Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Miraculous Mass

This post ended up being about a certain early Sienese painter, but it began with the picture above reproduced on the dust jacket of a new theological book from Catholic University of America Press, received at the library where I work. This text did not interest me but I was fascinated by the picture, identified on the back flap as "Angels put vestments on the naked arms of St. Martin of Tours" by Simone Martini (1285-1344) - Cappella di San Martino, Lower Church, San Francesco, Assisi. 

I liked those angels – with their downward-aiming flight and their upward-aiming gazes – enough to pursue more information. This picture was part of an important early commission for Martini, a fresco cycle devoted to St. Martin of Tours in one of the Assisi chapels. Below, the artist shows the saint enacting the best-known story about him and using his soldierly sword to divide his cloak with a beggar.

Martini's earliest recorded commission is the Maesta above from 1315, a traditional depiction of the Virgin and Child on a throne surrounded by saints who support a ceremonial canopy – done in fresco for the Palazzo Publico in Martini's native Siena. Its formal stiffness shows why he is usually called a Late Gothic painter with Early Renaissance influences.     

St. Louis of Toulouse, c. 1317

Archangel Michael, c. 1320

St. Peter, c. 1326

The four pictures above show a single fresco of 1328 – again in Siena's Palazzo Publico – and (unusual for Simone Martini) it pursues a non-religious theme. The central figure on horseback is Guidoriccio da Fogliano, a condottiere or warlord of the type common all over early modern Italy. How interesting, though, to be able to see him now exactly as he wished 700 years ago to be seen and remembered (which must be the case, since he paid for the painting).

Below is a detail from a Sienese altarpiece, also of 1328, showing one of the miracles of  the Blessed Agostino Novello. Precisely like Superman, the holy Agostino executes a mid-air interception of a child plunging to the ground from a broken balcony.

Martini's by-far-most-famous work (now in the Uffizi) is the Annunciation of 1333, painted for Siena Cathedral. It was signed by Martini and his brother-in-law, Lippo Memmi. Scholars like to think that Martini painted the central panel (where the reluctant Virgin confronts the Archangel Gabriel) and that Memmi painted Saint Ansano and Saint Margaret in the side panels, as well as the four little circular busts. (Personally, I am very much taken with the fact that the angel's cloak is lined in an unmistakeable plaid, which was, according to sources, quite a fashionable fabric-treatment in 1333.)

In 1335 Simone Martini moved to Avignon at the invitation of the Pope (a line of seven Popes under French domination ruled the Church from Avignon rather than Rome during the 14th century). Very little of Martini's work survives from the last decade of his life, though he worked steadily for the Pope in Avignon and befriended Petrarch there. But I did find one item from 1340 (below) that appealed with special significance to my librarian's heart – a scene of literary composition painted on fine vellum and bound into a book as the frontispiece to a manuscript of Virgil (now in Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana).