In fourteenth-century Italy new interest arose in the life of the early hermits who retired to the Theban and Nitrian deserts in Egypt and lived there alone or in small groups. Vernacular Italian texts based on earlier Greek and Latin hagiographic sources popularized the lives of these cenobitic monks and recluses. This theme soon appeared in contemporary art too: in several Italian cities (Pisa, Siena, Florence) monumental frescos instructed the faithful on the exemplary life of the ascetic desert fathers. In fifteenth-century Florence versions painted on large wood panels were also made. Several of these, including the Budapest panel, survive in complete or fragmentary state.
This picture shows various events from the everyday life of the hermits. Most of these cannot be traced to a precise written source and do not relate an actual story; they rather show the fathers' typical activities, often emphasizing the harmonious and mutually supportive relationship between them. Several hermits are carried about in simple litters or pulled in hand-carts by their younger companions or, in one case, two lions. A holy man carried by four younger brothers in the upper left corner blesses a group of monks kneeling before him. Others go about their business alone: some ride deer and donkeys, some are depicted leaning on their walking sticks and crutches. Two anchorites have retreated into small hermit's huts and are visited or fed by their disciples. Another two have retired from the world to inaccessible caves in the rocks and have their food lowered to them in baskets. Yet another recluse monk praying on a hilltop is fed by an angel. In the foreground the burial of the saint, perhaps the fourth-century hermit and church father Ephraim of Syria, can be seen. The saint's body is laid in state on a bier covered with a red carpet and surrounded by monks who express their sorrow in various ways. To the right of this scene, two brothers tend to a vegetable garden separated by a fence from the house behind, in front of which two figures are engaged in conversation.
The setting of these scenes is a fable-like, rocky wilderness scattered with trees, which must have best expressed for the late medieval Italian beholder the inhospitable environment described in the legends. As if to emphasize the latter, lions appear in several places: a lioness sees to her young at the entrance of a cave, a male lion rests in long grass in the shadow of a projecting cliff, and a third lion feeds on its captured prey on a hill.
The rocky landscape also features several buildings, among them churches characterized by slender, Gothic proportions and accentuated by the bright light. In accordance with pictorial tradition rooted in fourteenth-century Italian painting, the buildings do not have realistic proportions and appear like maquettes when compared to the figures. In the foreground there is a stretch of water, perhaps referring to the Nile, over which anthropomorphic winds blow out the sails of fragile sailboats.
The Budapest painting was once much larger: it in fact constitutes the left half of an originally c. 205 cm-wide panel, another fragment of which, corresponding approximately to the right quarter of the composition, was formerly in the Bartolini Salimbeni collection in Florence (c. 67 × 56 cm). The composition closely follows a monumental painting executed by Mariotto di Nardo around 1400, now likewise dismembered and divided between the Christian Museum in Esztergom and a British private collection. A third, intact composition that perfectly corresponds to the surviving sections of the Budapest-ex Bartolini Salimbeni panel, is in the Uffizi in Florence. Leading scholars have attributed both the Budapest-ex Bartolini Salimbeni and the Uffizi versions to the young Dominican friar known as Fra Angelico. At the same time, opinions on the Uffizi panel are not unanimous: it has been recently suggested that it is a later copy after the Budapest-ex Bartolini Salimbeni painting. The technical examination of both panels carried out at the Florentine conservation institute Opificio delle Pietre Dure in 2003 would seem to underpin the latter view.
The original function of the Thebaid panels remains unclear. It is possible that they formed part of the furniture or wainscoting in a communal room (sacristy, chapter house) of a religious order that attached special importance to the values of eremitic life. Such orders included the Camaldolese and the Vallombrosians but recently it was also put forward that Mariotto di Nardo's work was commissioned by the Dominicans at the friary of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Alternatively, the panels could have been made for private devotion and placed on the wall of a family chapel. Indeed, such a panel, about 233 cm-wide and attributed to Fra Angelico, appears in the inventory of the Medici Palace drawn up after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492. Another Thebaid, valued at less than a quarter of the previous panel and measuring about 78 × 226 cm, was at this time in the chapel of the Medici villa at Careggi. Regarding their provenance, the possibility also remains that the Medici acquired these panels from a monastic environment. Although the Budapest-ex Bartolini Salimbeni is somewhat smaller than these recorded pieces, if envisaged with a 10-15 cm-wide frame (whose former presence is attested along the edges of the Budapest fragment) it may be identical with either of them.
Text: © Dóra Sallay