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Sassetta, Adoration of the Magi; about 1435, Siena, Chigi-Saracini Collection (Monte dei Paschi)

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Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni)


Stefano di Giovanni, known as il Sassetta, (1392 – 1450 or 1451) was born in Siena, although there is also an hypothesis that he was born in Cortona. However, the first historical record of him was in Siena in 1423. Di Giovanni was probably the apprentice of Paolo di Giovanni Fei although it is also thought that he may have studied under Benedetto di Bindo. He painted in the semi-archaic Sienese School style of painting. Francesco di Giorgio e di Lorenzo, better known as Vecchietta, is said to have been his apprentice.

The date and place of his birth are uncertain. He seems to have been trained in Siena, and the force of the Sienese tradition is evident in the vivid colours and elegant use of line in the surviving panels of his first commissioned work, an altarpiece for the Arte della Lana in Siena (1423–26). His interest in the work of the first generation of Florentine Renaissance painters is reflected in the coherent spatial relationships of the monumental altarpiece of the “Madonna of the Snow,” painted for Siena Cathedral in 1430–32. From this point on, under Gothic influence, Sassetta’s style assumes an increasingly decorative character, manifest initially.

Echoes of Masaccio and Paolo Uccello can be seen in the great Crucffix painted (probably in 1433) for the church of San Martino in Siena, some fragments of which are in the Chigi Saracini Collection, and in the polyptych of the church of San Domenico at Cortona. These are works that herald the condensed and yet vibrant sculptural precision of this painter's later style. This precision is represented by the San Sepolcro Altarpiece, the great polyptych on which the artist worked from 1437 to 1444 for the Franciscan church of Borgo San Sepolcro, and which was dismembered at the beginning of the last century. It is Sassetta's masterpiece and a work of capital importance for Sienese painting in the 15th century. While working on a huge Coronation of the Virgin in fresco above the gate of Porta Romana in Siena, the painter caught pneumonia and died of it on April 1 st, 1450. The fresco was completed by Sano di Pietro, but was almost entirely destroyed during the war in 1944.

Sassetta had numerous followers who would contribute to influencing later Sienese painting: among them Sano di Pietro, Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio and the Master of the Observance.

Sassetta, City by the Sea (view of Talamone), (c.1340), Siena, Pinacoteca, formerly attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Sassetta's interest in Florentine art is evident in his monumental Madonna of the Snow altarpiece for Siena Cathedral (1430 – 32) and in his most ambitious work, an altarpiece for San Francesco at Sansepolcro (1437 – 44). His fusion of traditional and contemporary elements transformed Sienese painting from the Gothic to the Renaissance style, and he is considered one of the greatest Sienese painters of the 15th century.
On March 25, 1430, Sassetta was commissioned to paint an altarpiece of the Madonna with Saints with the legend of the founding of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, in the predella. The Madonna of the Snow, as it is called, was finished by mid-October 1432. His style in this work betrays the influence of Masaccio, especially in the broad modeling of the Virgin and Child and in the arrangement of figures in the predella. Little is known of Sassetta's activities between 1433 and 1436, though this is the period when he probably painted the Crucifixion for S. Martino (of which fragments remain) and the altarpiece for S. Domenico, Cortona.

The altarpiece of the Madonna with Saints Jerome and Ambrose, dated 1436, in the Church of the Osservanza, Siena, formerly attributed to Sassetta, is now generally attributed to another artist, the so-called Osservanza Master. Some critics would extend the oeuvre of the Osservanza Master to include the Birth of the Virgin in Asciano and the group of panels with the life of St. Anthony Abbot from an altarpiece dedicated to the saint.

Madonna delle Nevi

Sassetta, The Virgin and Child with Saints, 1430-32, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This altarpiece, known from its subject as the Madonna delle Nevi (the Madonna of the Snows) was originally commissioned for one of the oldest and most venerable altars in the Siena cathedral. It stood immediately left of the doorway known as the Porta del Perdono - the side entrance to the cathedral that provided most immediate access to both the baptistery and to the civic centre of the Palazzo Pubblico and the Campo.

Sassetta received the commission in 1430 from Ludovica Bertini, the widow of Turino di Matteo, the man responsible for both the cathedral sacristy and the baptismal font. Sassetta came up with an altarpiece in which a gothic baldachin was combined with an innovative, unified rectangular picture surface, while its construction was based on that of Duccio's doublesided high altarpiece, completed for the same Siena Cathedral in 1311. According to one local chronicler, Turino had died in 1423 and been buried in front of the Porta del Perdono. In the contract for the altarpiece, Ludovica makes it clear that she is commissioning the work both in memory of her husband and also in her own right as a pious Franciscan tertiary, so the coat-of-arms of her own family as well as that of her husband appear prominently displayed on the richly ornamented fabric covering the Virgin's throne. Her commitment to the Franciscan Order is clearly demonstrated by the inclusion of Saint Francis in the right foreground of the main panel of the altarpiece. The imagery chosen for the rest of the altarpiece, however, was entirely Sienese and civic in intention. It depicts the familiar subject of the enthroned Virgin with the Christ Child on her lap and surrounded by angels and saints. The altarpiece therefore echoes the imagery of two of Siena's most revered civic icons - the front face of Duccio's high altarpiece for the cathedral and Simone Martini's mural in the council hall of the Palazzo Pubblico. That such an association was explicitly intended is shown by the inscription engraved on the Virgin's halo: 'If you trust me, Siena, you will be full of favour'.

The imagery of the altarpiece was elaborated in order to honour two of the Virgin's titles - 'Queen of Heaven' and 'Our Lady of the Snows'. Two angels behind the throne hold a crown over the Virgin's head. The angel on the left of the throne, meanwhile, carries a dish filled with snow and the angel on the right makes a snowball. The seven narrative scenes of the predella describe in detail the legend of Our Lady of the Snows. They show how, in the reign of Pope Liberius (352-66), the Virgin caused snow to fall miraculously in the heat of August on the Esquiline Hill in Rome. Furthermore, the snow fell precisely in the pattern of the ground plan of a church. The Virgin then instructed a wealthy layman and his wife, and Pope Liberius, to build a church in her honour on this site - a church that became Santa Maria Maggiore, one of Rome's major basilicas.

Quite unlike the hieratic aura of the main scene, the predella panel recording the miracle of the snow in founding of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, is full of naturalistic elements, and even the arrangement and presentation of the figures is casual and almost journalistic. Although the condition of the predella is not as good as that of the main panel, the atmospheric environment created for the outdoor scene is still legible.

Sassetta, Founding of Santa Maria Maggiore, 1430-32, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence


Arte della Lana Altarpiece (Altar of the Eucharist)

Sassetta, Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire
Sassetta, Death of the Heretic on the Bonfire, 1423, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The picture shows one of the predella paintings of the Altar of the Eucharist.

The Arte della Lana Altarpiece, the first known work by Sassetta, was commissioned by the "Arte della Lana", i.e. the woolmerchants' guild for the church of the Carmelite Order in Siena in 1423. Sassetta's Wool Guild altarpiece was an ingeniously movable yet highly elaborate gothic triptych that the guild used for its outdoor celebration of the Feast of Corpus Domini and otherwise stored in its palace.
The triptych was dissembled in 1777, and the central panel is lost, but it is possible to reconstruct its original arrangement from earlier descriptions. According to these, the central panel represented the Holy Sacrament in an ostensory adored by a number of angels around it. Above this there was the scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, and on the sides Abbot S. Anthony and S. Thomas Aquinas were depicted. Above these the scene of the Annunciation was represented in two separate pictures.

On the predella underneath the main panel, seven small panels showed the following scenes: 1-2. Two scenes from the life of S. Anthony, one of them is about his temptation (Siena, Pinacoteca); 3. Execution of an Heretic on the Bonfire (Melbourne Museum); 4. The Last Supper (Siena, Pinacoteca); 5. The Miracle of the Holy Sacrament (Barnard Castle, Bowes Museum); 6. S. Thomas Aquinas in Prayer in front of the Altar of the Virgin (Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts); 7. S. Thomas Aquinas in Prayer in front of the Crucifix (Vatican, Pinacoteca).

Further to the above mentioned ones we know eight panels from the external pillars that represented the Four Doctors of the Church: S. Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose, Augustine as well as the four patron saints of Siena: S. Ansanus, Victor, Savinus and Crescentius. Two small panels from the pinnacles with the figures of the Prophets Elias and Eliseus still exist in the Sienese Picture Gallery. Under the central panel the following inscription was visible: "Hinc opus omne Patres Stefanus construxit ad aras Senensis Johannis agens citra lapsus adultos". The interpretation of this distych is much debated.

The iconographic programme of the altar was probably composed by the Carmelite monks. That is why the two prophets, Elias and Eliseus, the "Dux et Pater" and the Pater of the Carmelites were represented on the altar, and in Carmelite habit. We can also see a few Carmelite monks in the pictures of the predella.

Sassetta, here shows that he was in touch with all the most recent tendencies of European late-Gothic (which probably came to him by way of the exquisite painting of Masolino da Panicale), while at the same time he went further with the Lorenzetti's intuitions of space, adding realistic features unknown to the previous tradition.
Thus, for example, in the St. Antony Beaten by Devils (one of the panels of the above-mentioned predella), the depth and articulation of the landscape is for the first time seen against a blue sky streaked with white clouds, instead of the customary gold background In the Adoration of the Magi in the Chigi Saracini Collection in Siena, a fragment of a larger composition which included the Journey of the Magi in the Griggs Collection in New York, we clearly see that Sassetta was greatly attracted by the art of Gentile da Fabriano, who spent some time in Siena in 1425 and 1426. But it is with the great altar-frontal of the Madonna della Neve, painted in 1430-32 for the Cathedral of Siena and now in the Contini Bonacossi Foundation (Uffizi), that he clearly shows how far he adhered to the "great Florentine concepts of form in perspective" (Graziani), even if these do not have much effect on the composition, but rather tend to stimulate occasional brilliant innovations.

Art in Tuscany | Sassetta | Arte della Lana Altarpiece


St Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost
, 1423, Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest

St Anthony the Hermit Tortured by the Devils, 1423, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

Sassetta, Miracle of the Sacrament, Durham, Barnard Castle, Bowes Museum

Sassetta, Miracle of the Sacrament
Sassetta, Miracle of the Sacrament, about 1430-1432, Durham, Barnard Castle, Bowes Museum[2]

The small panel, A Miracle of the Sacrament or A Miracle of the Eucharist by Sassetta, painted in Siena c1423-25, has a dramatic tale to tell. It shows a cleric, struck dead as he is offered the Host during Mass. Even more dramatically, a devil swoops down to snatch his soul as it leaves his body.
The predella (narrative) panel from the Arte del Lana altarpiece is one of the oldest and most intriguing paintings in The Bowes Museum’s collection. Other panels exist in Rome, Budapest, Siena and Melbourne altar.
To the right, a Carmelite lay brother has been struck dead, and just above him, a devil is carrying away his soul. The consecrated Host is bleeding, indicating perhaps that the lay brother had doubted the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

This little painting was once part of a large altarpiece, comprising 23 separate pictures telling a complex story. The altarpiece paid homage to the Virgin, saints and prophets, and promoted the belief that bread and wine shared during communion turn into the real flesh and blood of Jesus. At the same time it offered a warning to the growing number of people who by 1400 were challenging this belief. They were warned that they would be treated as heretics: excommunicated, executed, their bodies burnt, and the ashes thrown away, to deny them bodily resurrection and eternal life.

The altarpiece was dismembered and dispersed c1790-1840, possibly after damage in an earthquake. “All knowledge of the artist, the subject of the painting and the circumstances of its creation were lost during this period,” said the Museum’s former curator Elizabeth Conran, who devised the display as part of her recent work as Monument Trust Fellow at The Bowes Museum. “It has taken art historians 100 years to retrieve its story.”

Virgin with Child and Four Saints

Sassetta, Virgin with Child and Four Saints (detail, showing the head of St Michael), Museo Diocesano, Cortona

In the centre of the polyptych there is an exquisite Virgin with Child. On the left side there are Sts Nicholas and Michael, wearing rare, refined, and precious garments. St Nicholas has a chasuble bearing a Pietà. The two saints on the right side are St John the Baptist and St Margaret of Hungary. Above the side panels are two tondi representing the Annunciation.

The triptych was placed on a lateral altar in the church of St Dominic in Cortona. At the beginning of the Second World War it was immured in the belfry where the wood suffered much damage due to humidity and temperatures. It was necessary to detach the painted surface and transfer it to a new base. It has been restored after many succeeding interventions. Unfortunately, it has lost its original solidity and need continuous reexamination.

Virgin with Child and Four Saints, Museo Diocesano, Cortona


Adoration of the Magi, about 1435

In the Adoration of the Magi in the Chigi Saracini Collection in Siena, a fragment of a larger composition which included the Journey of the Magi in the Griggs Collection in New York, we clearly see that Sassetta was greatly attracted by the art of Gentile da Fabriano, who spent some time in Siena in 1425 and 1426.[1]


Sassetta, Adoration of the Magi, about 1435, Siena, Chigi-Saracini Collection (Monte dei Paschi)

The Journey of the Magi (fragment), ca. 1435

This panel originally formed the upper part of an Adoration of the Magi, of which the lower section shows the magi presenting their gifts to the Christ Child (Chigi-Saracini Collection, Siena). The fragment shows the magi and their attendants on their way to Bethlehem, and is one of Sassetta's most poetic works. The star at the lower right originally hung over the figures of the Madonna and Child.



The Journey of the Magi (fragment), ca. 1435, Maitland F. Griggs Collection

Stefano di Giovanni, The Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1423-1426. Tempera on wood panel. 25 x 28.8 cm. Picture Gallery. The Vatican.
The Meeting of St. Anthony and St. Paul, 1445, wood, The National Gallery of Art at Washington

San Sepolcro Altarpiece

Sassetta, San Sepolcro Altarpiece, 1437-44, Musée du Louvre, Paris


Echoes of Masaccio and Paolo Uccello can be seen in the great Crucifix painted (probably in 1433) for the church of San Martino in Siena, some fragments of which are in the Chigi Saracini Collection, and in the polyptych of the church of San Domenico at Cortona. These are works that herald the condensed and yet vibrant sculptural precision of this painter's later style. This precision is represented by the great polyptych painted on both sides on which the artist worked from 1437 to 1444 for the Franciscan church of Borgo San Sepolcro, and which was dismembered at the beginning of the last century.

On the front were the Madonna and Child with Six Musician Angels, the Blessed Ranieri Rasini, St. Antony of Padua, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist, while on the back was St. Francis in Ecstasy flanked by eight Episodes from the Life of the Saint. It also had a predella.

The work is now distributed between the Louvre, the Berenson Collection at Settignano, the National Gallery in London, the Musée Condé at Chantilly, and the State Museums in Berlin, while four panels from the predella are either lost or unidentified.
It is Sassetta's masterpiece and a work of capital importance for Sienese painting in the 15th century, since it incorporates and assimilates hints and features from an extremely wide-ranging culture; but at the same time it is the quintessence of a civilization that was clearly and unmistakably local, and that uniquely combined subtle intellectualism with "primitive" candour.

Particularly memorable is the image of St. Francis in Ecstasy, firm and monumental in its construction, in which the saint is seen as a "second Christ." The eight Episodes are also remarkable for their rigour of composition, narrative effect and fine colouring.

Art in Tuscany | Sassetta | San Sepolcro Altarpiece



Sassetta, Saint Francis in Ecstasy, 1437-1444, Florence, Vila I Tatti, Berenson Collection

In 1940 the critic Roberto Longhi realized that it was difficult to find a place in the development of Sassetta's style for the triptych showing the Madonna and Child between St. Jerome and St. Ambrose in the Basilica dell'Osservanza in Siena.
The work was traditionally attributed to him, and bears the date 1436, but because it is still highly Gothic in style he could not possibly have painted it after the Madonna della Neve, finished in 1432. We therefore have to attribute this triptych, along with other similar works thought to be by Sassetta, to some other painter, who was probably an assistant of his but inclined towards more archaic forms. The figure of an anonymous painter thereupon began to take on life, and because of this triptych he is known as the Maestro dell'Osservanza.He probably collaborated with Sassetta on eight charming panels dealing with Stories of St. Antony Abbot, now distributed among the museums of Berlin, Washington, New Haven, New York, and the Lehman Collection in New York. After 1436 the same master painted the famous altarpiece showing the Nativity of the Virgin, formerly in the Collegiate Church and now in the Museum of Sacred Art in Asciano. Here we may note the influence of Domenico di Bartoio, while Sassetta's solidity of form is replaced by more two-dimensional solutions, though still very beautiful.

Art in Tuscany | Maestro dell'Osservanza

Master of the Osservanza, Birth of the Virgin with other Scenes from her Life, ca. 1428-39, Museo d'Arte Sacra, Asciano



Art in Tuscany | Sassetta | San Sepolcro Altarpiece

Art in Tuscany | Sassetta | The Lana Altarpiece (Altar of the Eucharist)

Art in Tuscany | Sassetta | Virgin with Child and Four Saints

E. Carli, Sassetta e il Maestro dell'Osservanza, Milan, 1958.

Art in Tuscany | Adoration of the Magi

Machtelt Israels, ABSENCE AND RESEMBLANCE | Early Images of Bernardino da Siena and the Issue of Portraiture (With a New Proposal for Sassetta) | (pdf)

[1] The Adoration of the Magi is the name traditionally given to the Christian subject in the Nativity of Jesus in art in which the three Magi, represented as kings, especially in the West, having found Jesus by following a star, lay before him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and worship him. In the church calendar, this event is commemorated in Western Christianity as the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). The Orthodox Church commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity (December 25). Christian iconography has considerably expanded the bare account of the Biblical Magi given in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-11) and used it to press the point that Jesus was recognized, from his earliest infancy, as king of the earth.

In the earliest depictions, the Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian caps, usually in profile, advancing in step with their gifts held out before them. These images adapt Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, and indeed relate to images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern cultures going back many centuries. The earliest are from catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs of the 4th century. Crowns are first seen in the 10th century, mostly in the West, where their dress had by now lost any Oriental flavour in most cases.[1] Later Byzantine images often show small pill-box like hats, whose significance is disputed. They are usually shown as the same age until about this period, but then the idea of depicting the three ages of man is introduced: a particularly beautiful example is seen on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto. The scene was one of the most indispensable in cycles of the Life of the Virgin as well as the Life of Christ.
Occasionally from the 12th century, and very often in Northern Europe from the 15th, the Magi are also made to represent the three known parts of the world: Balthasar is very commonly cast as a young African or Moor, and old Caspar is given Oriental features or, more often, dress. Melchior represents Europe and middle age. From the 14th century onwards, large retinues are often shown, the gifts are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, and the Magi's clothes are given increasing attentention.[1] By the 15th century, the Adoration of the Magi is often a bravura piece in which the artist can display their handling of complex, crowded scenes involving horses and camels, but also their rendering of varied textures: the silk, fur, jewels and gold of the Kings set against the wood of the stable, the straw of Jesus's manger and the rough clothing of Joseph and the shepherds.
The scene often includes a fair diversity of animals as well: the ox and ass from the Nativity scene are usually there, but also the horses, camels, dogs, and falcons of the kings and their retinue, and sometimes other animals, such as birds in the rafters of the stable. From the 15th century onwards, the Adoration of the Magi is quite often conflated with the Adoration of the Shepherds from the account in the Gospel of Luke (2:8-20), an opportunity to bring in yet more human and animal diversity; in some compositions (triptychs for example), the two scenes are contrasted or set as pendants to the central scene, usually a Nativity.

[2] The collection of paintings at The Bowes Museum presents a comprehensive survey of European art from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries.
John Bowes bought his first old master painting in 1830 when travelling in Europe. By 1844 he had acquired fifty-seven paintings, mostly from London dealers. Joséphine was a talented amateur painter, especially interested in modern works. In the 1860s she bought work by major French painters such as Courbet, Fantin-Latour, Boudin and Monticelli, the latter being an influence on Van Gogh. Sadly she died just before the opening of the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874, and one can only speculate where her taste might have led her. She tried to buy a painting by Manet at auction in 1868, but was outbid.
Many of the Italian paintings were bought by John Bowes before he met Joséphine. The most important is perhaps A Miracle of the Holy Sacrament by Sassetta, a panel from a predella (a series of narrative panels underneath an altarpiece) from a Sienese altarpiece, dating to 1423-26.

[3] John Pope-Hennessy's monograph Sassetta (1939) gives the facts of the artist's life. See also Bernhard Berenson, A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend (1909).

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