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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Martino di Bartolomeo/Deacon Saint, with Saint Anthony Abbot [right panel]/c. 1415/1420,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, http://purl.org/nga/collection/artobject/37635 (accessed December 08, 2016).

 

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Overview

This panel, along with two others by the Sienese artist Martino di Bartolomeo (Sienese, active 1393/1434), were part of the same altarpiece. The figures’ solemnity and large bodies are characteristic of Martino’s work. In the central panel, the Virgin and Child touch their pink cheeks together. This kind of representation is called the Virgin Glykophilousa, or “Virgin of Tenderness,” a popular icon in the Byzantine East (glykos is Greek for sweet). Adding to the tender emotion in the figures’ embrace is the soft modeling of their faces and Jesus’s tug at the bodice of his mother’s dress, indicating his desire to nurse. Inset above them is the Blessing Christ.

Originally, this painting appeared to the right of the Virgin and Child. Occupying the upper portion of the panel is Anthony Abbot, identifiable by his hospitaller habit from a religious military order and T-shaped staff. Identifying the saint beneath Anthony Abbot is more difficult. He is apparently young and a deacon, by virtue of his wide-sleeved outer garment called a dalmatic. Because he holds a palm, we also know that he was a martyr. Two candidates for his identity are Saints Stephen and Lawrence. Saint Stephen, in fact, is considered the first Christian martyr. The means by which saints were martyred are typically included in their depictions and make identification possible: Stephen was stoned to death, and Lawrence was grilled over a fire. Since the artist and his patron did not feel such clues were required here, it is possible that the altarpiece originally stood in a church dedicated to the mystery saint.

Entry

This panel was originally part of a triptych that also included Saint Peter, with Saint James Major [left panel] and Madonna and Child, with the Blessing Christ [middle panel]. The image of the Madonna and Child recalls the type of the Glykophilousa Virgin, the “affectionate Madonna.” She rests her cheek against that of the child, who embraces her. The motif of the child’s hand grasping the hem of the neckline of the Virgin’s dress seems, on the other hand, to allude to the theme of suckling.[1] The saints portrayed are easily identifiable by their attributes: Peter by the keys, as well as by his particular facial type; James Major, by his pilgrim’s staff; Anthony Abbot, by his hospitaller habit and T-shaped staff.[2] But the identity of the deacon martyr saint remains uncertain; he is usually identified as Saint Stephen, though without good reason, as he lacks that saint’s usual attributes. Perhaps the artist did not characterize him with a specific attribute because the triptych was destined for a church dedicated to him.[3]

F. Mason Perkins saw the three panels in a private collection in London in 1924 and then published them under the name of Martino di Bartolomeo, thus confirming the attribution formulated by the panels’ owner.[4] The proposal seemed convincing to various scholars but not to the authors of the catalogs of the National Gallery of Art, who, for reasons difficult to explain, registered the attribution to Martino with a margin of doubt; Carol Montfort Molten (1996) also maintained that reservation.[5] Thus, after the publications of Perkins and Raimond van Marle (1924, 1934), only Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri (1972), Mojmir S. Frinta (1998), and Silvia Colucci (2005) have cited the triptych as a work by Martino.[6]

As for its date of execution, most of the opinions expressed on the matter have accepted van Marle’s (1924) hypothesis.[7] He asserted that the triptych should date to c. 1400–1410, probably following the artist’s period of activity in Pisa, which ended in 1405. Fern Rusk Shapley (1979), however, was of the view that if the triptych were indeed an autograph work by Martino, it ought to date earlier than 1403.[8] For her part, Monfort Molten (1996) placed the Gallery panels among the works of Martino di Bartolomeo postdating 1410.[9] She argued, however, that in the Gallery triptych “there is less affinity with the elegant and graceful qualities of the Saint Barnabas altarpiece,[10] or with the Palazzo Pubblico Triptych.”[11] Therefore, this work represented, according to Molten, “something of an anomaly in Martino’s work,” and the circumstance would make probable, in her view, the intervention of a studio assistant.[12]

The doubts about Martino’s authorship of the triptych have never been clearly explained, nor does the judgment of the ostensibly limited qualitative level of the Washington panels seem well founded. It may be admitted that Martino was not one of the leading masters active in Lucca, Pisa, and Siena between the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century. In particular, his frescoes in the oratory of San Giovanni Battista at Cascina, undoubtedly executed with the help of assistants but proudly signed as an autograph work and dated 1398,[13] propose very schematic compositions and evince signs of some haste in execution, testifying to a quality that cannot be said to be outstanding. The polyptych now in the Museo Nazionale in Pisa, also signed by Martino and dated five years later,[14] is finer, but the forms of its robust figures, metallic in sheen and modeled with sharp chiaroscuro contrasts, seem rather far removed from the stylistic features of the triptych being discussed here. So the attempt to insert the Washington panels in Martino’s Pisan phase cannot be found convincing. In those years, Martino seems especially to have based his severe forms on models derived from such masters as Antonio Veneziano and Piero di Puccio. His paintings are filled with figures whose draperies seem starched and whose human grandeur is mainly expressed by physical bulk.

The artist’s style changed after his return to Siena and after his frescoes in the Sala di Balia at the Palazzo Pubblico (1404–1407) in that city.[15] In the polyptych dated 1408 now divided between the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena and a private collection,[16] the painter shows he has resumed contact with the Sienese figurative tradition and especially with Taddeo di Bartolo (who also was involved in the pictorial decoration of the Palazzo Pubblico). Martino’s style now becomes more graceful and more animated. He seeks greater verisimilitude in softer complexions and in the silky fluency of hair and beards, and tries to imbue his figures with greater vitality through more complex and articulated movements. Martino also must have been struck by the imaginative pictorial narratives of Bartolo di Fredi, by now fully attuned to the late ­Gothic style, and possibly he attempted to keep abreast of the figurative language of some painters in the younger generation. 

This must, however, have been a relatively brief phase. In paintings that can be dated to his last decades of life, Martino, without forgetting the experiences of the years between roughly 1405 and 1415, and without wholly rejecting the models proposed by Taddeo di Bartolo (with whom he fell out; indeed, Martino was fined in 1412 for slandering him),[17] seems to return to the ideals he had pursued in his earliest works, abandoning complex poses and simplifying the more animated profiles of his characters. His paintings are once again populated by solemn personages of massive physique, even though he now uses a soft and sfumato chiaroscuro to model their forms and makes some attempt to express the emotions that animate them. These developments are particularly evident in the four busts of the Evangelists [fig. 1] [fig. 2] [fig. 3] [fig. 4], recently (and rightly) proposed as components of the dispersed polyptych from the Sienese church of Sant’Antonio Abate in Fontebranda, formerly signed by the artist and dated 1425,[18] but similar aspects seem to be detectable in the Gallery panels [fig. 5]. The delicate modeling of the flesh parts, the vivacity and tension of the facial expressions, the vigor with which the powerful hands clasp the objects they hold, and the clear-cut definition of the contours of the bodies suggest for these panels a date of execution perhaps slightly earlier than the polyptych of 1425, approximately in the years 1415–1420. They are the products, I believe, of the same phase in which Benedetto di Bindo and Gregorio di Cecco, exponents of the younger generation, were the culturally most advanced painters on the Sienese artistic scene,[19] and in which the very youthful Stefano di Giovanni (known as Sassetta (Sienese, probably 1392 - 1450)) was about to express a full-fledged Renaissance figurative style.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016

Provenance

Private collection, London, by 1924.[1] Samuel L. Fuller [c. 1876-1963], New York;[2] gift 1950 to NGA.

Bibliography
1907
Weigelt, Curt H. "Martino di Bartolomeo." In Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. 37 vols. Leipzig, 1907-1950: 24(1930):181.
1923
Marle, Raimond van. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. 19 vols. The Hague, 1923-1938: 2(1924):590.
1924
Perkins, F. Mason. "Su alcune pitture di Martino di Bartolomeo." Rassegna d’arte senese 18 (1924): 12, repro.
1932
Marle, Raimond van. Le scuole della pittura italiana. 2 vols. The Hague and Florence, 1932-1934: 2(1934):646, 648 n.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 83.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 74, repro.
1972
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 122, 312, 370, 403, 440, 647.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 216, repro.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:302-303; 2:pl. 216.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 251, repro.
1992
Molten, Carol Montfort. The Sienese Painter Martino di Bartolomeo. PhD diss. Indiana University, 1992. Ann Arbor, MI, 1996: 89-90, 260.
1998
Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 326, 408.
2005
Colucci, Silvia. "L’iconografia del crocifisso con i dolenti in umiltà: una questione aperta." In Il Crocifisso con i dolenti in umiltà di Paolo di Giovanni Fei: un capolavoro riscoperto. Edited by Alessandro Bagnoli, Silvia Colucci and Veronica Radon. Exh. cat. Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, 2005: 48.
Technical Summary

This panel and its companions Saint Peter, with Saint James Major [left panel] and Madonna and Child, with the Blessing Christ [middle panel], now separated, originally formed a triptych, each element of which was painted on a single wooden plank with vertical grain. Though severely warped, the panels still maintain their original thicknesses of 3.2–3.4 cm. Margins of bare wood beyond the painted surface indicate that each panel once had an engaged frame. The three panels retain wide margins along the bottom and pointed top. On the two saints the vertical margins were completely removed, while on the Madonna the vertical margins are very narrow. At some point after the panels were cropped, modern pieces of wood were added along the pointed top and the sides of the three panels. 

Fabric patches were applied to the knotholes of the wood before the application of the gesso ground. The pointed arched top of the painted area is decorated on the inside with gilt pastiglia cusps. Half-length figures, framed below by pastiglia arcs, are painted in the spandrels at the top of each panel. The ground and halos were originally silver gilt,[1] though hardly any of the original silver leaf remains, and much of it has been replaced with gold.[2] The gilded areas were prepared with red bole; the gables of the panels, halos, and borders of the garments have punched decoration. The punch marks of the gables are now largely modern restoration. The paint was applied smoothly and thinly. Green underpainting is visible underneath the flesh.[3]

The painted surface is in a fair state of preservation, whereas the wooden support has suffered extensive worm tunneling in the past. The three panels were treated between 1984 and 1989. The treatment revealed a diagonal scratch in the face of the deacon saint and numerous scattered small losses in the painted surface of all panels.[4] Particularly disturbing are the small, now inpainted lacunae around the lips of the Madonna and of the child. The bust of Saint James in the upper part of panel A is very much abraded. In 1993 the frames were replaced. The new frames cover the outer, unpainted edges of the panels and enlarge their dimensions on all sides.