This panel and its companion, Saint James Minor, originally formed part of an 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 painted on both sides. The side displayed to the faithful presumably showed four stories of Christ flanked by saints and prophets [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Reconstruction of an altarpiece formerly in San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, front side, right portion, by the Master of Saint Francis: a. Prophet Isaiah (fig. 3); b. Deposition (fig. 4); c. Lamentation (fig. 5); d. Saint Anthony of Padua (fig. 6) (see also Reconstruction), while the rear side showed the apostles and Saint Francis, full length [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Reconstruction of an altarpiece formerly in San Francesco al Prato in Perugia, rear side, left portion, by the Master of Saint Francis (color images are NGA objects): a. Saint Francis (fig. 7); b. Saints Bartholomew and Simon (fig. 8); c. Saint James Minor; d. Saint John the Evangelist; e. Saint Andrew (fig. 9); f. Saint Peter (fig. 10) (see also Reconstruction). Of the main side of the altarpiece, which had already been dismembered by 1793, only the components of the right part have survived, namely Prophet Isaiah ([fig. 3] [fig. 3] Master of Saint Francis, Prophet Isaiah, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Museo del Tesoro della Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, treasury of the basilica of San Francesco, Assisi) and Deposition [fig. 4] [fig. 4] Master of Saint Francis, Deposition, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Image courtesy of Former Superintendent BSAE Umbria-Perugia, Lamentation [fig. 5] [fig. 5] Master of Saint Francis, Lamentation, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Image courtesy of Former Superintendent BSAE Umbria-Perugia, and Saint Anthony of Padua [fig. 6] [fig. 6] Master of Saint Francis, Saint Anthony of Padua, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Image courtesy of Former Superintendent BSAE Umbria-Perugia, all three now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia. Nothing has survived of the left part of the dossal, which perhaps showed Jeremiah (or another prophet), the counterpart of Isaiah on the other side, flanked by two other scenes of the Passion and another full-length saint, corresponding to Saint Francis on the back. The centerpiece of the dossal, probably a Madonna and Child, has also been lost. On the back of the dossal, from left to right, were Saint Francis ([fig. 7] [fig. 7] Master of Saint Francis, Saint Francis, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Image courtesy of Former Superintendent BSAE Umbria-Perugia, now Galleria Nazionale dell’ Umbria, Perugia, no. 24); Saints Bartholomew and Simon ([fig. 8] [fig. 8] Master of Saint Francis, Saints Bartholomew and Simon, c. 1272, tempera on panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; see note 1); the two panels being discussed here from the National Gallery of Art; Saint Andrew [fig. 9] [fig. 9] Master of Saint Francis, Saint Andrew, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Image courtesy of Former Superintendent BSAE Umbria-Perugia, in the past erroneously identified with other apostles (Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia, no. 23); and Saint Peter ([fig. 10] [fig. 10] Master of Saint Francis, Saint Peter, c. 1272, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria. Image courtesy of Former Superintendent BSAE Umbria-Perugia, formerly Stoclet collection, Brussels; acquired by the Italian State in 2002 for the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, no. 1393). As for the lost central panel on the rear side, images of the Madonna and Child or Christ Enthroned have been proposed. To the right of the central image, the presence of six other apostles can be assumed; two of them presumably were combined in a single panel, as in the case of the Metropolitan Museum of Art painting. It is likely, lastly, that the seventh figure, the one closest to the central panel, was the apostle Saint Paul.
Both the arrangement of this series of figures, standing under arcades, and their architectural framing were inspired, as Dillian Gordon (1982) showed, by an early Christian sarcophagus formerly kept in the church of San Francesco al Prato (and now in the Oratory of San Bernardino in Perugia); it had been used as the tomb of the Blessed Egidio (Egido), one of the first companions of Saint Francis, who died near Perugia in 1262 and was greatly venerated in that city. Since the same church also housed the large painted crucifix dated 1272 likewise executed by the Master of Saint Francis and now in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, Gordon proposed a similar date for the altarpiece as a whole—a very plausible hypothesis, even if not everyone has accepted it.
As Edward B. Garrison (1949) and other scholars recognized, the altarpiece formerly in San Francesco al Prato should be considered one of the earliest examples of the type of altarpiece classifiable as “low dossal.” Both its large size and the fact that it was painted on both sides suggest that it was intended for the high altar of the church. Its measurements cannot have diverged very much from Jürgen Schultze’s (1961) calculations (0.58 × 3.5 m). Its external profile was probably distinguished by a central gable, whether arched or triangular, placed over the lost central panel, an archaic type that was replaced as early as the last decade of the thirteenth century by the more modern form of multigabled dossals.
The question of the authorship of the work has never been seriously disputed (even though some art historians have preferred to attribute the dispersed Perugian dossal to the workshop of the Master of Saint Francis). Greater uncertainties surround its date. To elucidate the question, some preliminary reflections on the main stages in the painter’s career are needed.
Two plausibly datable works can be of help in this regard. Some have attributed to the Master of Saint Francis the Madonna and Child with an angel frescoed on the north wall of the nave in the lower church of the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi and considered it to have been executed in 1252 or just after. The cycle of narrative frescoes on both walls of the same nave, on the other hand, unanimously has been attributed to the same artist and dated to around 1260. Comparing them with the one securely dated work of the painter, the painted crucifix of 1272 in Perugia, suggests that the elegant, lively figures in the Washington panels—Saint John turning his head to the right, Saint James stepping forward to the left—are closer to the figures of the cycle with stories of Christ and of Saint Francis than to the fragmentary image of the Madonna. With its more summary design and the static poses of its figures, the latter recalls on the one hand the figurative tradition of artists active in the middle decades of the century, such as Simeone and Machilone from Spoleto, and on the other the manner of the German workshop that executed the earliest stained-glass windows in the basilica of Assisi, those of the apse of the upper church.
As new artists joined the enterprise of decorating the basilica at Assisi, however, styles rapidly changed. A transalpine artist of considerable stature must already have been at work there around 1260, introducing stylistic models more closely attuned to the GothicTerm used to denote, since the 15th century, the architecture and, from the 19th century onward, all the visual arts of Europe during a period extending by convention from about 1120 to c. 1400 in central Italy, and until the late 15th century and even well into the 16th century in northern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. The early gothic style overlapped chronologically with Romanesque and flourished after the onset of Renaissance art in Italy and elsewhere. The term gothic is applied to western European painting of the 13th century to the early 15th century. Unlike gothic architecture, it is distinguished more by developments in style and function than in technique, and even in these areas there is considerable national and regional diversity. The applicability of the term to Italian painting is debated, as is its usefulness in accounting for developments in Netherlandish painting from the early 15th century. Contact with Byzantine art was close in the early 13th century, but after c. 1250 survived principally in the Holy Roman Empire and Italy.
—Peter Kidson, Grove Art © Oxford University Press taste in western Europe. Under the guidance of this master the large windows of the transept of the upper church were realized, and among the artists working at his side was the Master of Saint Francis. In the windows assignable to him, the Umbrian artist responded with great sensitivity to the poetic aspirations of his transalpine companion; he repeated some of his ideas and forms both in his own stained-glass windows and in the cycle of narrative frescoes in the lower church, combining them with the rapid gestures and the strong expressive charge characteristic of his own native Umbrian culture. Thus, the stained-glass quatrefoils on the north side of the upper church, characterized by the plastic relief given to the bodies and the harsh vigor expressed in their poses, should be considered the result of a less advanced phase in the artist’s career than the mural cycle. The panel paintings executed for the Franciscan church of Perugia must belong to later years, presumably after an interval of some duration. Here the refined elegance prescribed by the Gothic style is expressed with particular evidence in the lean figures of the two panels with stories of Christ, and also in those with single figures. What is striking in them is the aristocratic refinement of their physiognomic types, their spontaneous and improvised poses, and the capricious undulation of the borders of their mantles [fig. 11] [fig. 11] Detail, Master of Saint Francis, Saint James Minor, c. 1272, tempera on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection. Unfortunately, the few other works known to us do not offer sufficient clues to estimate how long a period of time must have elapsed between the works of the Master of Saint Francis in Assisi and those in Perugia. On the other hand, the virtual identity of the style observable in the crucifix dated 1272 and in the surviving fragments of the altarpiece suggest that the two works must have been executed close to each other in time.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016