National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Annual Bulletin 3, 1979-1980

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Simone Martini's St Catherine of Alexandria: 
An Orvietan Altarpiece and the 
Mystical Theology of St Bonaventure

by Joel Brink

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7  |  8 


1 The lines are from sonnet No. 77 of the Canzoniere and are quoted frorn F. Petrarca, Rime, Trionfi poesie latine, ed. E. Neri, G. Martellotti, E. Bianchi and N. Sapegno, in the series "La letteratura italiana: Storia e testi," Vol. 6 (Milan and Naples: 1951), pp. 115-116. The passage translates:

Even if Polyclitus and all the other famous painters of his time had tried for a thousand years, they never could have seen the smallest part of the beauty that has conquered my heart.

But certainly my friend Simone must have been in Paradise (from where this gentle lady comes), where he saw her and painted her to bear witness in this world to her beauty.

The work was one of those that can be conceived only in Heaven, not here among us where the body veils the soul.

See also sonnet No. 78: "Quando giunse a Simon l'alto concetto...." For these sonnets and Petrarch's theory of art see L. Venturi, "La critica d'arte e Francesco Petrarca," L'Arte, Vol. 25 (1922), pp. 238-244.

2 The most recent studies on the Virgil Frontispiece in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan are: B. Degenhart, "Das Marienwunder von Avignon: Simone Martini 's Miniaturen für Kardinal Stefaneschi und Petrarca," Pantheon, Vol. 33 (1975), pp 191-203; and J. Brink, "Simone Martini, Francesco Petrarca and the Humanistic Program of the Virgil Frontispiece," Mediaevalia, Vol. 3 (1977), pp. 83-117.

3 G. Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. by G. du C. De Vere Vol. I (London: 1912-14), p. 168.

4 The painting in Ottawa (No.6430) has an extensive bibliography of which the most important entries are: B. Berenson, Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance (New York and London: 1909), p. 202 (as Lippo Memmi); A. Venturi, "Un opera di Duccio di Boninsegna a Copenhagen e una di Simone Martini a Vienna," L'Arte, Vol. 24 (1921), pp. 198-201; G. De Nicola, "Due dipinti senesi della collezione Liechtenstein," Bollettino d'arte, Vol. 15 (1922), p. 243; J. Pope-Hennessy, "Three Panels by Simone Martini, " The Burlington Magazine, Vol. XCI (1949), p. 196; R. H. Hubbard, The National Gallery of Canada Catalogue of Painting and Sculpture (Ottawa: 1957), p. 36; G. Paccagnini, Simone Martini (London: 1957), p. 124; E Bologna, Simone Martini (Milan: 1966); C. de Benedictis, "Sull'attivita Orvietana di Simone Martini e del suo seguito, " Antichità viva, Vol. VII, (1968), pp. 3-9; G. Contini and M. C. Gozzoli, L'opera completa di Simone Martini (Milan: 1970), p. 88 no. 6.

5 Today the internal width of the painted field measures 38.4 cm and its height is 75.8 cm. Before the panel was cut and restored, however, the proportions of the field would have been roughly 1:2 or about 40-41 cm for the width (including lost colonettes) and about 80-81 cm for the internal height. This would mean that approximately 4-6 cm have been cut from the base of the painted field.

6 All of Simone's altarpieces which survive from Orvieto are partially dismantled. The altar painting that comes from S. Domenico is preserved in the Opera del Duomo Museum, Orvieto. The central compartment carries a partially obscured signature of the painter as well as a date (M.CCC.XX.-) which appears to be incomplete and may originally have included another digit or two on the end. The altarpiece that could have been created for the Augustinians is now dispersed and its parts can be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, and the Frescobaldi Collection, Florence. For this painting see J. Pope-Hennessy, op cit. and K. Steinweg, "Beitrage zu Simone Martini und seiner Werkstatt, " Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, Vol. VII (1956), p. 164. A recently-cleaned altarpiece whose carpentry has been reconstructed is in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. See J. Brink, "The Original Carpentry of Simone's Altarpiece," Fenway Court (1978), pp. 7-13. The exact provenence of this painting is still uncertain, though some scholars contend it comes from a Franciscan foundation in Orvieto: G. Paccagnini, op. cit., p. 123; G. Contini & M.C. Gozzoli, op. cit., p. 89, no. 11; and R Hendy, European and American Paintings in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (Boston: 1974), p. 238. In "Simone and the Franciscan Zelanti," Fenway Court (1978), pp. 3-6, S. A. Fehm Jr. argues that the iconography of the pinnacles was influenced by Franciscan ideas. For the other panel associated with the Franciscans at Orvieto, see note 7.

7 The painting came to the cathedral museum from a Jesuit church in Orvieto, and most scholars believe it originated from S. Francesco. See F. M. Perkins, Thieme-Becker, Vol. XXXI (1937), p. 66; C. de Benedictis, op cit. , p. 3; and G. Contini & M. C. Gozzoli, op. cit., p. 88, no.5. iconographical and historical evidence will be introduced to support the theory that the painting was produced for the Franciscans. G. De Nicola, op. cit., and F. M. Perkins, op cit., were among the first to suggest that the Ottawa and Orvieto paintings were companion panels from the same altarpiece.

8 I wish to thank Mr Nicodema Pistelli of the Opera del Duomo in Orvieto for providing every assistance during the examination of the panel by Simone Martini, and for allowing new detailed photographs to be taken especially for this study. The panel measures 58.3-59.7 cm wide by 182.7 cm high, and the original base frame would have brought the total height of the compartment to approximately 190-191 cm. It is interesting that an uneven break occurs on the back of the support opposite the modern horizontal cornice and the pinnacle is reinforced from behind with three narrow, metal strips screwed into the support. This suggests that the pinnacle may have been separated from the lower portion of the support sometime during its history. It is also possible that the narrow, vertical moldings framing the sides of the pinnacle are old restorations.

9 A survey of the carpentry proportions of the major, well-preserved polyptychs from the early Trecento in Siena discloses that the width of each side compartment generally relates to that of the central compartment as 1:2. This ratio applies roughly to the Ottawa and Orvieto panels (40-41 cm compared with 58.3-59.7 cm). For the problem of carpentry and design in Tuscan altarpieces and panel paintings of the late Duecento and early Trecento, see J. White, "Measurement, Design and Carpentry in Duccio's Maestà," The Art Bulletin, Vol. LV (1973), pp 334-366 and 547-569; and Duccio - Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop (London: 1979). See also the following articles by J. Brink: "Measure and Proportion in the Monumental Gabled Altarpieces of Duccio, Cimabue and Giotto," Racar, Vol. IV (1977), pp. 69-77; "Carpentry and Symmetry in Cimabue's Santa Croce Crucifix," The Burlington Magazine, Vol. CXX (1978), pp. 645-653; "From Carpentry Analysis to the Discovery of Symmetry in Trecento Painting," Acts of the XXIVth International Congress of the History of Art 1979 (Bologna: in press).

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