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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Simone Martini/Saint James Major/c. 1315/1320,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed July 16, 2024).

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This small panel once decorated the predella of an altarpiece along with nine other small portraits of apostles, three of which are in the collection of the National Gallery of Art: Saint Matthew, Saint Simon, and Saint Judas Thaddeus. The brother of the apostle John, Saint James Major was in Jesus’s innermost circle, and one of three witnesses to the Transfiguration and Jesus’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. He was also the first apostle to be martyred, put to death by King Herod (Acts 12:2) just 15 years after he was called by Jesus to serve. But by the time Simone Martini painted this work, another aspect of James’s legend dominated his iconography. He is shown here as a pilgrim, with a scallop-shell banner decorating his walking staff. James Major was said to have preached in Spain, and his body (or that of a man he rescued) was said to have been pulled from the sea covered with scallops. During the Middle Ages, his shrine in Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain was one of Europe’s most important pilgrimage destinations.

Simone Martini (Sienese, active from 1315; died 1344) probably trained in Siena with Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319), and by the time he painted the apostle portraits, he had become one of Europe’s leading artists. Simone displays his delight in sinuous, calligraphic line along the edges of the saint’s hood and tunic. Delicate coloration and almond eyes are also marks of Simone’s hand. His reputation earned the patronage of Robert, king of Naples and Anjou, and the pope, then installed in Avignon, in southern France. Through Simone, the brilliant color and rich patterning of Sienese painting met the graceful, lyrical figures of French Gothic, a marriage that evolved to become the international style, a refined and courtly manner that dominated all of the arts across Europe at the end of the Middle Ages.


This panel and its three companions at the Gallery—Saint Matthew, Saint Simon, and Saint Judas Thaddeus—together with six other busts of apostles [fig. 1] [fig. 2] [fig. 3] [fig. 4] [fig. 5] [fig. 6] [fig. 7] [fig. 8] [fig. 9]  [fig. 10],[1] originally formed part of a polyptych. The ten panels, acquired as a group by Johann Anton Ramboux in the early nineteenth century, remained together until the 1920s, when they were deaccessioned by the Wallraf-­Richartz Museum in Cologne and dispersed. 

The horizontal graining of the wood of the support in all ten panels suggests they are fragments of a predella.[2] The type of predella formed of busts of saints placed below round arches is rather archaic: in fact, it appears in Sienese painting no later than the years around 1320. Subsequently, preference was given instead to the insertion of narrative scenes in the predella; if busts of saints were included in the program, they were usually inserted in circular or mixtilinear medallions surrounded by painted ornamental motifs.[3] The absence from this series of busts of two of the most venerated apostles, Peter and John, may suggest that these panels were already lost at the time of Ramboux’s acquisition of the panels, together with a bust of Christ (or Christ on the Cross) that normally formed the central image of predellas decorated with busts of saints.[4] But it is more likely that the series of apostles in the predella was originally incomplete and that the images of Peter and John were separated from the rest and incorporated in the main register of the altarpiece, as was the case, for example, in Duccio’s Maestà.[5] As for the sequence of the individual figures, it seems probable that the apostles Andrew and James Major would have been placed closer to the center (and hence in a position of particular emphasis), and that the images of Matthew, Thomas, Simon, and Thaddeus would have been placed closer to the two ends.[6]

As for the painter of these busts of apostles, an attribution to the Sienese master Lippo Memmi (Sienese, active 1317/1347) was supported by Ramboux in the catalog of his collection (1862).[7] This was endorsed by the older studies, beginning with Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle (1864) and ending with Louis Gielly (1926).[8] It was only when the ten panels reentered the art market that the more prestigious name of Simone Martini was proposed by Robert Lehman (1928) and then by others.[9] Art historians generally accepted the attribution to Simone, though more often than not with the qualifier “shop of” or “school of” Simone.[10] The catalog of the National Gallery of Art also cited the four panels presented by the Kress Collection as works of “Simone Martini and assistants.” The attribution to Lippo Memmi, however, was never wholly discarded and has more recently been revived.[11] Proposed dates vary between c. 1320 and 1333.[12]

The attempts in recent decades to unite the catalogs of paintings previously assembled respectively under the names of Lippo Memmi and Barna da Siena, as well as under the nebulous formulae “Companions of Simone,” “Lippo and Tederico Memmi,” or “shop of Memmi” have complicated the matter of distinguishing among the paintings executed within the orbits of Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi and have made Lippo’s artistic development difficult to understand.[13] Inextricably linked to this issue, the chronology of the series of apostles discussed here remains equally problematic. To judge from the works signed and dated[14] by Lippo in the years between c. 1323 and 1333, the insertion in his oeuvre of the four busts of apostles in the Gallery seems far from convincing. The softness of the modeling and the spontaneous naturalness of the saints’ gestures recall more readily the manner of his brother-in-law (Simone Martini) than the solemn poses, polished forms, and metallic sheen that often distinguish the works of Lippo himself. 

Of the series of apostles of which the four panels in the Gallery form part, the Saint Andrew now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [fig. 11] has close affinities, both in physiognomic type and in his rather surly expression, with the apostle, presumably Saint Andrew as well, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, unanimously recognized as Simone’s work.[15] The Saint Judas Thaddeus [fig. 12] in the Gallery similarly invites comparison with the image of the same saint in Simone’s polyptych in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo in Pisa.[16] In both images the apostle is presented as a beardless youth who turns towards the arch of the frame with a slight Gothic bend, his head bowed to one side in an attitude of meditation. It cannot be said categorically, however, that the version painted for the polyptych of Pisa around 1319–1320 was the model for the painting in the Gallery, given that the contours of the figure and the drapery folds in the latter are far less agitated, following the stylistic models of previous works by Simone that still fall into the second decade of the century.[17] Comparison with the corresponding figures in the Pisa polyptych remains telling, however, and can also be extended to the representations of Saints Matthew and Simon. Simon is represented as still a young man, with a short, dark beard, while Matthew is a man of middle age in frontal position, with a long, forked beard. Matthew is shown in both paintings in the process of writing his Gospel. Less closely resembling his counterpart in the Washington panel is the Saint James Major of the Pisa polyptych, where we may observe the tendency, absent in the panels discussed here, to present the apostles in movement, to envelop their bodies in voluminous mantles that cast deep folds, and to place sharply foreshortened books in their hands. In the Pisa polyptych the books are in general more voluminous and open, and represented in such a way that some lines of calligraphy are visible. The saints, moreover, often seem to be conversing with one another, accompanying or enforcing their remarks with raised hand or exhibiting an object that not infrequently interrupts the outer contour of the figure, set against the gold ground, as if backlit.

Might the reduced emphasis on agitated rhythms and elegant gestures in the busts of apostles in the Gallery and in their companion panels imply a dating for them prior to the Pisa polyptych? Unfortunately, “objective data” deriving from the use of punch marks help us little in this case, since according to Mojmir S. Frinta’s survey (1998), the punched motifs present in the panels now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art [fig. 11] [fig. 13] [fig. 14] [fig. 15] and the Gallery recur virtually throughout the entire oeuvre of Simone Martini, from the San Gimignano polyptych to the Annunciation in the Uffizi, Florence (1333), and beyond.[18] It might be more fruitful to concentrate attention instead on another aspect, namely the fact that Simone, as far as we are able to judge today, generally avoided the use of the round arch in his altarpieces. This motif appears for the last time in the youthful polyptych from San Gimignano, while in later works the arch, if it is not Gothic, is enriched with small trefoil arches on the inside, as in the Pisa polyptych. Not only is the framing of the National Gallery of Art panels very similar to that of the components of the predella of the Saint Louis of Toulouse in Naples (painted in c. 1317, the year of the saint’s canonization), but also their stylistic character is consistent with that of the works realized in the years of rapid development between the Maestà in the Palazzo Pubblico (1315) and the Pisan polyptych of 1319–1320. 

These considerations raise the question of identifying the altarpiece of which the ten busts of apostles formed part. Michael Mallory (1974) argued that the four Washington panels, together with their six companion panels in other collections, were in origin the predella of the polyptych by Lippo Memmi of which Saint John the Baptist in the Gallery also formed part.[19] The proposal has not met with acceptance in the art historical literature, but no alternative hypotheses have yet been formulated. A possible candidate for the lost central panel of the polyptych of which the series of busts of apostles formed part could be, in the present writer’s opinion, the Madonna and Child from the church of Santa Maria Maddalena at Castiglion d’Orcia, now in the Museo Civico e Diocesano at Montalcino (80 × 61 cm).[20] The width of the panel is not very different from that of the images placed at the center of Simone’s polyptychs executed for churches in Pisa, Orvieto, or San Gimignano, and its height is also close to that from San Gimignano, now deprived of its original frame. So there is nothing to prevent us from imagining the Montalcino Madonna at the center of a similar polyptych and with a series of apostles in its predella. Our panels share with it not only a similar date but also the external profile terminating in a round arch. 

In conclusion, the ten panels of the apostles can, I believe, be firmly attributed to Simone Martini. In the past scholars have generally undervalued these panels, not as a consequence of any intrinsic mediocrity but because of the loss of the pictorial finishes in some of them, flattening the modeling of the figures, and the unhappy result of successive restorations that have obscured many of the more exquisite touches of the pictorial technique, especially in the busts of Saints Bartholomew, Matthias, and Thomas now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, the better-preserved passages in our panels, in particular in the faces of Saints Thaddeus and James Major, still retain qualities that, in the view of the present writer, seem fully worthy of the hand of Simone.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


on the left side of the Saint: .SA[NC]TVS.; on the right side of the Saint: YACOBVS.


Acquired between 1832 and 1842 by Johann Anton Ramboux [1790-1866], Cologne, together with six other components of the same series, presumably in Siena;[1] (his estate sale, J.M. Heberle, Cologne, 23 May 1867, no. 75 [all ten panels], as by Lippo Memmi);[2] the whole series purchased by the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, which deaccessioned it in 1922-1923;[3] the four NGA panels, 1952.5.23-.26, purchased together with a fifth panel of the same series, by Philip Lehman [1861-1947], New York, by 1928;[4] the four NGA panels sold June 1943 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[5] gift 1952 to the NGA.

Exhibition History

Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 822.

Technical Summary

This painting and its three companions, Saint Matthew, Saint Simon, and Saint Judas Thaddeus, were executed on panels apparently made of a single piece of wood with horizontal grain, which has been thinned to 2.5 cm thick, backed, and cradled. Stephen Pichetto applied the backings and cradles in 1944, at which time he may also have thinned the panels and added the wooden strips that are currently affixed to all sides of each. The inner molding of the arch as well as the capitals and bases of the engaged frame surrounding the painted surface of each panel are original. Before the painting process, the panels were covered with a fabric interleaf, on which a layer of gesso ground was applied. The areas to be gilded were prepared with red bole and the halos decorated with punch marks—those in Saint Matthew and Saint Simon extend onto the top arches of the engaged frames. Incised lines were used to demarcate the figures; a green underpainting was laid in beneath the flesh tones; and the paint was applied with fine, unblended brushstrokes. Infrared reflectography at 1.2 to 5 microns shows a linear underdrawing in the figures’ hands but not in their clothing, except in Saint Judas Thaddeus, in which all the folds in the saint’s cloak were delineated in a liquid medium.[1] Mordant gilding was used for embellishing the borders of the saints’ robes and the bosses and clasps of their books. The books are further decorated with punch marks, and a black material, which might have been silver, has been applied over the gilded clasps and bosses. 

The painted surfaces of all four panels are slightly worn but in fair state apart from a number of small, scattered losses largely associated with the damages to the supports and the removal of parts of the original engaged frames and moldings along the borders. Two small repairs are visible in the gold ground in Saint Matthew, and retouchings around the saint’s throat, chest, and shoulders have discolored. Retouching in Saint Simon mostly affects the saint’s right cheek and left shoulder. Vertical and diagonal cracks, with attendant minor paint loss, are more prominent along the bottom edge of Saint James Major, while retouching in Saint Judas Thaddeus is largely confined to the saint’s face and book. The lettering of the inscriptions in all four panels has been reinforced. When he applied the cradles in 1944, Stephen Pichetto also “cleaned, restored, and varnished” the paintings. Robert Lehman (1928) mentioned an earlier cleaning, probably in the early 1920s.[2]


Katalog der Gemälde Alter italienischer Meister (1221-1640) in der Sammlung des Conservator J. A. Ramboux. Cologne, 1862: 15, no. 75.
Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle. A New History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. 3 vols. London, 1864-1866: 2(1864):105.
Heberle, J. M. Catalog der nachgelassenen Kunst-Sammlungen des Herrn Johann Anton Ramboux. Cologne, 23 May 1867: 17, no. 75.
Niessen, Johannes. Verzeichniss der Gemälde-Sammlung des Museums Wallraf-Richartz in Köln. Cologne, 1869: 137.
Berenson, Bernard. The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance. New York, 1897: 148.
Venturi, Adolfo. Storia dell’arte italiana. 11 vols. Milan, 1901-1940: 5(1907):666-667 n. 1.
Crowe, Joseph Archer, and Giovan Battista Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. 6 vols. Edited by Robert Langton Douglas (vols. 1-4) and Tancred Borenius (vols. 5-6). Vol. 3, The Sienese, Umbrian, and North Italian Schools. London, 1903-1914: 3(1908):76, 76-77 n. 5.
Perkins, Frederick Mason. "Simone di Martino (Simone Martini)." In Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. Edited by Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. 37 vols. Leipzig, 1907-1950: 31(1937):67.
Berenson, Bernard. The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance. 2nd ed. New York, 1909: 202.
Gielly, Louis. Les primitifs siennois. Paris, 1926: 111.
Lehman, Robert. The Philip Lehman Collection, New York: Paintings. Paris, 1928: no. XXII, repro.
Mayer, August L. "Die Sammlung Philip Lehman." Pantheon 5 (1930): 113.
Venturi, Lionello. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931: no. 61, repro.
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Marle, Raimond van. Le scuole della pittura italiana. 2 vols. The Hague and Florence, 1932-1934: 2(1934):258 n.
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Berenson, Bernard. Pitture italiane del rinascimento: catalogo dei principali artisti e delle loro opere con un indice dei luoghi. Translated by Emilio Cecchi. Milan, 1936: 459.
McCall, George. Masterpieces of Art. Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300-1800. Edited by Wilhelm R. Valentiner. Exh. cat. World’s Fair, New York, 1939: 116-117.
Douglas, Robert Langton. "Recent Additions to the Kress Collection." The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 88 (1946): 85.
Toesca, Pietro. Il Trecento. Storia dell’arte italiana, 2. Turin, 1951: 551 n. 75.
Coor, Gertrude. "Trecento-Gemälde aus der Sammlung Ramboux." Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 18 (1956): 118.
Exposition de la Collection Lehman de New York. Exh. cat. Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, 1957: 43.
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 33, repro., as by Simone Martini and Assistants.
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 123, as by Simone Martini and Assistants.
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century. London, 1966: 48-49, fig. 124.
Berenson, Bernard. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Central Italian and North Italian Schools. 3 vols. London, 1968: 1:404.
National Gallery of Art. European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. Washington, 1968: 110, repro., as by Simone Martini and Assistants.
Contini, Gianfranco, and Maria Cristina Gozzoli. L’opera completa di Simone Martini. Milan, 1970: 105 no. 53, repro.
Fredericksen, Burton B., and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 122, 403, 646, 665.
De Benedictis, Cristina. "A proposito di un libro su Buffalmacco." Antichità viva 13, no. 2 (1974): 8, 10 n. 13.
Mallory, Michael. "An Altarpiece by Lippo Memmi Reconsidered." Metropolitan Museum Journal 9 (1974): 201 n. 19.
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 326, repro., as by Simone Martini and Assistants
Torriti, Piero. La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena. I Dipinti dal XII al XV secolo. Genoa, 1977: 90.
Ressort, Claude, Sylvia Beguin, and Michel Laclotte, eds. Retables italiens du XIIIe au XVe siècle. Exh. cat. Musée National du Louvre, Paris, 1978: 19.
De Benedictis, Cristina. La pittura senese 1330-1370. Florence, 1979: 93.
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Zeri, Federico, and Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: Sienese and Central Italian Schools. A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980: 95.
Natale, Mauro, Alessandra Mottola Molfino, and Joyce Brusa. Museo Poldi Pezzoli. Vol. 1, Dipinti. Milan, 1982: 145.
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Christie, Manson & Woods. Important Paintings by Old Masters. New York, 11 January 1991: 28.
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Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 205, 311, 321, 444, 453.
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Boskovits, Miklós. Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2016: 351-369, color repro.

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