SassettaStefano di Giovanni, usually called Sassetta, although there is no evidence that this appellation was used before the eighteenth century. He was once identified with a Stefano di Giovanni who was baptised in Siena on 31 December 1392, but his date of birth is now usually put around 1400. His father, Giovanni di Consalvo, was a native of Cortona, but Sassetta is likely to have received his artistic training in Siena, where his father worked as a cook and doorman at the Palazzo della Signoria. His first documented work is an altarpiece commissioned in 1423 by the Arte della Lana (Wool Guild) of Siena, some panels of which survive in the Siena gallery and elsewhere. His major work is an altarpiece painted in 1439-44 for San Francesco in Sansepolcro, and now dispersed. He died in April 1450 of pneumonia contracted while working on the Porta Romana at Siena.
Now known solely for his panel paintings, Sassetta was a versatile artist who made designs for sculpture, stained glass, intarsias and mosaic pavements, and painted frescoes. Ignored by Vasari, he was almost forgotten until the early twentieth century when his oeuvre was reconstructed by Langton Douglas and Berenson. Some of the pictures once ascribed to him (including eight striking scenes from the Life of St Anthony at Berlin, Yale, Washington and New York) were reassigned by Roberto Longhi in 1940 to an ‘excellent but more archaic’ follower, whom he christened the ‘Osservanza Master’ after an altarpiece, dated 1436, in the Chiesa dell’Osservanza, Siena.
Like other early fifteenth-century Sienese painters, Sassetta harked back to the great Sienese painters of the previous century, particularly the Lorenzetti. But he was aware of trends in International Gothic (Gentile da Fabriano visited Siena in 1425) and the technical achievements of his Florentine contemporaries. He did not restrict himself to gold or ornamental backgrounds, but used landscape and complicated architectural settings. His figures are slender, with distinctive pinched features and button eyes. His narrative pictures have a gentle, mystical, dream-like quality. As well as the so-called ‘Osservanza Master’, his followers included the prolific Sano di Pietro (1405-81), whose output was probably greater than that of any other Sienese painter, and the more shadowy Pietro di Giovanni Ambrosi or d’Ambrogio (1409/10-48), many of whose works were once ascribed to Sassetta.
Assisi. San Francesco. Mason Perkins Collection.
Saint Christopher. Wood, 73 x 24.
St Christopher paddles across a narrow river, fishes swimming around his feet. His staff is topped with palm fronds, symbolising his martyrdom. The Christ Child holds a large globe, symbolising the weight of the world. This tall, narrow painting came from the great double-sided altarpiece painted by Sassetta in 1439-44 for the church of San Francesco in Sansepolcro. It was one of six panels of saints decorating the two pilasters (or buttresses) on the front. Two others are in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow.
Barnard Castle. Bowes Museum.
*Miracle of the Holy Sacrament. Wood, 25 x 38.
A friar is struck down dead as he takes communion sacrilegiously. A small devil flies off with his soul, and the host, held by the officiating priest, bleeds. One of six surviving panels from the predella of the altarpiece painted in 1423-46 for the Arte della Lana of Siena. The Barnard Castle panel was the third on the left, between the Vision of St Thomas (Vatican) and the middle panel of the Last Supper (Siena). On the extreme left was St Thomas Aquinas in Prayer (Budapest), and on the right were the Burning of a Heretic (Melbourne), St Anthony Abbot beaten by Devils (Siena) and another panel, presumed lost, which depicted another episode from St Anthony’s life. Acquired by John and Josephine Bowes from Edward Solly, who had bought it (as a work of Fra Angelico) for £6 15s at the Duke of Lucca’s sale at Christie’s in 1840. Attributed to Sano di Pietro by Berenson in 1897, and first recognised as a work of Sassetta by Langton Douglas in 1904. An intriguing possibility is that the panel alludes to the death of the English dissenter John Wycliffe, who suffered a fatal stroke or apoplectic fit while hearing mass in his parish church at Lutterworth in 1384. A Church Council at Siena in 1423-24, when Sassetta’s altarpiece was painted, condemned heretics, like Wycliffe, who denied the doctrine of transubstantiation.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 47 x 25.
The Virgin is crowned by angels. In the elaborate double-curved top, a little figure of God the Father blessing, supported by cherubim, and a tiny dove of the Holy Spirit. The little panel was the centre of a small portable altarpiece. The wings were possibly the St Margaret and St Apollonia in Washington. An Annunciation in Pittsburgh may have formed the gables at the sides. Usually assumed to have been acquired by the Berlin Museum in 1821 with the Solly collection, but catalogued for the first time only in 1891. The attribution to Sassetta has almost always been accepted (Enzo Carli’s 1957 monograph being the notable exception), but there has been little agreement on dating. There are other paintings by Sassetta of the Madonna of Humility – all remarkably similar in design – at New York (Metropolitan Museum), Pittsburgh (Frick Collection), the Vatican, Siena, Washington and Zagreb.
Story from the Life of Beato Ranieri. Wood, 48 x 62.
The Beato Ranieri Rasini (died 1304) was a disciple of St Francis from Sansepolcro. The panel illustrates the legend that four citizens from the town went to Rome to ask a cardinal for balm for his body. The cardinal had a vision foretelling their arrival, gave them the balm, and later went to Sansepolcro to pay homage to the saint. The panel was identified by Pope-Hennessy (1939) as one of the predella panels from the double-sided altarpiece painted by Sassetta in 1439-44 for San Francesco in Sansepolcro. The Beato Ranieri was buried under the altar of the church. Two other panels from the predella, which was from the back of the altarpiece, are now in the Louvre. At least one is lost. The Berlin panel was in Cardinal Fesch’s collection in France and (from 1815) Rome, with an ascription to Fra Angelico. It was acquired by the Berlin museum in 1924 from a Russian collection.
Budapest. Fine Arts Museum.
*St Thomas Aquinas in Prayer. Wood, 24 x 39.
St Thomas kneels before the altar of the Virgin. The interior of the monastery is depicted in convincing (but mathematically imperfect) perspective. A cloister, with a well and a garden and orchard beyond, is viewed through the arch in the centre. On the right is a vaulted library with books laid out on desks. The saint's eyes are fixed on a vision over the altarpiece. The vision, executed over gold leaf, is now hard to decipher, as most of the paint has flaked off. Christ, in the centre, is releasing the dove of the Holy Spirit. The surrounding figures include the Four Doctors of the Church and possibly the Four Evangelists. From the predella of the altarpiece painted in 1423-26 for the Arte della Lana. It was on the far left of the predella, next to the Vision of St Thomas Aquinas (Vatican) and under a side panel representing the saint. Purchased in Siena in about 1838-40 by J. A. Ramboux of Cologne as a work of the Pisan Francesco Traini. Around one third of Ramboux's Italian collection was acquired in 1867 by the scholarly Hungarian prelate Arnold Ipolyi, who donated the best works to the Budapest museum in 1872.
Chantilly. Musée Condé.
*Marriage of St Francis and Poverty. Wood, 88 x 52.
The painting draws on accounts of the ‘marriage’ by both St Bonaventura and Thomas of Celano. St Francis places a ring on the finger of Poverty (barefoot and wearing a patched brown dress), one of three women representing the Franciscan Virtues. The Virtues then fly off into the sky, Poverty (looking back at the saint) holding an olive branch, Obedience in red with a yoke around her neck and Chastity in white holding a lily. The panel was in the possession of Prince Demidoff in 1837 and was bought by Frédéric Reiset in 1840. It is one of eight panels representing the Life of St Francis from the back of the huge double-sided polyptych painted by Sassetta in 1439-44 for San Francesco at Sansepolcro. The other seven panels are in the National Gallery, London. The Chantilly panel was first identified by Langton Douglas in his History of Siena (1903). It retains its original frame and is less restored than the London panels.
Cleveland (Ohio). Museum of Art.
Crucifixion with St Francis. Wood, 79 x 38.
This unusual scene of St Francis kneeling at the feet of Christ on the cross formed a centre pinnacle of the San Francesco Altarpiece (1439-44). Previously thought to have been on the back of the double-sided polyptych, it is now known to have been on the front, above the Madonna and Child with Six Angels in the Louvre. On the back, painted on the other side of the same piece of wood, was an Annunciation, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. Formerly in the collections of Prince Johann Georg of Saxony and Gerhard Freiherr von Preuschen of Stuttgart. Acquired by the Cleveland Museum in 1962.
Cortona. Museo Diocesano.
*Madonna and Child with Saints. Wood (transferred to new panel), 255 wide.
A Gothic triptych. In the centre: an exquisite group of the Virgin and Child with two angels seated in the left foreground and right background. On the left: St Nicholas of Bari (wearing a chasuble embroidered with a Pietà and with three gold balls at his feet) and St Michael (weighing souls). On the right: St John the Baptist and St Margaret of Hungary (with a dragon at her feet). In the pinnacles: the Agnes Dei in the centre and the Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation at the sides. The proportions of the figures (eg St Margaret’s long neck) are unusual. From the church of San Domenico at Cortona, where it stood at the top of the left aisle. Fra Angelico’s famous triptych (also now in the museum) was the altarpiece of the corresponding chapel on the right of the high altar. Sassetta’s altarpiece was commissioned by Niccolò di Angelo di Cecco, a wealthy pharmacist. (The four saints in the side panels are the name saints of Niccolò, his two sons and wife.) Usually dated around the mid-1430s. It was probably moved to the sacristy in the late seventeenth century when Niccolò di Angelo’s dynasty died out, but it remained in the church until the twentieth century. Severely damaged by damp during the Second World War, when (together with Fra Angelico’s triptych) it was walled up in the belfry by San Domenico’s parish priest. When it was taken out of its hiding place, it was covered with a thick layer of mould and the paint was coming away from the wooden support. Transferred to a new support during the subsequent restoration.
Detroit. Institute of Arts.
Three Scenes from the Passion of Christ.
The three panels have different provenances: the Betrayal of Christ (38 x 59) was in the collections of the Rev. W. Davenport Bromley and the art historian Mason Perkins; the Agony in the Garden (46 x 61) was in the collection of Lady Ashburnham and was sold at Sotheby’s in 1953; and the Christ carrying the Cross (49 x 64) was in the collections of Erle Drax and Carl Hamilton and was acquired by the Institute in 1924. They clearly belonged to the same predella. Michael Laclotte (1960) argued that this was the rear predella of the San Francesco Altarpiece (1439-44). It is now known, from an agreement between the friars and Sassetta drawn up on 23 January 1439 (published in 1991), that a predella with four scenes from the Passion of Christ was on the front of the altarpiece. Restored in 2007.
Florence. Uffizi (Contini-Bonacossi Collection).
*Madonna of the Snow (‘Madonna della Neve’ ). Wood, 241 x 223.
The Madonna, crowned by angels under a central semicircular arch, is enthroned between pairs of saints under narrow Gothic arches. John the Baptist kneels on the left, with Peter standing behind him; Francis kneels on the right, with Paul standing. The altarpiece is remarkably well documented. It was commissioned on 25 March 1430 by Madonna Ludovica Bertini (a Franciscan tertiary and widow of Turino di Matteo, a wealthy merchant and former head of works of Siena Cathedral) for the chapel of San Bonifazio in the Cathedral (close to the Porto del Perdono and immediately to the right on entering). It was finished by October 1432, when it was valued by the Pisan painter Gualtieri di Giovanni and the Veronese painter Cecchino di Francesco at 180 florins. The main panel is extremely well preserved. The damaged predella shows seven scenes from the legend of the foundation of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. According to a thirteenth-century legend, the Virgin appeared on a summer’s night in AD 352 to Pope Liberius and John, a Roman patrician, telling them to build a church where they found a patch of snow in the morning. The first panel shows John in bed with his wife; the next three panels (depicting the snow fall on the Esquiline hill, the Pope’s dream and the Pope receiving John) are largely destroyed; the fifth panel shows the Pope tracing out the plan of the church in the snow; and the sixth and seventh panels show the building and dedication of the church. In the main panel, the angel on the left holds a platter filled with snow and the one on the right kneads a snowball. The altarpiece was sold in 1592 to the Confraternita di Chiusdino (near Siena). There it remained (originally in the church of San Martino and later in the Town Hall) until 1936, when it was bought, in a neglected state, by Conte Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, who had it restored. Bequeathed to the Florentine Galleries in 1969. (The Contini Bonacossi pictures were transferred to the Uffizi from the Pitti Palace in 1993, but have only been integrated into the general collection since March 2018.) It was once believed that the altarpiece originally had pinnacle panels, but recent technical examination suggests that the work is complete. Restored in 1998.
Florence (Settignano). Villa I Tatti.
*St Francis in Glory. Wood, 195 x 120.
St Francis, arms extended in a mandorla of red seraphim, stands on a prostrate figure of Pride or Wrath (an armoured bearded man with a sword and lion). To the left reclines Lust (a young woman leaning on a black pig and looking in a mirror) and to the right Avarice (a woman, possibly a nun, in black with a wolf, squeezing money bags in a press). Above the saint are three blond angels representing the Franciscan virtues: Charity (with a lily), Obedience (with a yoke) and Poverty (in rags). The green waters probably represent Lake Trasimeno, where St Francis fasted for forty days on an island. The well-preserved panel is from the San Francesco Altarpiece (1439-44). It was in the centre on the back – facing a rectilinear apse with choir stalls of the friars. The frame of the St Francis is recorded as having borne an inscription with the names of the two clerks of works of San Francesco and the date 1444.
St John the Baptist; Beato Ranieri. Wood, each 195 x 57.
These two vertical panels are also from the San Francesco Altarpiece. They have been framed together with the St Francis in Glory as a triptych, but this construction is modern. They were originally on the front of the polyptych, where the John the Baptist was on the left of the centre panel of the Madonna and Child with Six Angels (now in the Louvre) and the Beato Ranieri was beside it on the outside. The three panels at I Tatti were acquired by Berenson in Florence in 1900. He and his wife Mary are said to have discovered them in an antique shop (‘a tiny little out-of-the-way hole-in-the-corner sort of place’) on the Via della Spada when they were shopping for kitchen chairs. The dealer told them that he was going to saw them up the next day to sell as old wood to forgers of Fra Angelicos. Berenson got them for 1,800 lire (around £80).
At some point in their history, the three panels were coated with a thick 'protective' layer of glue. This was removed in a 1977-78 restoration.
Grosseto. Museo d’Arte Sacra.
Madonna (‘Madonna delle Ciliegie’). Wood, 96 x 70.
The Virgin offers a handful of red cherries to the Child, who holds the stalk of one that he has just put into his mouth. (Red cherries are a common motif in Renaissance paintings of the Madonna and Child: as fruits of the first tree to blossom in spring, they can symbolise the Resurrection; as fruits of heaven, they can symbolise Paradise; and, because of their colour, they can symbolise Christ’s blood.) A fragmentary central panel, cut down on all four sides, from a triptych or polyptych. Discovered, in poor condition, in the sacristy of Grosseto Cathedral by Mason Perkins (who published an article on it in a 1904 issue of Rassegna d’Arte). A mature work, perhaps predating slightly the San Francesco Altarpiece of 1439-44. Around this time, a chapel was founded in Grosseto Cathedral by Cardinal Antonio Casini, who was Administrator of the See of Grosseto from 1427 and died in 1439. Israëls (2003) argued that Sassetta’s panel was probably a remnant of an altarpiece painted for the chapel, which was dedicated to the Crucifixion and probably situated to the right of the high altar. The side panels of the altarpiece appear to be lost.
London. National Gallery.
*Scenes from the Life of St Francis. Seven panels, 88 x 52.
The seven scenes are: St Francis clothing a Poor Knight; St Francis renouncing His Father; the Granting of the Indulgence of the Portiuncula (or the Pope recognising the Franciscan Order); St Francis receiving the Stigmata; St Francis before the Sultan; the Wolf of Gubbio; and the Funeral of St Francis. An eighth panel in the series, showing the Marriage of St Francis and Poverty, is at Chantilly. The panels were part of the double-sided altarpiece painted for San Francesco at Sansepolcro. They were arranged in two rows on the back, either side of the central panel of St Francis in Glory (Villa I Tatti, Florence). Above the scenes of the Life of St Francis were four saints in pinnacles. Just one of these (a Saint Augustine now on long-term loan to the Castello di Rivoli Museum of Contemporary Art) is known to survive. The front of the altarpiece showed the Virgin and Child with Angels (now in the Louvre) between four full-length saints in separate panels (two of which are in the Louvre and two at I Tatti).
The altarpiece was originally commissioned from a local artist Antonio d’Anghieri, whose pupil was Piero della Francesca, but progress was so slow that the commission was reassigned to Sassetta. The new contract was signed on 5 September 1437, but work did not start until after February 1439. The completed altarpiece, which was painted in Siena, was set in place over the high altar in June 1444. Sassetta was paid 510 florins. The high price – the highest recorded in Siena for a fifteenth-century altarpiece – reflects its size and complexity and the extensive use of gold and silver throughout. Recent reconstructions suggest that the complete polyptych could have contained as many as sixty panels.
Around 1578-83, the altarpiece was removed from the high altar, some panels being placed in side altars and others stored in the sacristy. After the friary was closed, the altarpiece was sold in 1810 to a certain Cavalier Segiuliani of Arezzo, and the fragments were subsequently widely dispersed. All the large panels have now been found, but many of the smaller panels from the pilasters, pinnacles and predellas are still missing. The seven National Gallery paintings were sold in 1819 to a Florentine dealer, passed briefly into Count Demidoff’s famous collection at San Donato, and then went to France. They were acquired by Duveen in 1925-26 and radically restored (cut from their spandrels, planed down, cleaned and retouched). Sold in 1927 to the New York financier Clarence Mackay, who displayed his choice collection of Renaissance art at his huge chåteau-esque mansion ('Harbor Hill') on Long Island. Mackay was forced to sell his collection after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, and the Sassetta panels were acquired by the National Gallery (through Duveen) in 1934. The St Francis receiving the Stigmata is perhaps the best preserved of the seven and the Wolf of Gubbio is probably the most damaged.
Massa Marittima. Pinacoteca.
Angel of the Annunciation. Wood, 55 x 34.
Very damaged. The companion panel representing the Virgin Annunciate is now in the Yale University Art Gallery. It would be normal for panels such as these to have occupied the pinnacles at the sides of a large altarpiece. Mason Perkins (1911), who discovered the two panels, believed that they crowned the Madonna of the Snow (painted for the chapel of San Bonifazio in Siena Cathedral and now in the Contini-Bonacossi collection at the Uffizi). Federico Zeri argued (in the 1956 Burlington Magazine) that they belonged instead to the triptych painted for the Arte della Lana (parts of which survive at Siena and elsewhere), which is known from eighteenth-century descriptions to have had side pinnacles of the Virgin and Angel Annunciate. They have also been linked to an altarpiece mentioned in seventeenth-century guidebooks as painted for the Petroni Chapel of the church of San Francesco at Siena. No compelling evidence has been unearthed in support of any of these theories.
Melbourne. National Gallery of Victoria.
*Burning of a Heretic. Wood, 24 x 38.
The bearded heretic is burnt at the stake in the centre of the picture, and a winged devil swoops down from the dark sky to receive his soul. On the right, a priest celebrates mass. On the left, guards hold back the crowds. First published by Federico Zeri in 1973, this is the latest of the predella panels from the altarpiece painted in 1423-26 for the Arte della Lana to have been discovered. It came to light in Austria, and was bought by the Melbourne gallery through Agnew’s in 1976. It was one of three panels with a Eucharistic theme in the middle of the predella, the others being the Last Supper (still in Siena) and the Miracle of the Holy Sacrament (now in the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle). They stood beneath the large centre panel of the triptych (now lost), which depicted the unusual scene of the Holy Sacrament in a monstrance held by angels. The heretic in the Melbourne panel has not been certainly identified. A strong candidate is John Huss (Jan Hus), a Bohemian preacher who denied the dogma of transubstantiation, was declared a heretic at the Council of Constance and was burnt at the stake in 1415. Huss was a follower of the English reformer John Wycliffe, whose death may be the subject of the panel in the Bowes Museum. Other candidates are Francesco di Pietro Porcari (who was burnt outside Siena in 1421) and the hermit ‘Nicholaus’ (whose burning is depicted in a fresco, dated 1364, in Orvieto Cathedral). It is also possible that the painting does not depict any particular event but alludes generally to the fate of all heretics who deny transubstantiation.
Moscow. Pushkin State Museum.
Saint Lawrence; Saint Stephen. Wood, 76 x 25.
Both saints are dressed as deacons and hold a book and martyr's palm: Lawrence has his gridiron. Two panels from the pilasters of the San Francesco Altarpiece. They were in the upper tier on the front. Other pilaster figures are in Assisi (Mason Perkins Collection) and the Cini Collection (Venice).
New Haven. Yale University Art Gallery.
Virgin Annunciate. Wood, 80 x 55.
The companion Angel Gabriel is at Massa.Marittima. The two panels are presumed to have formed the side pinnacles of a large altarpiece. Once associated with the Madonna of the Snow (Uffizi) and later with the Arte della Lana Altarpiece (some panels at Siena and elsewhere), they are now regarded as possibly the only surviving remnants of a polyptych of unknown provenance. The Virgin Annunciate was formerly owned by the English art historian Langton Douglas. It was given to the gallery by Hannah and Louis Rabinowitz in 1959.
New York. Metropolitan Museum.
*Journey of the Magi. Wood, 22 x 30.
The cavalcade includes a monkey on a packhorse, a court jester with ass’s ears, and two black camels (cut off at the left). The top fragment of a tall panel representing the Adoration of the Magi. The star on the right points to the manger in the missing lower section, which is in the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini at Siena. (The top of the tiled roof of the stable is just visible along the bottom.) The New York fragment probably had a shaped top, and has also been cropped slightly at the sides. It was sold at Christie’s in 1829 as a work by Pintoricchio and later owned by the art critic Langton Douglas, who was responsible for the attribution to Sassetta. It was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum by Maitland F. Griggs in 1943. Datings have ranged from ‘before 1429’ to ‘after 1444’, with a recent opinion tending towards the mid-1430s.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 64 x 34.
This small altarpiece is exceptionally well preserved (though the bottom and sides of the frame are modern). It reverses the composition of the Madonna in Berlin, which has a similar elaborate double-curved top with the Redeemer blessing and angels crowning the Virgin. It is perhaps the latest of Sassetta’s versions of this subject. A minority of critics, put off by the smooth and rather lifeless handling, have considered it to be at least partly the work of an assistant. First recorded in 1814 in a collection in Rome. Published by Mason Perkins (in Rassegna d’Arte) in 1907, when it was in the collection of Bernard d’Hendecourt in Paris. Bequeathed by the financier George Blumenthal (who was President of the Metropolitan from 1933 until his death in 1941).
Annunciation. Wood (transferred to new panel), 76 x 43.
It had long been suspected (by Pope-Hennessy and others) that this panel originally formed one of the pinnacles of the San Francesco Altarpiece, but it is only recently that conclusive proof has been found. Technical analysis in 2007 established that the Annunciation and the Cleveland Crucifixion were painted on different sides of the same piece of wood. The Annunciation was the centre pinnacle on the back face, above the St Francis in Glory in the Berenson Collection at Villa I Tatti, Florence. It has been transferred from its original poplar panel to one of spruce, and is damaged and repainted. The gilt pilasters and base are modern. Exported from Italy in 1927 and acquired by Robert Lehman in 1934.
*Madonna and Child with Six Angels. Wood, 207 x 118.
The Virgin is crowned Queen of Heaven by two angels and is flanked by four others with musical instruments. At each side of the throne is a hedge of roses. The centre panel of the great double-sided polyptych painted between 1439 and 1444 for San Francesco at Sansepolcro. It was on the front, facing the congregation in the nave. On the back, facing the friars in the choir, was the St Francis in Glory in the Berenson Collection at Villa, I Tatti, Florence.
*Saint John the Evangelist; Saint Anthony of Padua. Wood, each 195 x 57.
Saint John holds a pen and his Gospel; Saint Anthony the fire and a book. Two side panels from the front of the San Francesco Altarpiece. They were on the right – the Saint John next to the Madonna and Child and the Saint Anthony on the outside. Two other full-length figures of saints (John the Baptist and the Beato Ranieri at Villa I Tatti, Florence) were on the left. Four more saints (Peter, Paul, Louis and Clare) were represented in pinnacles above the four side panels, but none of these pinnacle saints is known to survive. The three panels of the Madonna and Child, Saint Anthony and Saint John were discovered by Enzo Carli in 1951 in a museum in Bordeaux and acquired by the Louvre in 1956.
The Beato Ranieri frees the Poor from Prison. Wood, 43 x 63.
The Beato Ranieri Rasini liberates ninety poor people, who had written to him for assistance, from debtors’ prisons in Florence. From the back predella of the San Francesco Altarpiece. In the late nineteenth century, the panel was owned by the French author Paul de Saint-Victor. Acquired by the Louvre in 1965.
The Damnation of the Miser of Citerna. Wood, 45 x 58.
The Beato Ranieri prophesied the death and future torments of a miser from the hill town of Citerna. The panel shows the wicked man’s soul being carried off by demons as the Beato lectures his fellow friars, gathered in the choir of their church, on the evils of avarice. Also from the back predella of the San Francesco Altarpiece. Traditionally ascribed to Fra Angelico or his school, it was once in the collection of Cardinal Fesch and later that of the naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte. Acquired by the Louvre in 1988. There is a third scene from the predella in Berlin, and at least one is lost.
Saint Nicholas of Bari. Wood, 126 x 44.
A panel from the left-hand side of a triptych or polyptych. A Saint Anthony Abbot (now owned by the Monte dei Paschi bank and housed in the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini at Siena), which is similar in size and has similar punched decoration on the saint’s halo, is likely to have been on the right. The two panels may date from around the mid-1430s. Machtelt Israëls (2003) associated them with an altarpiece signed by Sassetta in the chapel of the Petroni family in the church of San Francesco at Siena. The chapel appears to have been dedicated to St Nicholas. The church was all but destroyed by fire in 1655. Formerly in the collection of the writer Anatole France. Acquired by the Louvre in 1981 at a Paris sale (where it was bizarrely described as ‘Venetian School towards 1500’).
Pittsburgh. Frick Art Center.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 41 x 31.
This exquisite but damaged little panel is probably a comparatively late work, contemporary with the San Francesco Altarpiece (1439-44). Helen Frick is said to have acquired it from ‘a French nobleman’.
Angel Gabriel; Virgin Annunciate. Wood, each, 14 x 10.
These tiny panels probably formed the side gables of a small portable triptych. The centre panel was possibly the Madonna in Berlin and the wings were possibly the Saint Apollonia and Saint Margaret at Washington. Once owned by the English travel writer Edward Hutton and later in a private collection in Germany, the two panels had entered Miss Frick’s collection by 1939, when they are discussed in Pope-Hennessy’s Sassetta.
Rivoli (14 km west of Turin). Castello di Rivoli Museo d'Art Contemporanea. On long-term loan from the Cerruti collection.
Saint Augustine. Wood, 43 x 45.
The saint wears a mitre and a bishop's cope over a black Augustinian habit, and he has a pile of books in front of him. A pinnacle from the huge double-sided polyptych painted by Sassetta in 1439-44 for San Francesco at Sansepolcro. It was probably accompanied by pinnacles of the three other Doctors of the Church (Saints Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory the Great), but none of the other pinnacles has come to light. The Saint Augustine was previously in an American private collection (sold at Christie's, New York, in April 2006 for $1.136 million). The collection (mainly modern art) of the late Turin entrepreneur Francesco Federico Cerruti was placed on long-term loan with the Castello di Rivoli Museum in 2017.
Rome. Vatican Pinacoteca.
*St Thomas Aquinas before the Crucifix. Wood, 25 x 29.
The silver leaf used to create the effect of the stained glass windows has largely flaked off, but the panel is otherwise well preserved. It depicts a famous episode from St Thomas’s life. In 1273, when he was praying before a crucifix in San Domenico at Naples, a voice said ‘Bene scripsisti de me, Thomas’ (‘Thomas you have written well of me’). From the predella of the altarpiece painted for the Arte della Lana in 1423-26. Other panels are at Siena, Barnard Castle, Budapest and Melbourne. It is not known when it entered the Vatican collections; it was transferred from the Library in 1909 when the new Pinacoteca was founded.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 73 x 55.
The Madonna of Humility – a composition showing the Virgin seated humbly on the ground (usually, as here, on a cushion) with the Child on her lap – first appeared towards the middle of the fourteenth century and remained popular in Sienese painting for the next hundred years. There are more than a half a dozen versions by Sassetta (others at Berlin, New York, Pittsburgh, Siena, Washington and Zagreb). The Vatican example is exceptionally well preserved and may date from the mid-1430s. It was discovered in 1905 by Mason Perkins in the collection of Conte Filicaia at Florence, bearing an extraordinary attribution to Cimabue. It then passed to a Carlo Angeli of Florence, and was not seen again for many years. .
*Panels from the Arte della Lana Polyptych.
The polyptych, Sassetta’s earliest documented work, was painted between July 1423 (when the Arte della Lana imposed a tax on cloth to finance it) and December 1426. It was a highly elaborate, yet portable, Gothic triptych that the guild used for its outdoor celebration of the Feast of Corpus Domini. It was kept originally in a cupboard in the Arte’s palazzo in the Piazza San Pellegrino (now Piazza Indipendenza), but in 1460 a special chapel, attached to the church of San Pellegrino, was built to house it. The church was damaged by an earthquake in 1798. It was demolished in 1816 and the altarpiece broken up. A number of the smaller panels are in the Siena gallery. The Last Supper (25 x 39) and St Anthony beaten by Devils (24 x 39) are from the predella. Eight thin vertical panels (variously cut down, particularly at the top) decorated the pilasters of the frame. Four of these (each 50 x 17) represent the Patron Saints of Siena (Victor, Ansano, Savino and Crescentius) and four (44 x 13) represent the Doctors of the Church (Jerome, Gregory, Ambrose and Augustine). Half-length paintings (53 x 20) of the Prophets Elijah and Elisha (legendary founders of the Carmelite Order shown wearing the Carmelite habit) formed two of the pinnacles.
The large centre panel (which was probably roughly 150 cm wide) represented the Exaltation of Corpus Domini, with angels carrying the Holy Sacrament in a monstrance above a landscape with two fortified castles. It had a pinnacle of the Coronation of the Virgin above and panels of St Anthony Abbot and Thomas Aquinas (probably each roughly 50 cm wide) at the sides. None of these larger panels has been traced with certainty. The St Anthony Abbot is sometimes identified (probably wrongly) with a panel in the collection of the Banca Monte dei Paschi, Siena. It has been argued (eg by Zeri (1973) and Keith Christiansen (1982)) that two small panels in the gallery, showing panoramic views of a City by the Sea (22 x 32) and a Castle by a Lake (23 x 33), may have been cut from the large central panel of the altarpiece. These panels are alternatively attributed to Ambrogio Lorenzetti or to Francesco di Bartolomeo Alfei (who is documented as having executed a painting of Monte Argentario, near Orbetello, for the magistrates of Siena in 1455).
All the surviving parts of the polyptych (including the predella panels at Barnard Castle, Budapest, Melbourne and the Vatican) were brought together at Siena in 2010 for the exhibition the Arts in Siena in the Early Renaissance.
Saint Bartholomew. Wood, 139 x 46.
A side panel from an altarpiece from the church of San Pietro in Castelvecchio in Siena. The altarpiece – a five-part polyptych with a central image of the Nativity flanked by four panels of saints – was commissioned by Bartolomeo di Francesco Guglielmo for his chapel dedicated to the Christ’s Nativity. It was started by Sassetta, left unfinished at his death in April 1450 and finished by Sano di Pietro. Sassetta’s Saint Bartholomew and Sano di Pietro’s companion Saint Francis were on the right of the central panel and represented the name saints of Bartolomeo and his eldest son Francesco. The altarpiece was replaced in 1703 by a Nativity by Antonio Nasini. The panels by Sassetta and Sano di Pietro entered the Pinacoteca by 1852. As early as 1575, it seems, the gold grounds had been scraped off the panels. Blue overpaint was removed in a restoration of 1970.
Madonna and Child crowned by Two Angels. Wood, 167 x 97.
This large, ruined panel was formerly signed at the bottom of the original frame. It has been speculatively identified with a picture painted in 1438 for the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena for a fee of 40 gold florins. The Virgin and Child are standard types of Sassetta, recurring in the central panel of the polyptych at Cortona, the fragmentary panel at Grosseto, and the small panels at Berlin, New York, Pittsburgh, the Vatican, Washington and Zagreb.
Siena. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 66 x 44.
This small panel came from the parish church of San Giovanni Evangelista at Basciano (a tiny village 13 km from Siena and 10 km from Monteriggioni). It was described there in 1862 (by Francesco Brogi in an official inventory of art works in the Siena region) as a work of Giovanni di Paolo. The attribution to Sassetta was made in 1914 by the American art historian Frederick Mason Perkins. Pope-Hennessy (1939) and Carli (1957) ascribed the panel to Sassetta's workshop, but opinion has tended to be more favourable since the picture – previously quite dirty – was cleaned in 1963. A new restoration was announced in 2020.
Siena. Museo Diocesano d’Arte Sacra (Oratorio di San Bernardino).
God the Father Blessing. Wood, 62 x 40.
From the church of San Pietro in Castelvecchio in Siena, where it was ascribed to Giovanni di Paolo. Later given to the obscure Nicola di Ulisse, it was reattributed to Sassetta in 2010 by Machtelt Israëls (Burlington Magazine) and identified as the pinnacle of the altarpiece started by Sassetta for San Pietro and finished by Sano di Pietro. Sassetta’s panel of Saint Bartholomew from the altarpiece is in the Siena Pinacoteca.
Siena. Biblioteca Comunale.
Crucifixion with St John and the Virgin (17 x 13); Initial Letter E with Christ Blessing (4 x 4).
These two miniatures, painted in tempera on parchment, are included in an illuminated missal of 205 pages. They were attributed to Sassetta in 1975 (by Schoenburg and Waldenburg in the Italian journal Commentari). It has been conjectured that the figure of the crucified Christ, shown frontally and realistically foreshortened, might have replicated, on a miniature scale, that in a monumental crucifix painted by Sassetta in 1433 for the church of San Martino (destroyed in the early nineteenth century, apart from three small fragments in the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini). The attribution has not been universally accepted (Christiansen (1988) seeing the hand of ‘a highly gifted follower’).
Siena. Palazzo Chigi-Saracini.
Fragments of a Crucifix.
The crucifix was painted by Sassetta in 1433 for the church of San Martino in Siena. It remained at the refectory there until 1820, when it was sawn up by the monks so that the wood could be used to make doors. The Busts of St John and the Virgin (each 67 x 56) were from the ends of the crosspiece, while the St Martin and the Beggar (35 sq) was from the base. According to a description of 1782, the crucifix contained a gigantic figure of Christ on a gold ground and the frame was painted to resemble marble. Previously ascribed to Vecchietta, the fragments were recognised as works of Sassetta in 1905 by Langton Douglas and Berenson. The figure of the beggar seems to be derived from Masaccio’s famous ‘shivering man’ in the Carmine frescoes.
Adoration of the Magi. Wood, 32 x 35.
Once supposed to have been part of a predella, this little square panel is (as Pope-Hennessy (1939) was first to realise) the bottom fragment of a tall painting. The upper half of the painting, showing the Journey of the Magi, is in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The three Magi, the courtier with the falcon wearing the large fur hat, the page with the ornate sword and the two greyhounds all appear in both fragments. There are obvious similarities with Gentile da Fabriano’s famous picture of 1423 in the Uffizi, although the direction of the composition is reversed. Sassetta’s panel may have been painted around ten or fifteen years later. It was quite small (the Chigi-Saraceni fragment preserves the original width) and was probably intended for private devotion.
Saint Anthony Abbot. Wood, 135 x 48.
The saint is identified by the little bell hanging from the handle of his stick. The object in his left hand is a circulum precatorium – a sort of rosary. Now owned by the Monte dei Paschi bank of Siena, the panel was discovered in 1956 by Federico Zeri in a private collection in Florence. It is clearly from the right-hand side of a triptych or polyptych. Zeri thought that it formed part of the Arte della Lana Altarpiece, which is known from eighteenth-century descriptions to have had a St Anthony Abbot as one of its side panels. However, the other side panel of the Arte della Lana Altarpiece represented St Thomas Aquinas, whereas the Monte dei Paschi St Anthony seems likely to have had a St Nicholas of Bari, acquired by the Louvre in 1981, as its companion. (The Louvre panel is of roughly the same dimensions and has similar decorative tooling on the saint’s gold halo.) Israëls (2003) suggested that the St Anthony and St Nicholas could have formed the side panels of an altarpiece from the Petroni Chapel of the church of San Francesco in Siena. The chapel’s patron apparently had a son called Antonio, which could account for the presence of St Anthony in the altarpiece.
Siena. San Francesco.
Choirs of Angels. Two fresco fragments, about 220 wide.
From the fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin on the Porta Romana, the monumental fortified double gate on the southeast corner of Siena’s city walls. Sassetta was contracted to paint the fresco on 3 May 1447. By the time he died in 1450, he had painted just the angel choirs in the upper vault of the arch and completed the cartoon for the whole composition. The fresco was completed by Sano di Pietro in 1459-66/68. It has been estimated from recorded payments that the decoration of the Porta Romana cost the huge sum of 1,123 florins, of which 197 florins were paid to Sassetta and his heirs. The fresco was repainted several times, and much damaged by exposure and by allied bombing in 1944. It was detached in the 1970s and the fragments placed high up on the west wall of the church.
Venice. Fondazione Cini.
An Evangelist (St Matthew?). Wood, 71 x 24.
This standing saint probably decorated one of the pilasters on the back of the San Francesco Altarpiece. There were six such saints, three on each side.
Madonna of Humility (‘Perriolat Madonna’). Wood, 79 x 46
One of a number of similar small devotional panels by, or attributed to, Sassetta. The Cini picture differs from the examples in Berlin, New York, Pittsburgh and Zagreb by omitting the motif of the two angels holding a crown over the Virgin’s head. The attribution was accepted by Berenson (1932-68 Lists) and by Zeri and Natale in their 1984 catalogue of Tuscan paintings in the Cini collection, but rejected by Carli (1957) and by Christiansen (1988), who both suspected the hand of the ‘Master of Pienza’ (an anonymous follower or associate of Sassetta named after a portable triptych in the town’s Cathedral Museum). Formerly in the collection of Charles Perriolat of Paris.
Washington. National Gallery.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 48 x 21.
The Virgin sits on a rug on the grass, the Child on her lap. God the Father is represented in the triangular pinnacle. This small, well-preserved picture was the centre of a small portable altarpiece. (The right shutter has been identified as a panel of St Francis in a private collection in Turin.) It may date from the 1430s. The poses of the Mother and Child are similar to those in the panel in Grosseto. First recorded in 1929 at the Steinmeyer Gallery in Lucerne. It briefly belonged to the English travel writer Edward Hutton, and was one of many early Italian paintings acquired by Samuel H. Kress in 1936 from his favourite dealer Contini Bonacossi.
St Margaret; St Apollonia. Wood, each 29 x 11.
Margaret of Antioch is identified by the dragon; Apollonia by the pincers with a tooth. These two slender panels, somewhat worn and scratched, were originally the wings of a small portable altarpiece. The centre panel was once identified as the Washington Madonna of Humility (with which the two panels were once framed), but it is now thought more likely to have been the Madonna in Berlin. The wings were probably topped by gables – possibly the Angel Gabriel and Virgin Annunciate at Pittsburgh. The attribution to Sassetta has usually been accepted, but a number of other names have also been suggested (including Pietro di Giovanni, Giovanni di Paolo and the ‘Osservanza Master’). Acquired before 1913 by Dan Fellows Platt of New Jersey from the art historian and dealer Robert Langton Douglas. Bought from his estate by Kress in 1939.
Zagreb. Strossmayer Gallery.
Madonna of Humility. Wood, 42 x 32.
One of a number of similar small paintings of the Madonna of Humility by Sassetta. Like the examples in Berlin and New York, it includes the motif of angels suspending a crown over the Virgin’s head; but, unlike those, it has a rectangular rather than a shaped top. Unrecorded before 1885, when it was included in the Zagreb gallery’s first catalogue. The painting was probably donated by the gallery’s main benefactor, the Croatian Bishop and politician Josip Juraj Strossmayer. .