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  

The going-in to the divinity of Christ and the contemplation of the angelic hierarchies, which is abstracted in the iconography of the Orvietan altarpiece, is developed in another sermon entitled Itinerarium mentis in Deum (The Soul's Journey into God.) (26) The sermon is considered to be one of St Bonaventure's masterpieces of mystical theology. "The image of our soul," he writes, "should be clothed with the three theological virtues by which the soul is purified, illuminated, and perfected. And so the image is reformed and made like the heavenly Jerusalem....The soul, therefore, believes and hopes in Jesus Christ and loves him, who is the incarnate, uncreated, and inspired Word - the Way, the Truth and the Life." St Bonaventure goes on to observe:

Our soul is also marked with nine levels when within it the following are arranged in orderly fashion: announcing, declaring, leading, ordering, strengthening, commanding, receiving, revealing, and anointing. These correspond level by level to the nine choirs of angels. In the human soul the first three of these levels pertain to human nature; the next three, to effort; and the last three, to grace. Having attained these, the soul, by entering into itself; enters the heavenly Jerusalem, where, beholding the choirs of angels, it sees in them God, who dwells in them and performs all their operations. Hence Bernard says to Eugene that "God loves in the Seraphim as charity, knows in the Cherubim as truth, is seated in the Thrones as equity, reigns in the Dominations as majesty, rules in the Principalities as principle, guards in the Powers as salvation, acts in the Virtues as strength, reveals in the Archangels as light, assists in the Angels as piety." (27)
From this St Bonaventure concludes that God is "all in all," and that Christ, "the Alpha and also the supreme Hierarch, who purifies, illumines and perfects...the entire Church and every holy soul." (28)

At the summit of St Bonaventure's mystical journey of the soul is the supreme hierarchy of the Trinity which provides the origin of all the triple hierarchies extending from the revelations of sacred scripture to the structure of the human soul and the angelic choirs. In St Bonaventure's final synthesis, the Collationes in Hexaemeron, the Seraphic Doctor contemplates the three persons of the Trinity in analogy to the three-fold angelic hierarchy. In this schema, the Father relates to the highest triad of angels, the Son to the inter mediate and the Spirit to the lowest order. The Thrones correspond to the Father in Himself the Cherubim to the Father in the Son, and the Seraphim to the Father in the Holy Spirit, and so on down to the first hierarchy. (29)

After reviewing some of the mystical sermons of St Bonaventure, it is perhaps possible to perceive how the speculative theology of the Seraphic Doctor is abstracted in the iconography of the Orvietan altarpiece. Keeping in mind the trinitarian hierarchal patterns which influence the form and content of the altarpiece, it is easier to appreciate the manner in which Simone Martini 's painting functioned as an object of contemplation in the Trecento, and how in a broader sense it provides scholars today with a revealing pictorial document of the history of Franciscan ideas. In its original state the altarpiece would have supplied the Franciscans at Orvieto with a vivid representational model of St Bonaventure's inner journey of the soul to God, a mystical journey which led from the scripture in the hand of the teaching Christ-child through the angelic hierarchies and ultimately to union with the Holy One in the celestial heights of the central pinnacle. The Ottawa St Catherine of Alexandria (fig. 1) would have complemented this program of mystical meaning superbly. Traditionally a favorite of the Franciscan Order, St Catherine was also the celestial spouse of Christ and was remembered for her wisdom and teaching. Indeed, it is just as Petrarch writes in his sonnet: L'opra fu ben di quelle che nel cielo si ponno imaginar....

The exact historical circumstances that prompted the production of this important altar painting are more difficult to reconstruct. However, if the Franciscans commissioned the tabernacle around 1320, as seems probable, the creation of the painting would have corresponded roughly with St Bonaventure's one-hundredth birthday, sometime between c. 1317 and 1321. (30) Considering that St Bonaventure was born in Bagnorea, a small town near Orvieto, and that Simone Martini's other altarpiece associated with the Franciscans of Orvieto (today in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston) is also imbued with Bonaventurian imagery, this time emphasizing Christ's humanity, the suggestion of a centenary homage to the Seraphic Doctor by his fellow Franciscans is a serious possibility.

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