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These panels form a well-preserved and early example of a painted altarpiece.
The three saints are painted on different wooden panels and their current arrangement differs considerably from their original appearance. They were only set within their present frame in the nineteenth century and initially formed part of a larger altarpiece alongside two other panels, which are now in Florence and Cologne.
The panel on the right portrays Saint Augustine, an important theologian who died in 430 CE. He was also a bishop and is therefore shown here with his bishop’s mitre (head-dress) and crozier (staff).
The middle panel shows the winged Saint Michael, one of the four Archangels, (the leaders of the angels in the Christian heavenly hierarchy). He holds his traditional attribute of scales to determine the worth of someone’s soul.
The third panel depicts the rarely portrayed bishop Saint Geminianus, who gives his name to the Tuscan hill-town of San Gimignano, for which Simone’s altarpiece was painted. All three panels have upper gables with angels in them.
Simone’s patrons, (those who gave him financial support), were the friars of the Augustinian order to whom the church belonged and probably also included local lay people, who helped to fund artistic commissions, and whose souls would be helped by masses said for them after their deaths.
The choice of saints is revealing, not only for the concerns of the patrons for salvation, but also for their institutional and civic identity.
Although unsigned, the three saints are unanimously attributed to the Sienese artist, Simone Martini, (c.1280-85-1344), through comparisons with his other works.
The Fitzwilliam saints, together with a panel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, (now in Florence), would have flanked a central image of the Virgin and Child, (preserved in Cologne), to form an altarpiece, a painting placed over the back of an altar table, which provided a backdrop to the celebration of mass, (receiving the Eucharist, the consumption of bread and wine in a service, as instituted by Jesus at his Last Supper).
This altarpiece was painted for an altar in the church of Sant’Agostino, (Saint Augustine), in San Gimignano, which explains Augustine’s presence here. Simone’s patrons, (those who gave him financial support), were the friars of the Augustinian order to whom the church belonged and probably also included local lay people, who helped to fund artistic commissions, and whose souls would be helped by masses said for them after their deaths. The small figure rising up in prayer on Saint Michael’s scales may be one such patron.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
Mass remains a central part of the Christian liturgy in the Anglican and Catholic traditions, although the particular aspects of the ritual have been revised several times since the fourteenth century. Then as now, the mass focuses on a small, flat wafer of unleavened bread, which is believed to be miraculously transformed in the hands of the celebrating priest, into the body and blood of Christ, (although its external appearance remains unchanged). Altarpieces combining saints with prominent images of Christ and the Virgin are still common in many churches today.
The Fitzwilliam saints, together with their companion panels in Cologne and Florence, form a well-preserved and early example of a painted altarpiece. The choice of saints says a great deal about those who commissioned the altarpiece.
The intercession of, or prayers to, patron saints and the Virgin Mary was important for the fate of one’s soul after death, both to gain entry into heaven and to reduce the time spent in purgatory. Saint Michael was seen as a key intercessor after death and at the Last Judgement. The celebration of masses assisted souls after their death and many individuals left money for masses to be said in their names in their wills.
However, their presence in the altarpiece is revealing, not only for the concerns of the patrons for salvation, but also for their institutional and civic identity. Saint Augustine was patron of the church for which the altarpiece was painted. Saint Geminianus was patron of the town in which that church was situated.
Both the Fitzwilliam collections page and Pharos website offer further information and a reconstruction of the three Cambridge panels with their companions in Cologne and Florence.
A general guide to Italian altarpieces is available on the National Gallery website.
2003, Thames and Hudson[basic]
2003, Yale University Press[intermediate]