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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Bartolomeo Bulgarini/Saint Catherine of Alexandria/c. 1335/1340,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 14, 2024).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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The inscription around the elaborate gold clasp holding her cloak gives her name, but 14th-century viewers would have immediately recognized Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the book she holds and the spiked wheel before her. Legends of the fourth-century Egyptian martyr made her one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages. A beautiful girl from a royal family, she was baptized following a dream in which the infant Jesus gave her a ring. As the bride of Christ, she rejected a temporal marriage to the Roman emperor Maxentius and protested his persecution of Christians. When famous philosophers were sent to convince her of the errors of her faith, she confounded them with her knowledge, but she was still sentenced to be torn apart between spiked wheels. When the moment came, miraculously, the wheels burst into flames, but she was beheaded anyway. Catherine was considered an especially potent intercessor for human prayers, protector of the dying, and patron of students.

This painting was once part of an altarpiece that stood in the church of San Cerbone, in the Tuscan town of Lucca (see Reconstruction). It is the work of Bartolomeo Bulgarini, one of the most renowned painters in mid-14th century Siena, less than one hundred miles from Lucca, where other panels from this altarpiece survive. His style reflects two great Sienese artists of the earlier generation: the decorative brilliance of Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319) and the simple, heavier figures and tender humanity of Pietro Lorenzetti (Sienese, active 1306 - 1345).


The painting represents the martyr saint of Alexandria according to the usual iconographic 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.[1] The image is not self-sufficient. It belonged to a polyptych, more particularly a five-part altarpiece, known as the San Cerbone altarpiece [fig. 1] (see also Reconstruction), of which the other components are the Madonna and Child [fig. 2] and the Saint John the Evangelist [fig. 3] now in the Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi in Lucca (nos. 160 and 162),[2] and the panels of Saint Bartholomew [fig. 4] and Mary Magdalene [fig. 5], nos. 345 and 346 in the Pinacoteca Capitolina in Rome.[3] 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]. 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)[4] and of Ugolino di Nerio[5] 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.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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).[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

What still remains problematic is the chronological sequence of Bulgarini’s oeuvre, which is devoid of dated works, apart from the tavole di biccherna.[14] 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.[15] 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;[16] it also appears in Bulgarini’s Madonna now in the Museo Diocesano in Pienza.[17] 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.[18] A similar image of the latter saint is also found in the polyptych of the Berenson Library at the Villa I Tatti near Florence,[19] while a variant of the figure of Saint John in the museum in Lucca recurs in the left lateral of the triptych from San Bartolomeo at Sestano, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena.[20]

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,[21] the triptych from the church of San Giovanni Battista in Fogliano near Siena,[22] or the two apostles of the Wallraf-­Richartz Museum in Cologne,[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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


on the gilded brooch of the saint's mantle: S.K.A.T.E.R.I.N.A


Monastery of San Cerbone, near Lucca, by 1706 until no later than 1845;[1] possibly Carlo Lasinio [1759–1838] or his son, Giovanni Paolo Lasinio [c. 1796-1855], Pisa; probably Monsignor Gabriele Laureani [d. 1849], Rome;[2] Giulio Sterbini [d. 1911], Rome, by 1905; (Pasini, Rome).[3] (Godfroy [sometimes spelled Godefroy] Brauer, Paris and Nice), by 1921;[4] his estate; (sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 5 July 1929, no. 29); half shares purchased by (Kunsthandel A.G., Lucerne) and (antique dealer, Amsterdam); sold 18 October 1932 to (Julius Böhler, Munich);[5] sold 4 September 1937 to (Duveen Brothers, Inc., London, New York, and Paris);[6] sold 1940 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[7] gift 1943 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The painting is on a single-plank wooden support with the grain running vertically. In 1940 – ​1941, Stephen Pichetto cradled and probably thinned it (the present thickness is 1.2 cm). In addition, the top corners of the panel were cut during this treatment to form the arched shape the panel bears today. However, the top edge of the panel had already been cut down prior to Pichetto’s treatment, truncating the arch of the design.[1] A vertical split runs through the entire painting, passing through the saint’s left eye. The panel was prepared with a layer of gesso, in which the larger outlines of the figure were incised; the gilding, as usual, has a red bole layer underneath. The green underpainting is visible in the shadows of the flesh tones. The paint was thinly applied, with long strokes that follow the contours of the form.

There are a number of paint losses, especially along the abovementioned split. Apparently, the hooked spikes embedded in the rim of the wheel also were damaged: they were probably covered by silver leaf originally;[2] this was later lost or removed, making inpainting necessary in this area. The painting was cropped along its upper edge and taken out of its original frame probably in the seventeenth century.[3] Photographs made before 1905 [fig. 1] show it with the vertical split clearly visible and some small paint losses along the edges.[4] Another photo, made around 1930 [fig. 2], illustrates the painting already cleaned and restored and in a state apparently not very dissimilar to the one following Pichetto’s treatment, during which the painting was cleaned again and varnished.[5]


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"The New Kress Gift to the National Gallery, Washington." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 86, no. 504 (1945): 56.
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Galetti, Ugo, and Ettore Camesasca. Enciclopedia della pittura italiana. 3 vols. Milan, 1951: 3:2482.
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Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 133, 381, 646, 664.
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Bruno, Raffaele. Roma: Pinacoteca Capitolina. Bologna, 1978: 3.
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Altarpiece Reconstruction

Click on any panel in the altarpiece reconstruction below to see an enlarged version of the image. Color reproductions in the reconstruction indicate panels in the National Gallery of Art collection.

Reconstruction of the San Cerbone Altarpiece by Bartolomeo Bulgarini:

a. Saint Catherine of Alexandria
b. Saint Bartholomew (Entry fig. 4)
c. Madonna and Child (Entry fig. 2)
d. Saint John the Evangelist (Entry fig. 3)
e. Saint Mary Magdalene (Entry fig. 5)

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