15TH C. ITALIAN Altarpieces: TRADITION AND INNOVATION

         The history of the Christian altarpiece is difficult to pin down. During the 4th century, it became customary to construct altars directly above the tombs of saints. The only objects allowed on the stone slab were the Bible and the accessories needed to perform the Eucharist. By the 9th century, the pope permitted the display of reliquaries, containers with relics, on the surface of the altar. Prior to this development, the physical traces of saints were hidden from view underneath the structure or inside a niche covered with grating. After 1000 AD, a series of decorative panels called an antependium would be crafted along the entire width of the front. In Italy, the original format of an altarpiece was a detachable, horizontal series of panels hung over the table featuring the Virgin or Christ in a center panel along with saints in others. By the turn of the 13th c., however, priests had begun conducting mass from the front of the altar and a choir screen divided the laity from the clergy, blocking decorations at the high altar from public view. Chapels with side altars originated before the 10th century and were initially used for private ceremonies by clergy. During the 13th c., laypeople venerated particular saints at these devotional altars where altarpieces frequently served as reliquaries. Certain ecclesiastical orders, dependent on alms for sustenance, realized the effectiveness of images to stimulate devotion within the illiterate masses. The polyptych, a tiered structure made of four or more joined panels, was introduced in the 14th c. Its frame typically resembled the architecture on the face of a Gothic church.

Giovanni di Pietro da Pisa was active between the last decade of the 14th c. and the year 1423 in Genoa. This object is a standard medieval altarpiece with its conjoined panels and gold background. Thin gold leaf was applied to the wood by assistants in a workshop through an elaborate process. The spires, pinnacles, pilasters and pointed arches are Gothic architectural elements.
This piece was commissioned for the main altar of the Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence where the artist served as a monk. The picture plane is not interrupted by the arches of the frame. The predella, the horizontal piece at the base of the structure, contains scenes from the life of St. Benedict framed in quatrefoil. The lengthy figures are painted in the International Gothic style, which spread to Italy from Northern Europe in the 14th century. This manner of painting included landscape and limited perspective, but figures were stylized in order to appeal to aristocratic tastes.
This polyptych was commissioned for a private chapel of Palla Strozzi, a prosperous Florentine banker. Gentile da Fabriano, a strong proponent of the gothic tradition, worked in various cities of Italy including Siena, Urbino, Venice and Florence. Like in Monaco's Coronation of the Virgin, the picture plane is not divided by arches. The rounded arches are classical, not gothic. There is a continuous narrative as the three magi make their journey towards Bethlehem, passing through the town of Jerusalem and the city gate before reaching their final destination in the foreground. The landscape lacks realistic proportions and linear perspective. However, the crowded space with people and animals radiates a sense of joy.
Various brocades can be seen on clothing, which were made using tooled gold and embedded jewels as materials.
This altarpiece was installed within a chapel belonging to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. Fra Angelico studied under Lorenzo Monaco. He imitates Monaco’s arrangement of figures and use of bright colors in his rendering of the scene, but utilizes a single panel. The artist also drew from the perspective schemes of Masaccio and Brunelleschi. The saints stand along orthogonal lines with the Virgin and Christ situated at the focal point. Gold ground emphasizes the setting of the heavenly realm.
This single panel altarpiece was commissioned for the high altar of Saint Ambrogio. Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite friar who enjoyed the patronage of the powerful Medici family of Florence. The artist produced many works portraying the Virgin Mary, who recalls a contemporary Florentine woman in the style of her dress and hair. Her facial expression is noted for its sweetness. Some of his figures of the Virgin are thought to be modeled on a woman with whom he had an illicit relationship.
Fra Filippo Lippi was one of the first artists to create devotional images in the form of a tondo, a circular shape. Two prominent roundels, preceding the development of the tondo, can be found on this altarpiece.
A number of the figures are modeled on members of the Bernardine monastic order. Filippo himself is depicted as a kneeling monk and the Latin text on the scroll succinctly identifies him as the creator of the work.
This painting, commissioned for the high altar of the Santa Lucia dei Magnoli church in Florence, is interesting for a number of reasons. It is an early example of the sacra coversazione- the convention of showing the Virgin Mary surrounded by saints who lived during disparate time periods engaged in deep conversation of a theological nature. Further, the single-panel design was novel. Foreshortening of the architecture creates the illusion that this altarpiece is a triptych. Natural lighting is present and the lines within the perspective scheme converge on the womb of the Madonna in reference to the immaculate conception of Christ.
Sano di Pietro was the director of a workshop in Siena that produced commissions for private, religious as well as civic purposes. This triptych conventionally isolates the Madonna and Child from the two saints, St. James and St. John the Evangelist. An atypical characteristic of this altarpiece is that there is only one saint on either side of the Madonna. Each figure appears quite stoic and graceful. Sienese art of the 15th century was deeply imbued with the ornate Gothic style which was fostered in commissions by the Republican government. Meanwhile, artists in Florence were adopting naturalism.
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