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Members' Research Report Archive

The Place of the Predella in the Renaissance

Nathaniel Silver, Research Associate, 2013–2014

A young, nude, light-skinned man stands in the center of a rocky, mountainous landscape in this square painting. The man’s muscular body faces us but he turns his head in profile to our right as he looks down at the coral-red cloth he drops onto the ground. He is cleanshaven with prominent eyebrows, a straight nose, and his lips are slightly parted. He has thick, reddish-brown hair with bangs across his forehead, and there is a red-edged, glimmering, gold, plate-like halo across the crown of his head. He leans slightly to the side as he drops the red cloth onto a white one, already on the ground. With his other hand, he holds a fawn-brown animal skin or cloth over that shoulder. The man is surrounded by tan and parchment-brown, deeply ridged, mostly barren mountains. The pointed peaks nearly reach the top of the painting. The rocky mountains are interspersed with a few dark green bushes. A light blue stream curves in a shallow S shape along the right side of the painting. Peaks in the far distance are icy blue against a sky that deepens from topaz blue along the horizon to navy blue at the top edge. Some puffy and some thin white clouds float across the sky.

Domenico Veneziano, Saint John in the Desert, c. 1445/1450, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1943.4.48

My research focuses on the predella. Found in churches in Italy, Spain, and northern Europe, this long, narrow, and compartmentalized space beneath the altarpiece and above the altar was a locus of experimentation and creativity for painters, sculptors, and goldsmiths for more than two centuries. Yet even the most basic questions regarding the genre remain unanswered. The initial aim of my project has been to establish a coherent definition of the predella, providing a critical account of the genesis and extinction of this peculiarly Renaissance concept, with particular attention to the structural, devotional, and rhetorical needs that it served.

Domenico Veneziano
Saint John in the Desert
c. 1445/1450