in the Pitti Palace, in a style drawn from that of Duccio, but from about 1320 aa distinct mature style emerges, spiritual and elegant. His choice of brighter colours is perhaps influenced by Simone Martini. The altarpiece for Santa Croce was the most important commission in a series of works that the Franciscans entrusted to him; at least eight polyptychs have survived in parts. Other important polyptychs are in the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. His best known Madonna is in the Chiesa della Misericordia, San Casciano in Val di Pesa and there is one in the Louvre (illustrated above).
According to Vasari Ugolino di Nerio died in Siena.
The Santa Croce Altarpiece
This series of paintings comes from a group of panels which formed the predella, of the high altarpiece at Santa Croce, Florence. The early Italian High Altar by Ugolino di Nerio for Santa Croce, the great Franciscan church of Florence, is well-documented. With at least thirty-five sections in all, this massive altar was painted and erected c. 1325-30. These panels recall Duccio’s sense of style and organization, as Ugolino was still working with Byzantine line and colour. The altar was dismantled shortly after 1566 and moved to the church’s dormitory. By the 1830s, most of its panel had been sold. Now the surviving panels are scattered among museums and private collections. The central panel, which depicted the Madonna and Child and was signed by Ugolino, is now lost.
The Last Supper
This painting of the Last Supper formed part of the predella of the now dismembered altarpiece.
The Betrayal of Christ
The Roman Soldiers have come to arrest Christ. At the centre Judas betrays Christ with a kiss as described in the New Testament (Matthew 26: 47-52). On the left Saint Peter cuts off the ear of Malchus. The scene takes place at night; illumination is provided by the torches held aloft.
This panel formed the second scene after the ‘Last Supper’ (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection) in the predella of the high altarpiece of S. Croce, Florence. The altarpiece was probably paid for by the Alamanni family, whose coat of arms was originally on it.
Joseph of Arimathea (?), on the ladder, lowers the dead Christ from the cross. The Virgin, accompanied by the Maries, embraces him. Saint John the Evangelist supports Christ on the right, while Nicodemus (?) removes a nail from his feet. This incident is not described in the Gospels.
This panel formed the fifth of the seven scenes of Christ’s Passion in the predella of the high altarpiece of S. Croce, Florence.
The composition is similar to that of the same subject in Duccio’s Maestà (Siena, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).
This three-quarter-length depiction of the Old Testament prophet shows him holding a scroll in his left hand and looking to the left. The inscription derives from his prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), which was interpreted as predicting the birth of Jesus.
This panel formed the second pinnacle from the left of the high altarpiece of S. Croc
Saint Simon and Saint Thaddeus (Jude)
Saint Simon on the left, holds a book, while Saint Thaddeus, who turns to the right, holds a knife. Three unidentified heads are depicted between decorative motifs in the band of quatrefoils below.
This panel formed the second section from right of the upper tier, below the pinnacles of the high altarpiece of S. Croce, Florence. It was placed beneath the pinnacle depicting Jeremiah and above Saint Francis in the main tier. The tier from which it came showed mainly apostles.
Saint Bartholomew and Saint Andrew
Saint Bartholomew, at the back, holds a scroll in his left hand and blesses (?) with his right, revealing an ornate garment beneath his cloak. Saint Andrew, at the right, holds a book.
The panel formed the third section from the left, below the pinnacles, of the high altarpiece of S. Croce, Florence. It was above a depiction of Saint Paul in the main tier below ‘David’.
Christ steps triumphant out of the tomb while four soldiers sleep in the foreground. New Testament (Matthew 28: 2-4). He holds the banner of the Resurrection with a red cross on a white ground.
Ugolino di Nerio, Madonna and Child with a Donor, about 1335, San Casciano Val di Pesa, Santa Maria del Prato.
 Davies, Martin. In: “National Gallery Catalogues: Catalogue of the Earlier Italian Schools”. National Gallery Catalogues, London 1961, reprinted 1986, pp. 108-113.
 David Bomford; Jill Dunkerton, Dillian Gordon, Ashok Roy, Jo Kirby (10september 1989) (in english) Italian Painting before 1400, London: National Gallery Publications, p. 101
Original publication: Art in Toscany