In the early 1300s, a group of men and women gathered each evening in a private chapel to sing songs of praise from a luxurious book of hymns, or laudario. This one was painted by the two best illuminators in Florence in the 1340s. The pages of the manuscript were dispersed by the early 1800s and 31 pages or fragments are known today in collections in the United States and in Europe.
The Laudario was commissioned by a group of worshippers called the Compagnia di Sant'Agnese (Confraternity of Saint Agnes) that sang at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Kneeling figures can be found on many of the pages, perhaps as references to individual patrons who paid for portions of the book or possibly as visual stand-ins for perpetual prayer and song.
The Compagnia di Sant’Agnese gained fame for an annual springtime performance that commemorated Christ’s Ascension, when he rose from the dead following crucifixion. Set pieces were displayed in the church where they met, and an elaborate pulley system allowed an actor dressed as Christ to be hoisted high into the nave. This page provides a glimpse into the splendor of that event.
Leaf from the Laudario of Sant'Agnese (about 1340) by Pacino di BonaguidaThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The Compagnia also led public processions through the neighborhoods of Florence to the church of Santa Maria del Carmine. The group’s private chapel is the small white building connected to the East (left) side of the church.
This luminous illumination depicts Christ’s Ascension.
The Virgin Mary, in a blue cloak at left, and the twelve Apostles gaze upward as angels surround Christ.
Two additional angels stand at either side of the page and play musical instruments—a psaltery (similar to a harp) on the left and a lute on the right. Professional musicians sometimes accompanied the singing from the manuscript.
The hymns are in Italian, which would have evoked the liveliness of secular music, rather than the more typical Latin of public church music. This line says, “Laudate la surrezione…,” meaning “Let us praise the resurrection.”
Leaf from the Laudario of Sant'Agnese (about 1340) by Pacino di BonaguidaThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Music was a means by which Christians at the time expressed their devotion to God. A lauda (hymn of praise) consisted of a simple melody sung by a soloist, followed by a choral refrain.
Scholars consider Pacino di Bonaguida to be one of the illuminators of the Laudario of Sant’Agnese. Pacino and his workshop were well known in Florence for painting manuscripts and devotional altarpieces on wood panels.
This triptych (a painting with three panels) by Pacino once stood on an altar in the convent of Santa Maria Regina Coeli in Florence, located across town from Santa Maria del Carmine. It was made at the same time as the Laudario, in the early 1340s, and was commissioned by a holy layperson known as the Blessed Chiarito del Voglia.
Chiarito is depicted multiple times. At the lower center, he has three remarkable visions related to the religious rite of communion. In one vignette, Chiarito sees sheaves of wheat sprouting from the Host (the consecrated bread representing Christ’s sacrificed body), and in another, he sees the crucified Christ emanating from the Host as rays of light. In the final scene, Chiarito receives the emblem, and a line of gold leaf connects him to the larger image above.
The central panel shows Christ in majesty surrounded by the Apostles, who kneel to receive communion through narrow tubes emanating from Christ’s navel.
One of those tubes connects Chiarito with this mystical event. Pacino sculpted the narrative in gesso (similar to plaster) and embellished it with gold leaf and designs from metal punches.
The outer wings of the altarpiece show scenes from Christ’s Passion, the events leading up to the Crucifixion . . .
. . . and Chiarito standing before a group listening to a sermon as the participants . . .
. . . are blessed with rays of light from the Trinity (the Christian concept of God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit).
Pacino excelled at storytelling, a quality that made him one of the most highly sought-after artists of his generation.
The Chiarito Tabernacle (1340s) by Pacino di BonaguidaThe J. Paul Getty Museum
Returning to the Laudario of Sant’Agnese, several illuminations present horrific scenes of torture and martyrdom by Christians who would become saints for their pious bodily sacrifice.
Here Saint Lawrence, a third-century Roman deacon, endures torture on a flaming grill as several Roman soldiers and two judges look on. He was punished for giving away church funds to the needy.
At the upper right, two angels lift Saint Lawrence's soul up to heaven where God receives him with open arms. Worshippers at the time regarded saints as important role models and often appealed to them for help and spiritual guidance.
The artist rendered flesh tones using several layers of paint, starting with a layer of green, then pink, and finally white, with brown or black outlines for features. The same layering technique can be seen in hair and in garments, revealing the prismatic palette available at the time.
Although this page has been cut down, the back preserves lines of music and text, as well as the original page number: 101. Nearly every other page in the Laudario of Sant’Agnese would have contained large painted scenes like this one.
The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (about 1340) by Pacino di BonaguidaThe J. Paul Getty Museum
The second artist of the Laudario of Sant’Agnese is called the Master of the Dominican Effigies, whose name is taken from a famous painting depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary enthroned among 17 saints of the Dominican Order. Today the painting can be seen at the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence.
At the bottom of this page, another member of the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese kneels in prayer and gazes up at an impressive scene.
The illumination depicts an event known as Pentecost, in which the Holy Spirit (shown as a dove) descends on Christ's followers, endowing them with the ability to speak foreign languages and preach throughout the world.
The figures react to the event in diverse ways: one reads from a book, some hold up a finger in exclamation, one confers with a friend, and others look up in silent awe.
The scene does not take place inside a house as recounted in the Bible but underneath a Gothic tabernacle with a starred vault, resembling the architecture of the period in which the manuscript was made.
In the four corners of the page, the artist depicted saints who were important to the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese: Dominic at upper left, Francis at upper right, and two women at the bottom.
The left is likely Agnes, after whom the group is named, and the right is probably Catherine of Alexandria.
Pentecost (about 1340) by Master of the Dominican EffigiesThe J. Paul Getty Museum
This page by the Master of the Dominican Effigies was located toward the end of the manuscript on page 121. The illumination celebrates the feast of All Saints (November 1), and the illuminator depicted 46 holy figures in the central scene and in the roundels at either side.
A few individuals stand out. A large cross divides the group in half, and in the bottom row at center are two bearded men wearing brown and white robes.
They are likely Elijah and Elisha, prophets from the Hebrew Bible and patron saints of the Carmelite religious order, which includes the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, where the manuscript was used.
Another key saint is Agnes, who holds a lamb. She is said to have sung hymns while being beheaded for refusing to marry and renounce her devotion to Christ.
Here again we see two members of the Compagnia di Sant’Agnese, a man and a woman, and music-making angels all around the page. Just above is a line of music that reads, “Let us praise all the saints.” The scribe wrote the letters in ink in order to ensure enough space for the gold letters.
Christ and the Virgin Enthroned with Forty Saints (c. 1340) by Master of the Dominican EffigiesNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
As noted earlier, the Laudario of Sant’Agnese was dispersed by the early 1800s and 31 pages or fragments are known today in collections in the United States and in Europe.
This page attributed to Pacino di Bonaguida was later glued onto a support, making it difficult to determine the original position in the manuscript.
A team of curators, conservators, and conservation scientists at Getty Museum, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, and elsewhere continue to study the book’s construction and the materials used by the artists at the dawn of the Renaissance.
Christ in Majesty with Twelve Apostles (c. 1320) by Workshop of Pacino di BonaguidaNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
For more on the Laudario of Sant’Agnese, see the following resources:
Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance: Painting and Illumination, 1300-1350
Essay on the Laudario of Sant’Agnese by Bryan C. Keene
The 31 surviving pages or fragments from the Laudario of Sant’Agnese can now be found in the following institutions: Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Bergh; Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett; Cambridge, The Fitzwilliam Museum; Cambridge, Queens’ College; Chicago, The Art Institute; Compiègne, Musée Antoine Vivenel; Florence, collection of Enrico Frascione; Geneva, Comites Latentes Collection, Bibliothèque de Genève; London, The British Library; Los Angeles, Getty Museum; New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York, The Morgan Library & Museum; Paris, Musée du Louvre; Philadelphia, The Free Library of Philadelphia; Rauris, Austria, collection of Dr. Friedrich Georg Zeileis; formerly Rome, Mario Salmi collection; formerly Strasbourg, Forrer collection; Switzerland, private collection; Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art.
To cite these texts, please use: "Laudario of Sant’Agnese," published online in 2020 via Google Arts & Culture, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.