The painting represents the martyr saint of Alexandria according to the usual iconographicTerms that refer broadly to the study of subjects and themes in works of art. Iconology, which is based on the results of iconography, is the more wide-ranging and comprehensive. One of the principal concerns of iconography is the discovery of symbolic and allegorical meanings in a work of art.
—Willem F. Lash, Grove Art © Oxford University Press canons of the early fourteenth century in Tuscany: with a crown placed on her blond hair, which is parted over the top of her head and gathered over the nape of her neck, the palm of martyrdom in her left hand and a book that she supports with both hands against the wheel, her instrument of martyrdom, with sharp, denticulated metal spikes along its rim. The image is not self-sufficient. It belonged to a polyptychType of object with several panels, usually an altarpiece, although it may also fulfil other functions. The polyptych normally consists of a central panel with an even number of side-panels, which are sometimes hinged to fold. Although in principle every object with two panels or more may be called a polyptych, the word is normally used as a general term for anything larger than a triptych. As with diptychs and triptychs, the size and material can vary.
—Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press, more particularly a five-part altarpieceAn image-bearing structure set on the rear part of the altar, abutting the back of the altarblock, or set behind the altar in such a way as to be visually joined with the altar when viewed from a distance. It is also sometimes called a retable, following the medieval term retrotabulum. The altarpiece was never officially prescribed by the Church, but it did perform a prescribed function alternatively carried out by a simple inscription on the altarblock: to declare to which saint or mystery the altar was dedicated. In fact, the altarpiece did more than merely identify the altar; its form and content evoked the mystery or personage whose cult was celebrated at the altar. This original and lasting function influenced the many forms taken by the altarpiece throughout its history.
—Alexander Nagel, Grove Art © Oxford University Press, known as the San Cerbone altarpiece [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Reconstruction of the San Cerbone Altarpiece by Bartolomeo Bulgarini (color images are NGA objects): a. Saint Catherine of Alexandria; b. Saint Bartholomew (fig. 4); c. Madonna and Child (fig. 2); d. Saint John the Evangelist (fig. 3); e. Saint Mary Magdalene (fig. 5) (see also Reconstruction), of which the other components are the Madonna and Child [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Bartolomeo Bulgarini, Madonna and Child, c. 1335/1340, tempera on panel, Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca. Image: Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Luca Carrà/Bridgeman Images and the Saint John the Evangelist [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Bartolomeo Bulgarini, Saint John the Evangelist, c. 1335/1340, tempera on panel, Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca now in the Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi in Lucca (nos. 160 and 162), and the panels of Saint Bartholomew [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Bartolomeo Bulgarini, Saint Bartholomew, c. 1335/1340, tempera on panel, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome. Image: Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Art Resource, NY and Mary Magdalene [fig. 5] [fig. 5] Bartolomeo Bulgarini, Saint Mary Magdalene, c. 1335/1340, tempera on panel, Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome. Image: Mondadori Portfolio/Electa/Art Resource, NY, nos. 345 and 346 in the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome. In 1706 Antonio de Brandeglio described the paintings in question, together with the panel now in the National Gallery of Art, as extant in the chapel of the Madonna in the church of San Cerbone in Lucca. But when Michele Ridolfi visited the church in 1845, he found only the central image of the Madonna in the chapel and that of Saint John in the sacristy, while all trace of the other panels had already been lost. They had perhaps been separated and dispersed presumably after 1806, following the Napoleonic suppression of the religious orders.
The five-part San Cerbone polyptych had a rather archaic structure, formed of five rectangular panels [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Reconstruction of the San Cerbone Altarpiece by Bartolomeo Bulgarini (color images are NGA objects): a. Saint Catherine of Alexandria; b. Saint Bartholomew (fig. 4); c. Madonna and Child (fig. 2); d. Saint John the Evangelist (fig. 3); e. Saint Mary Magdalene (fig. 5). The painted surface of each of these panels terminated in an ogival arch, apparently without any figurative decoration in the spandrels to the side of the arch. This type of altarpiece makes it probable that the surviving panels were surmounted by another series of images: perhaps with two above each panel, as in some polyptychs produced in the shops of Pietro Lorenzetti (Sienese, active 1306 - 1345) and of Ugolino di Nerio in the late 1320s and during the following decade, or more probably with a single image above each panel, as in some works of the earliest phase in the career of Bulgarini himself.
As for the attribution of the panel now in the Gallery, it was formerly considered a work by Deodato Orlandi, a leading painter of Lucca in the later thirteenth century, who is known to have painted a Crucifixion dated 1288, formerly in the same church of San Cerbone from which our Saint Catherine came. Adolfo Venturi (1905, 1906, 1907) discarded this attribution and instead gave it, together with the other two components from the same complex with a provenance from the Sterbini collection, to Pietro. The proposal met acceptance from F. Mason Perkins (1905 and 1931), Raimond van Marle (1924), Emilio Cecchi (1930), and George Harold Edgell (1932), and in the volume Duveen Pictures (1941) and various catalogs of the Gallery (NGA 1941, Shoolman and Slatkin 1942, Kress 1945). Emil Jacobsen (1907) and Edward Hutton (1909) reported, but without expressing their own opinion about, the attribution to Pietro, while Ernest DeWald (1929) gave the three former Sterbini panels to a “follower of Segna di Bonaventura.” In 1931, Andrea Péter and Millard Meiss independently recognized the common origin of these paintings with the other two now in the Museo Nazionale in Lucca. Péter, however, detected the collaboration of two different hands in the polyptych; he assigned the two panels now in Lucca to “Ugolino Lorenzetti” (the master to whom he attributed works now generally recognized as belonging to Bulgarini’s initial phase), whereas he saw the intervention of the Ovile Master in the former Sterbini collection panels. For his part Meiss attributed the whole polyptych to “Ugolino Lorenzetti,” into whose catalog he incorporated the works that other art historians label with the conventional name of the Ovile Master. Meiss thought that the altarpiece belonged to a relatively early phase in the master’s output, dating it to c. 1330 – 1340. Van Marle (1934) accepted his proposal, calling the San Cerbone polyptych an example of an intermediate phase between the artist’s early period influenced by Duccio’s art and his later phase, reflecting the influence of Pietro Lorenzetti. Yet Meiss’s subsequent (1936) identification of the anonymous master, Ugolino Lorenzetti, with Bulgarini initially encountered resistance; only after the further clarification of the question, accompanied by the publication of new documentary evidence by Elisabeth H. Beatson, Norman E. Muller, and Judith B. Steinhoff (1986), did the attribution to Bulgarini gain general acceptance.
What still remains problematic is the chronological sequence of Bulgarini’s oeuvre, which is devoid of dated works, apart from the tavole di biccherna. The biccherna panels are difficult to compare with the static figures of far larger dimensions in the polyptychs, and among these the only secure point of reference is the dating to c. 1350 of the San Vittore altarpiece formerly in Siena Cathedral. It may be asserted with some confidence that the San Cerbone polyptych should date to an earlier phase than this, on grounds of style, panel type, decoration, and iconography. It still lacks the softness of modeling and delicate chiaroscuro passages that distinguish the master’s later altarpieces. It also lacks the trefoil-arched moldings of the upper arch and the pastiglia ornament that characterize Bulgarini’s polyptychs around or after the midcentury. The particular motif of the child and the Madonna now in the Museo Nazionale di Villa Giunigi in Lucca, who devotes his undivided attention to his mother, twisting towards her with his whole body, is probably a Lorenzettian invention of the 1330s; it also appears in Bulgarini’s Madonna now in the Museo Diocesano in Pienza. Other paintings associated with this stylistic phase, as already observed in the past, include the fragment of a polyptych with a provenance from Radicondoli (no. 54 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena), where we also find iconographic formulae that are closely related to the figures of Saint Catherine and Mary Magdalene. A similar image of the latter saint is also found in the polyptych of the Berenson Library at the Villa I Tatti near Florence, while a variant of the figure of Saint John in the museum in Lucca recurs in the left lateral of the triptychA picture consisting of three parts. The term denotes both the object itself and its compositional form. As an object, the triptych may vary in size and material, but usually consists of a central panel flanked by wings (or shutters), which may be hinged; as a compositional form it is a tripartite structure, often with an emphasized central element. Although its imagery was, until the 19th century at least, predominantly religious, the object as such was not tied to a specific function.
—Victor M. Schmidt, Grove Art © Oxford University Press from San Bartolomeo at Sestano, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.
This group of works can be safely assumed to have been executed in the same span of years, presumably still in the course of the first half of the century, but after an initial phase in which Bulgarini had produced the nervous, tormented figures of the polyptych formerly in the Museo di Santa Croce in Florence, the triptych from the church of San Giovanni Battista in Fogliano near Siena, or the two apostles of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, just to cite components of altarpieces. In the works of his intermediate period, those to which our Saint Catherine belongs, by contrast, Bulgarini based himself on models developed by Sienese artists in the wake of Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319), and adopted the type of polyptych that had emerged in the third and fourth decade of the fourteenth century. These are all features that differentiate our polyptych both from the artist’s initial phase and from his works dating to the years around and after the midcentury. Consequently a dating to c. 1340 would seem to me most likely for the Saint Catherine in the Gallery and for its companion panels. What these panels have in common is a quest for grandeur, simplification of form, and the expression of powerful emotion, in the spirit of works painted by Pietro Lorenzetti in his early maturity.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016