Friday, November 13, 2020

The Collegiate Church of San Gimignano (Part 5)

As we have seen in the previous posts in this series (part 1; part 2; part 3; part 4), the Collegiate Church of the Assumption in San Gimignano, Italy, has preserved a really unusual amount of high quality fresco on the walls of its side aisles, and in the chapel dedicated to the city’s patron Saint Fina. It is also home to two of the most remarkably well-preserved wooden religious sculptures of the Italian Renaissance, the works of a sculptor named Jacopo della Quercia (1374 ca. - 1438), who came to San Gimignano to do them around the year 1421; they were painted by Martino di Bartolommeo in 1426. It is almost unheard-of for wooden statues from this period to survive without getting broken AND without losing any of their original paint. As mentioned previously, the feast of the Annunciation was kept as New Year’s Day in Tuscany until the mid-18th century, and was the day on which a communal baptismal ceremony was held for all of the healthy children born within the previous year. These sculptures, of the Angel Gabriel (with Jacopo’s signature on the base) and the Virgin Mary (with Martino’s on the base), were probably intended to be carried in a procession on the feast, leading up to the baptismal rite. Jacopo della Quercia is one of the very few sculptors who worked equally well in wood, marble and bronze, and an important figure in the passage from the highly stylized figures of the Gothic period to the more naturalistic works of the Italian Renaissance. We see this particularly well here in the pose of the Virgin Mary, as the artist captures the moment when the Angel speaks to Her and says “Fear not!” (All photos by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

The sculptures stand on ledges to either side of a fresco of the martyrdom of St Sebastian, commissioned in 1465 after an outbreak of the plague from Benozzo Gozzoli, who also did the Virgin of the Assumption seen behind the statue of the Angel Gabriel, and the image of St Anthony the Abbot behind the statue of the Virgin.
Directly above the later image of St Sebastian, the painter Taddeo di Bartolo painted these medallions of the Four Evangelists, and the scenes of the saved in Paradise (left), the Last Judgment (center), and the damned in Hell (right), in 1393 or 1403. Like every Tuscan who tackled this subject matter in the Renaissance, Taddeo takes a good deal of inspiration from Dante’s Divine Commedy, particularly in the vivid depiction of the tortures of the damned.
In the later 14th and early 15th centuries, artists were still experimenting with various pigments; in this image, the black halos are the result of using a new material to make a gold color, which probably had too much white lead in the mixture, and has corrupted over time.

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