This triptych'sA 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 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
As for its date of execution, most of the opinions expressed on the matter have accepted van Marle’s (1924) hypothesis. 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. For her part, Monfort Molten (1996) placed the Gallery panels among the works of Martino di Bartolomeo postdating 1410. She argued, however, that in the Gallery triptych “there is less affinity with the elegant and graceful qualities of the Saint Barnabas altarpiece, or with the Palazzo Pubblico Triptych.” 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.
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 oratorySmall chapel or building for private prayer and, by extension, a faldstool (cushioned stool) at which a worshipper kneels for prayer.
—Grove Art © Oxford University Press of San Giovanni Battista at Cascina, undoubtedly executed with the help of assistants but proudly signed as an autograph work and dated 1398, propose very schematic compositions and evince signs of some haste in execution, testifying to a quality that cannot be said to be outstanding. The 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 now in the Museo Nazionale in Pisa, also signed by Martino and dated five years later, 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. In the polyptych dated 1408 now divided between the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena and a private collection, 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), 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. 1] Martino di Bartolomeo, Saint Mark, 1425–1426, tempera on panel, private collection. Image: Robilant + Voena, London, Milan & St. Moritz [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Martino di Bartolomeo, Saint John the Evangelist, 1425–1426, tempera on panel, private collection. Image: Robilant + Voena, London, Milan & St. Moritz [fig. 3] [fig. 3] Martino di Bartolomeo, Saint Matthew, 1425–1426, tempera on panel, private collection. Image: Robilant + Voena, London, Milan & St. Moritz [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Martino di Bartolomeo, Saint Luke, 1425–1426, tempera on panel, private collection. Image: Robilant + Voena, London, Milan & St. Moritz, 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, but similar aspects seem to be detectable in the Gallery panels [fig. 5] [fig. 5] Detail of Saint Peter, Martino di Bartolomeo, Saint Peter, with Saint James Major, c. 1415/1420, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Samuel L. Fuller. 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, 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