Rembrandt, 350 years after his death

Rembrandt (and follower, see below, Simeon in the Temple, 1669, oil on canvas, 98,5 x 79,5 cm, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

On the 5 of October 1669, 350 years ago, a day after Rembrandt’s passing, notary Gerrit Steeman came round to take stock of his possessions. There were 22 paintings, “both finished and unfinished”, stored in the entrance hall in the small rental house on Rozengracht in Amsterdam where Rembrandt lived with Cornelia, his nearly 15-year-old daughter with Hendrickje. Rembrandt and Hendrickje, who had died in 1663, were not married and so Cornelia, as their illegitimate daughter, had no claim to any of Rembrandt’s belongings. There were more unfinished paintings, number not mentioned, in the parlour.

This time, unlike his bankruptcy inventory, Rembrandt wasn’t around to tell the notary what was what so we are kept guessing. Present that day, apart from Titus’ widow Magdalena van Loo (who would die not two weeks later, she was buried in Westerkerk on 21 October), was Christiaen Dusart, young Cornelia’s guardian. According to the notary: “The remaining property, including paintings, drawings, curios, antiques and other objects have been placed in three separate rooms, the door of which were locked by me, the notary, in addition, this door was sealed with my signet and the keys were taken into my custody.”

Detail from a page from the probate inventory drawn up on 5 October 1669, Amsterdam City Archives

The reason was very likely that Magdalena, and Dusart on behalf of young Cornelia, were undecided whether to accept the inheritance. I don’t blame them. Knowing Rembrandt’s pattern of spending, there may have been more stuff encumbered with debt than there were assets. But that hesitation has deprived us from knowing what Rembrandt was working on when he died.

“Curios, antiques and other objects” – Rembrandt, in spite of his bankruptcy, had started collecting again. Although these objects were locked away and not itemised in the death inventory as they were in the bankruptcy inventory we nevertheless get a glimpse of what they comprised through Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen (1631-1690).

Portrait of Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen by Redolphus van Walsburgh, before 1670, HRvA, The Hague 

Van Brederode was a bit of a social upstart. The son of an Amsterdam whitesmith and shopkeeper, he became an amateur genealogist who strove his whole life to prove that he was descended from the aristocratic Van Brederode family – without much success. Nevertheless, as can be seen in the portrait Redolphus van Walsburgh painted of him, he appropriated the name and the Van Brederode coat of arms. His interest in heraldic paraphernalia took him to Rembrandt’s house. Pieter was especially interested in a helmet reputedly once worn by 13th century lord Gerard van Velsen.

Facsimile page from one of Pieter van Brederode van Wieringen’s notebooks, HRvA, The Hague.

In his notebook he jotted down what he saw in Rembrandt’s house under the heading “Antiquities and curios collected over a time by Rembrant van Rym 2 October 1669”. Interesting that he notes, beside the helmet and a few other objects, “four pieces of flayed arms and legs anatomized according to Vesalius”. Whether he spoke with Rembrandt and if so in what condition he found the painter (was he already ill?) he alas does not say.

We know, thanks to the invaluable Abraham Bredius who published it in 1909, that the painter Allaert van Everdingen and his son, the playwright Cornelis van Everdingen saw Rembrandt working on a painting representing “Simeon” in the months prior to his death. This has to be the sadly damaged and fragile painting now in Stockholm. There is no proof that I am aware of that this was “on his easel” when Rembrandt died, as some have published, but it must have been among the “works finished and unfinished” as noted by the notary.

Incredibly fragile today, it is one of Rembrandt’s most moving paintings on a theme he had so often depicted in his career: the story in the Gospel of Luke of devout Simeon who, as an old man, had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Saviour. Holding the new-born baby Jesus in his arms, sings his canticle “Nunc dimittis”. The passage in the Gospel of St. Luke reads as follows:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.” – Luke 2:25.

Next to Simeon a woman can be seen. But there’s another twist: the painting was once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, who is known to have “improved on” the Rembrandts paintings in his collection. Could the rather unconvincing figure to the right of Simeon be his? It wouldn’t surprise me. 



Fit for a Queen: Amsterdam’s 1898 Rembrandt exhibition

The Late Rembrandt exhibition in London and Amsterdam prompted me to reflect on the first Rembrandt exhibition held in Amsterdam in 1898. Any comparison between a pioneering exhibition held 127 years ago and a so-called “blockbuster” staged today would be pointless and unfair, but it is interesting to see where it all started, what the motivations of the organisers were and how the exhibition was received by the public. In addition, the 1898 exhibition was the point of departure for attribution debates which still continue today.

The new Queen and the new King of Painters

Thérèse Schwartze, official inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Dutch Royal Collecion

Thérèse Schwartze, inaugural portrait of Queen Wilhelmina, 1898, Royal Palace Amsterdam

In 1898, when she would have reached the tender age of 18, Princess Wilhelmina’s inauguration as Queen of The Netherlands would take place in the capital, Amsterdam. The solemn event was to be accompanied by festivities, pageants and historic and folkloric exhibitions in the young Queen’s honour. These had been years in the planning but it was not until January 1897 that the idea for an Old Masters exhibition was launched. On the initiative of the influential Abraham Bredius, a member of Amsterdam artist society Arti and Amicitiae, and his former assistant art historian Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, this idea was rejected in favour of an exhibition dedicated to the newly rediscovered King of Dutch Painters: Rembrandt. The 1898 exhibition would be the first ever exhibition dedicated to a single Old Master. With royal approval duly received in September 1897, exactly one year before the exhibition would open, the special exhibition committee, which included artist members of Arti et Amicitiae and honorary member art historian Wilhelm von Bode, could set to work in earnest.

Securing loans: success and disappointment

It was evident that the very few remaining Rembrandts in Dutch collections would not suffice and that foreign loans would have to be secured. Once Queen Victoria agreed to lend two Rembrandt paintings, the German Emperor and other (mostly aristocratic) collectors and institutions soon followed suit. In six months Hofstede de Groot secured the loans of 124 paintings and over 350 drawings from all over Europe, an astonishing feat.

Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, possibly by Ferndinand Bol, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

Ferdinand Bol (?), Portrait of an old woman, perhaps Elisabeth Bas, c. 1640-5, Rijksmuseum

From the start the Rijksmuseum had made its four Rembrandts, the Night Watch, the Syndics, the Jewish Bride and the fragment of the Anatomy Lesson of Dr Deyman, available for the exhibition. For the public favourite, however, the Portrait of “Elisabeth Bas”, today no longer considered an autograph work, the museum’s insurance demands were so excessive that the painting could not be included. The reason for this may have been a furious letter sent to Rijksmuseum’s director Van Riemsdijk by the family that had bequeathed the painting to the Dutch State in 1880, stating unequivocally that such a loan would violate the conditions of the bequest.

Other disappointments followed: Stockholm’s Museum declined to send Rembrandt’s Claudius Civilis and some drawings on the – understandable – grounds that it considered the transportation risks too high; the Scottish National Gallery simply replied that it never lent art works. Perhaps the greatest disappointment was the Six family’s refusal to lend Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jan Six, a decision that met with criticism in the local press.

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt's "Diana and Actaeon", Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Exhibition label from the back of Rembrandt’s “Diana and Actaeon”, Wasserburg Anholt collection, Isselburg

Venue: the Stedelijk Museum

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum in its opening year 1895 with the Rijksmuseum in the background, photographer Jacob Olie, City Archives Amsterdam

The Stedelijk Museum, which had opened its doors to the public in 1895, had been selected as venue from the first and graciously agreed to make a number of its galleries available free of charge. That the Rijksmuseum, which had opened only ten years earlier, was not considered may have been due to public disappointment with its poor lighting conditions. Although the Stedelijk Museum had been built along the same lines (ground floor rooms with light flooding in from windows and first floor galleries lit by skylights), the size of windows, skylights and rooms were better aligned so that the Stedelijk Museum’s lighting plan was deemed more successful.

One of the rooms in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrand drawings, 1898

Room 26 in the Stedelijk Museum exhibiting Rembrandt drawings, 1898

Paintings and drawings formed the nucleus of the first Rembrandt exhibition but it also included 400 reproductions of absent paintings which had been made available by the French publisher of Bode’s 1897 book on the artist so that Rembrandt’s painted and drawn oeuvre was represented in its entirety (according to the standards of the time). Rembrandt’s etchings would be exhibited simultaneously in the Rijksmuseum, but few people would bother to go there. Drawings were grouped according to lenders: Museum Fodor, Teylers Museum, the Dresden and Weimar collections and private collectors among whom A. von Beckerath (Berlin), John Postle Heseltine (London) and Léon Bonnat (Paris). There appears to have been no catalogue of the drawings, nor are there photographs of the display of the reproductions.

“Aesthetic hangings”

Today monograph exhibitions are organised chronologically or thematically. The Rembrandt exhibition of 1898 was organised aesthetically which involved rigid, strictly symmetrical groupings of paintings.

The "aesthetic hang" in one of the exhibition galleries, 1898

The “aesthetic hang” in room 27, 1898

In the center of each wall would be a large and preferably important painting, flanked by three, four and in a few cases even five corresponding formats, preferably in comparable frames and with the necessary thematic diversion among pairs. Three artists and Arti et Amicitiae members, among whom the painter George Breitner, were responsible for this concept which today would be unthinkable.

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

Room 28 of the exhibition, looking into room 27

At the time, the “aesthetic hang” met with great approval. Art critic Paul Schumann, writing in the Dresdener Anzeiger (late October 1898), was delighted that the paintings

… are hung with great artistic sensibility. Everything that could distract from Rembrandt’s masterpieces has been avoided; these alone shine, happily not in chronological order but solely according to aesthetic merit so that one’s appreciation for the genius who created the works only increases.

The Night Watch light controversy

An amusing controversy accompanied the exhibition. In 1898 Rembrandt’s Night Watch was to be shown in one of the Stedelijk Museum‘s smaller ground floor rooms: the outcome of heated debates that had started as soon as the Rijksmuseum had opened its doors in 1885. In the Trippenhuis, the Rijksmuseum’s precursor, the painting had been lit from windows on its left, the same light direction Rembrandt had applied to his painting.

Cartoon on the light controversy by W. van Konijnenbelt in the Nederlandsche Spectator, 12 November 1898. Rembrandt's statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out

Rembrandt’s statue despairs as Josef Israëls (on the ground) and others battle it out. Nederlandsche Spectator, 1898.

From 1885 the painting was housed in the specially designed Rembrandt Gallery in the new Rijksmuseum. No longer could the painting be admired in its familiar domestic environment but instead was fixed in a monumental, immovable frame between two columns in a pompously decorated gallery hung with theatrical draperies where – even worse – it was lit by skylights. Contemporary artists in particular protested vehemently and veteran artist Josef Israëls fulminated in an 1889 newspaper that the “once so resonant and lively painting now hangs in the Rijksmuseum and is trampled to death.” Not surprisingly, the “pro side light lobby” anxiously awaited the opportunity to prove its point. On 30 August 1898 the enormous painting, newly framed and securely crated, was transported from the Rijksmuseum across Museum Square to the Stedelijk Museum. Once it had arrived at the Stedelijk Museum, the painting – not without difficulty – was hoisted through the window of Room 6.

Sketch by Jozef Israëls of the Night Watch in its room at the Stedelijk Museum, 1898

Jozef Israëls, sketch, 1898, Rijksmuseum

No images of the Night Watch in its temporary housing have survived other than a hasty sketch by Jozef Israëls, but its display with the desired lighting conditions was a resounding success with most art lovers. The Rotterdamsche Courant raved:

This room on the ground floor receives a warm sunlight coming from two windows on the side which can be darkened by curtains if desired. In addition glass curtains ensure that sunlight does not fall directly on the painted surface. The painting, in a simple rosewood frame, stands on the floor. Visitors coming from the dark front hall and entering the room find themselves immediately in the most favourable lighting conditions.

Visitor numbers

The success of an exhibition, then as now, is measured in visitor numbers. The 1898 exhibition counted on the most “civilised” part of the population which becomes clear from the exhibition poster (in French!) and the prohibitive entrance fee of 2.50 guilders. During the official run of the exhibition 43,000 people from the “better classes” visited. A three-day extension was proposed and granted so that the less affluent would be able to visit the exhibition for the much lower admission fee of 25 cents. With 8,000 additional visitors the total visitor number rose to 51,000, an average daily total of 800 “affluent” people during the first two months and 2,500 during the additional three days.

Various publications in four languages accompanied the exhibition, all with texts by Hofstede de Groot. A sober catalogue listed all paintings chronologically, but people could also subscribe to a series of forty photo-engravings which came in handsome, patterned portfolios designed by Lion Cachet. The portfolios were available in various colours, materials and price ranges; the most luxurious cost 600 guilders in 1899. With these luxury products the publishers also aimed at the American market where Rembrandt was just being discovered. In the next decades many Rembrandt paintings that had belonged to European collections were sold overseas.

A tour of the exhibition with Jan Veth

Jan Veth, self-portrait,

Jan Veth, self-portrait, 1887, Dordrechts Museum

Jan Veth (1864-1925), accomplished portraitist and art critic, published profusely on contemporary art and old masters, especially Rembrandt whose etchings he collected. Veth’s observations on the exhibition appeared in an article published on 3 October 1898. They are typical of the Dutch artistic movement of the time: emotional and hyper-individual. But Veth also had a keen eye for quality and was not easily hoodwinked when it came to attributions.

In the first room of the exhibition hung Christ and the adulterous woman from the Weber collection in Hamburg. Veth was not impressed:

It is inconceivable to me that someone should think this a Rembrandt. The signature is palpably false but how fake, too, is the coarse, lumpy old guy with monstrous hands, how fake the female head with holes torn in it, how fake the grumpy chimpanzee that has to assume the role of Christ, how fake Van Dyke [sic] and not at all Rembrandtesque the action, the entire clumsy composition. Certainly, at first sight there is something attractive in parts of the coloration, but that is all.

Christ and the adulterous woman, in 1898 given to Rembrandt

Christ and the adulterous woman, (signed “Rembrandt f. 1644”), 1898 collection Ed.F. Weber, Hamburg; 1980s deaccessioned by the Walker Art Gallery; sold at Bonhams in 2011

Veth’s comment was later confirmed by Bredius who did not include the painting in his authoritative 1935 Rembrandt catalogue.

Opposite Christ and the Adulterous Woman hung Rembrandt with Saskia at her dressing table, a then famous painting lent by Queen Victoria. “A disappointment”, Veth concluded,

… one would have expected more from this painting. Does it hang poorly in Buckingham Palace so that no one questions it? Here in strong light something tawny seems to come over it. Notwithstanding the richness of the jewelry and gown it is not at all effective. The piece from Dresden is so much better. [By the latter Veth meant Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son in the Tavern, c. 1637]

Rembrandt, a woman trying on earrings, 1654, Hermitage

Rembrandt, 1654, Hermitage

Veth was not alone in his disappointment and it can be said that Queen Victoria’s painting lost its reputation in Amsterdam. Today it is thought to be a pastiche of the Young Woman Trying on Earrings from the Hermitage St Petersburg and a lost likeness of the painter from the 1630s.

Among the other paintings Veth thought very little of was the Portrait of an Old Man with dishevelled hair: “Generally called the bellowing ox. Out of respect for the master I refuse to believe in its authenticity.”

Saul and David in the second exhibition room, on loan from the Parisian art dealer Durand-Ruel, on the other hand impressed Veth:

This masterful painting becomes more perfect the more I see it. The cunning David playing his harp with downcast eyes – and soul-sick Saul and his daring, but in its simplicity moving, gesture of wiping away a tear with the curtain – and the regal nature of that Saul … With minimal treatment the tonality could be restored and then one would enjoy the painting even more.

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Abraham Bredius in 1905

Nevertheless, some Rembrandt connoisseurs, among them Bode, doubted the painting’s authenticity. Abraham Bredius, however, shared Veth’s enthusiasm. When Hofstede de Groot promised to make 25,000 guilders available from the exhibition’s revenues, the Rembrandt Society was prepared to buy the painting on condition that one-fourth of the total sum of approximately 100,000 guilders should come from private donations and one-fourth from the State. The Ministry refused. Bredius, undeterred, and above all very wealthy, announced to the world (that is to say: to The Hague where he lived) that he would sell his horse and carriage to acquire the painting. It was not an empty threat: on 7 November 1898, three days after the exhibition finally closed, he sent the following telegram: Saul bought so not back Paris but direct to Mauritshuis The Hague deux cent mille! = Bredius. 

"Lysbeth van Rijn", 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

“Lysbeth van Rijn”, 1898 Coll. Hofstede de Groot; today Groninger Museum (c. 1675)

In the same room hung the painting then known as Rembrandt’s Kitchen Maid, today attributed to Rembrandt pupil Willem Drost, which epitomised the popular view of the artist at the time: Rembrandt’s paintings mirrored his life. At the 1898 exhibition all were present: his father and mother, his brother Adriaen, his sister Lysbeth (lent by Hofstede de Groot himself!), Saskia and Titus, Hendrickje (Geertgen had not yet emerged from the archives) – and the kitchen maid. Veth saw “something tame” in the latter, “notwithstanding the clarity of light and wildness of subject”.

In one of the smaller rooms on the first floor the Man in Armour from Glasgow dominated one of the walls (“Delacroix’s dream painted by Vollon,” was Veth’s comment) with on its left the Portrait of a Boy (in 1898 owned by Earl Spencer, Althorp Park; today Norton Simon Museum) which Veth considered “a beautiful thing”.

Room 24, 1898

The sensation of the exhibition, certainly for art lovers, hung in the center of the long wall in this room: the painting then known by the impossible title Portrait of a Polish Rider in the costume of the regiment of Lysowsky in a landscape (today simply The Polish Rider), discovered in Poland by Bredius only the year before. Veth:

One look at the painting and only a few seconds of studying its technique convinced me that one of Rembrandt’s greatest masterpieces hung in that god-forsaken place for a hundred years. Something of the surprise in the Landscape with Tobias, the things where he [Rembrandt] seems to step out of his skin as it were. The entire composition is permeated with sonority. 

Here Veth’s critical eye momentarily let him down: the Tobias and the Angel in a Mountainous Landscape is hardly a Rembrandt and was not included in Bredius’ 1935 catalogue.

Concerning the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cloak, recently re-attributed to Rembrandt by the Rembrandt Research Project for (seemingly) no other reason than that they regard it as a study for the man in the Jewish Bride, Veth was brief. “Seen”, he noted.

The painting that had been highly praised by Rembrandt’s contemporary Constantijn Huygens, Judas returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, disappointed many, including Jan Veth: “In the conventional figures surrounding the high priest there are poorly executed areas that remind one of an old copy or of overpaintings.” He was right: the version shown in the exhibition, then owned by Baron Arthur de Schinckler, was an early copy. Only in 1939 would the version acquired by Lord Iveagh in 1874 be acknowledged as Rembrandt’s original.

What did Veth think of the Night Watch now that it finally hung in a room where it was lit from the left? His only comment was an enigmatic: “Well …”

The return of the Night Watch

Rembrandt's Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelik Museum

Rembrandt’s Night Watch photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum

On 7 November 1898 the Night Watch, having been photographed outside the Stedelijk Museum on two consecutive days, returned to the Rijksmuseum. Its return was as eagerly anticipated as its temporary home in the Stedelijk Museum had been: the detractors of the painting’s location in the Rijksmuseum were keen to compare. First on the scene was Abraham Bredius and in his reaction, published the next day, he did not mince words: “The location of Rembrandt’s masterpiece is vandalism of the highest order.” The press, amused by the controversy, contributed a tongue-in-cheek compromise: “Light from above AND from the side.”

Cartoon by G. Kerkhoff in "De Amsterdammer", 20 November 1998: "The Night Watch matter resolved - light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)

Cartoon in “De Amsterdammer”, 20 November 1998: “The Night Watch matter resolved – light from above AND from the side (stiff necks after the visit)”

Eventually the “side light lobby” won a Pyrrhic victory: Rembrandt Year 1906 saw the opening of the “Rembrandt extension” at the Rijksmuseum, a newly built exhibition space behind the Night Watch Gallery where visitors could admire the painting under the same lighting conditions it had had in the Trippenhuis and in its temporary home at the Stedelijk Museum. Twenty years later, however, a new generation thought differently and the painting was restored to its original location in the Night Watch Gallery.

The Rijksmuseum's "Rembrandt extension" in 1906

The Rijksmuseum’s “Rembrandt extension”, 1906

London and beyond

Contrary to the Late Rembrandt exhibition today, the 1898 exhibition took the reverse route. After its successful run in Amsterdam the Rembrandt exhibition traveled to London’s Royal Academy as the institution’s 30th Winter Exhibition (2 January-11 March 1899). 102 paintings were exhibited in four rooms, a fifth room was devoted to drawings. Only six paintings came from Europe’s mainland so that for the first time virtually the entire collection of Rembrandt’s paintings in the United Kingdom and Ireland were united under one roof. Such an exhibition had not been possible in The Netherlands: while the Dutch were Rembrandt’s rightful heirs, his inheritance had largely been sold abroad.

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

Cornelis Hofstede de Groot, image KNAW

The attribution aftermath was fierce. At the time of the Amsterdam exhibition, criticism had been mostly verbal which had upset Hofstede de Groot, its organiser. Vexed, he stated categorically that “all exhibited paintings are authentic”, but this only fuelled the debate even more. Perhaps tragically, for Hofstede de Groot the Rembrandt of the 1898 exhibition remained the one and only Rembrandt until his death in 1930. Bredius was more flexible: of the 124 paintings shown, 29 did not make his 1935 catalogue.

As for the exhibition’s objective, to honour the new Queen of the Netherlands through its King of Painters, this had been achieved in more ways than one. In The Netherlands the popularity of the monarchy had been waning, as had Rembrandt’s reputation. The exuberant inauguration festivities in Amsterdam revived the monarchy’s popularity while the first Rembrandt exhibition established the artist’s reputation once and for all. As Hofstede de Groot concluded in his catalogue introduction:

The Dutch could have paid no nobler homage to their young Queen and her coronation, than by bringing together a collection of the masterpieces of the greatest painter to whom Holland has given birth.


  1. The images of the exhibition are from a folio containing fourteen silver collodion photographs of the preparation and installation of the 1898 Rembrandt exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum
  2. Jan Veth’s extensive tour of the exhibition appeared in De Kroniek, no. 201, 4 (1898), pp. 335-151 under the title “Uit een geannoteerden catalogus van de Rembrandt-tentoonstelling” (From an annotated catalogue of the Rembrandt exhibition)

Sassetta: the quest for an altarpiece – (1) The road to Borgo

Sassetta, detail of the Funeral of St Francis, panel from Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-1444, National Gallery, London

Sassetta, detail of the Funeral of St Francis, panel from Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-1444, National Gallery, London

It must have been a strange procession that wound its way from Siena to the town of Borgo San Sepolcro in the late Spring of 1444. The renowned Sienese painter Stefano di Giovanni (ca. 1392-1450), known as Sassetta, the carpenter who had crafted the frame and perhaps Sassetta’s close colleague Pietro Giovanni d’Ambrogio with other assistants arrived in Borgo with the enormous polyptych commissioned by the Franciscans of the convent of San Francesco seven years earlier. The altarpiece would have been transported in separate units: its predella, main tier, pilasters and pinnacles would be assembled on the spot. The men would also have brought with them dowels, iron devices, nails and tools for the carpenter (in all likelihood the one responsible for constructing the altarpiece’s frame back in Siena) to install the painted structure on the high altar. Sassetta had come not only to oversee the installation but also, if necessary, to repair any paintwork that may have sustained damage during transportation.

Anonymous painter, 16th century, with view of Sansepolcro, Museo Civico, Sansepolco

Anonymous painter, 16th century, panel with view of Sansepolcro, Museo Civico, Sansepolco

On June 2nd Sassetta’s polyptych was installed on San Francesco’s high altar which had been erected exactly 140 years earlier to commemorate Blessed Ranieri, a local Franciscan friar. The townspeople would have flocked to the church to see the new altarpiece. It had come from afar: the more usual practice was to erect structures on altars to be painted in situ, but on this occasion the first time the people of Borgo laid eyes on Sassetta’s majestic polyptych was in its finished and mounted form on the altar. Among the eager viewers were the young Piero della Francesca, a native of the town, and his master Antonio di Giovanni d’Anghiari. The two had failed to complete the altarpiece commissioned from them for the same church which was now replaced by Sassetta’s polyptych.

Church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, photo MD 2011

Church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, photo MD 2011

The installation of Sassetta’s altarpiece is uniquely recorded by Ser Francesco de’Larghi, notary and chancellor of the town, who, among the customary dry notarial acts recording sales, receipts and testaments, noted:

On the second day of the month of June [1444], which was the third day of Pentecost, the altarpiece painted and decorated by Stefano of Siena was placed on the high altar of the Church of San Francesco in Borgo. Benedictus Deus.

The polyptych stood on the altar of San Francesco for over a century. During the Counter-Reformation the altarpiece was dismantled but several panels still remained in the church, mounted on other altars as recorded by Apostolic Vicar Angelo Peruzzi who visited the church in 1583 and noted a “beautiful picture with beautiful framework” on one of its altars.

The cult of Blessed Ranieri and the Franciscans of Borgo San Sepolcro

Ranieri's corpse laid out in front of the high altar, 1954

Ranieri’s “incorrupt”corpse laid out in front of the high altar of San Francesco in 1954 on the 650th anniversary of his death

On 1 November 1304, Ranieri, a local man who was a lay brother of the Franciscan order in Borgo San Sepolcro (today: Sansepolcro) died. Nothing is known about his life other than his name, the date of his death and one or two miracles said to have taken place during his lifetime as recorded in a 1532 religious play about the friar. Probably from a poor background Ranieri would not have had a last name although in later times the family name “Rasini” came in use, however without historic foundation. It was not until after Ranieri’s death, in fact the very next day, that miracles started to occur in rapid succession, first through direct physical contact with the friar’s corpse and later by physical contact with his casket or by praying for his intervention. The Liber Miracolorum, recording testimonies of those Borgo citizens who had sought and found healing through Ranieri, survives in two manuscripts, the oldest dating from the 14th century. As many as sixty miracles are recorded for the period from his death on 1 November 1304 until April of the next year.

In Borgo San Sepolcro the climate was ripe for a local cult such as that of the Blessed Ranieri. The founding of a Franciscan convent with its church, the emergence of other confraternities as a focus for lay devotion and charity and the winning of self-government by the secular elite made that new saints were required: holy men and women who were local, therefore approachable, unburdened by high ecclesiastical office, contemporary, and who would be role models for the people. Ranieri fitted that bill exactly.

Detached fresco from San Francesco by a local anonymous artist depicting Saint Anthony Abbot, Madonna Lactans, Christ enthroned and a Franciscan Saint presenting a female donor figure, late 14th century, 215x263 cm, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. Photo MD, 2011

Detached fresco from the church of San Francesco by a local anonymous artist depicting Saint Anthony Abbot, Madonna Lactans, Christ enthroned and a Franciscan Saint presenting a female donor figure, late 14th century, 215×263 cm, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro. Photo MD, 2011

Towards the end of that same year, 1304, the first step was taken to propagate Ranieri’s cult: a high altar dedicated to his memory. In view of the new climate described above it is important to remember that not the Franciscans but the commune commissioned the altar. It still stands in the church today and the crypt where Ranieri rests, now in a 16th century wooden sarcophagus, is also still largely intact but in all other respects the early gothic church interior is unrecognisable today, having been rebuilt between 1752 and 1760. Only very few original architectural elements survive and the frescos that once adorned the walls, those that survived, were detached and are now on display in the Museo Civico close to the church, as are the church’s carved choir stalls with intarsia panels dating from around 1495.

High altar, church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, 1304

High altar, church of San Francesco, Sansepolcro, 1304

San Francesco’s high altar is of dark-gray sandstone or pietra serena. It consists of an immense monolith measuring 181 x 342.5 cm which rests on a block carved with large, rectangular rosette reliefs, surrounded by an arcade consisting of colonnettes, the majority of which with a rich variety of twisting designs. In its design it followed the Franciscan typology, modeled ultimately on the high altar of the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi which was consecrated in 1253.

San Francesco, Assisi, high altar of the Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore), consecrated 1253

San Francesco, Assisi, high altar of the Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore), consecrated 1253

The inscription on the front of Borgo’s altar’s mensa is unique among surviving Franciscan high altars and testifies to the close links between the friars and the local community:

In the year of our Lord 1304 on the Feast of All Saints, Saint Ranieri migrated to the Lord. In that year the commune of Borgo commissioned this altar to the honour of God and the magnificence of the said saint. Amen.

Once Ranieri had been laid to rest in the crypt below the presbytery, the worshippers could see his tomb from all sides through grids in the altar steps as is still possible today, again a similar situation as once existed in Assisi.

The presbytery of San Francesco today with the high altar and grills in the altar steps

The presbytery of San Francesco today with the high altar and grids in the altar steps

Precedents and empty altarpieces

In 1426 the carpenter Bartolomeo di Giovannino d’Angelo was commissioned to construct a frame following the model of Sienese artist Niccolò di Segna’s altarpiece of 1340-50 in the church of the Camaldolese order (today’s cathedral) with the difference that the altarpiece for San Francesco should be prepared for painting on both sides.

Niccolò di Segna, c. 1350, Duomo Sansepolcro

Niccolò di Segna, c. 1340-50, tempera and gold on panel, 374.5 cm wide, Duomo, Sansepolcro

Giovanni del Biondo, Rinuccini Polyptych, Florence, S. Croce, detail showing buttress

Giovanni del Biondo, Rinuccini Polyptych, Florence, S. Croce, detail showing buttress

Di Segna’s monumental altarpiece consists of a large panel with a depiction of the Resurrection in the center and four panels showing saints in three-quarter length on the sides. The panels are all the same height and have trapezoidal tops, but the central panel was twice as wide as the side panels. The original slender, rectangular, gilt pilasters adorned with blue paint survive with those framing the central scene are slightly thicker than those at the sides. In the upper tier, which was painted on the same planks of wood as the main section are depictions of pairs of saints under double arches. The altarpiece would have been wider than the altar on which it stood and framed on the sides by vertical buttresses, necessary to distribute the weight of such a large altarpiece. In addition, such buttresses provided space for the representation of a large number of additional saints. The existence of similar buttresses for the San Francesco altarpiece is confirmed in the commission of 1426 and the documents of 1439: the carpenter was to use a piece of iron “to sustain the necessary columns”.

When Antonio d’Anghiari was commissioned to paint the double-sided altarpiece for San Francesco in 1430, the wooden structure had already stood empty on the high altar for four years. Work still did not begin until two years later when Antonio, with the young Piero della Francesca as his assistant, started to prepare the front face. But they never actually seem to have begun painting and Antonio eventually lost the commission, perhaps because he had not been able to complete the work in the required time-span of three and a half years. He seems to have suffered from chronic poverty and may not have been able to pay the expenses of the altarpiece: the gold and pigments, among which the expensive azurite stipulated in the contract. Due to his financial distress he may also have taken on various other jobs such as repair work which meant that any progress (if at all) on the altarpiece was slow. It seems to have been left to young Piero, then about 15 years old, to gesso (ground with gypsum) the wooden structure installed on the high altar, a time-consuming and laborious task.

Anonymous fresco, ...., Sant'Andrea, Siena

Anonymous fresco, trompe l’oeil of a wooden polyptych, 1370s, Sant’Andrea, Siena

It should be noted that it was by no means unusual for a wooden structure to stand on an altar unpainted for a long period. An illustration of this phenomenon is a fresco in the church of Sant’Andrea, Siena, showing bare wood with no figures. To assume that this fresco is unfinished is not correct: it merely reflects a reality found in several Italian churches of the period. In one case, in Rome, it took as much as twelve years until a painter was commissioned to paint a bare wooden structure standing on a high altar. Possible reasons for this phenomenon could be that the patrons, after paying for the carpentry, needed ample time to gather enough funds to hire a painter. Often such funding was co-dependent on private donations and the sale of properties or land. In the case of the Franciscans in Borgo the process, due to its exceptional circumstances, would even take eighteen years from the initial carpentry commission in 1426 to the installation of the altarpiece in 1444.

Choosing Sassetta

Why, after D’Angiari’s and Piero’s failed enterprise, did the friars of Borgo turn to Siena and in particular to Sassetta? For one thing, Sienese artists such as Taddeo di Bartolo and Niccolò di Segna had, in the previous century, worked frequently on distant commissions as the latter’s altarpiece for the abbey and another, now lost, altarpiece for Borgo attested so that there would have been a predilection for Sienese art in Borgo. They may have known his work from Borgo citizens traveling to Siena or from works in nearby Cortona where the painter was born. Another factor may have been the painter’s association with Bernardino from Siena, the Franciscan order’s most celebrated preacher. As Machtelt Israëls suggests, Sassetta very likely painted a large Assumption of the Virgin for the Osservanza convent church in Siena in the 1430s (previously thought to post-date the Borgo altarpiece) while the celebrated and influential Franciscan preacher Bernardino was in residence.

Sassetta, Assumption of the Virgin surrounded by agnels, mid-1430s, tempera and gold on panel, 332x224 cm. Formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed in 1945)

Sassetta, Assumption of the Virgin surrounded by angels, mid-1430s, tempera and gold on panel, 332×224 cm. Formerly Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin (destroyed in 1945)

It is, however, not likely that Bernardino himself had anything to do with a Franciscan commission for a small conventual convent in the back waters at Borgo San Sepolcro although his association with the painter may have helped: any control of the subject matter and the execution of the altarpiece was after all the responsibility of the Borgo convent as its commissioner. Certainly, by commissioning the Sienese painter who was then at the height of his artistic powers, conveys the ambitions of the Franciscans of Borgo and possibly a conscious intent to compete with and even outshine the older altarpiece in the town’s abbey.

What made Sassetta especially suitable for this ambitious undertaking was his ability to translate spirituality into intimate imagery, something that would have appealed especially to the Franciscans: colour pitched to the subtlest intensity, figures that are almost flimsy, almost naive, set in fluid, intricate architecture. He had also proved that he was immensely versatile and could adapt his style when a commission demanded it. His Wool Guild (Arte della Lana) altarpiece (1423-25) was an ingeniously movable, highly elaborate gothic altarpiece used by the guild for its outdoor celebration of the Feast of Corpus Domini and otherwise stored in the guild’s palazzo. Although today only a few fragments survive, these are indicative of Sassetta’s artistic ambition and the stylistic and aesthetic aims he sought to achieve.

Sassetta’s art is unmistakably Sienese in its mysticism and refinement rather than analytical such as Florentine art of the period. He made constant reference to his great Trecento predecessors such as Duccio, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti but he did so in such a way that it emphasised his “modernity” at the same time: his heightened flat colours and abstracted space are closer, perhaps, to Bonnard and Matisse than Masaccio. His indebtedness to Pietro Lorenzetti’s altarpiece for the Carmine in Siena of a century earlier is evident in the astonishingly complex architecture of the Wool Guild panels. Although these do not yet demonstrate a full understanding of perspective, the interiors are completely coherent and innovative.

Sassetta, predella panel of the Arte della Lana altarpiece: St Thomas Aquinas at prayer, 1423-25, tempera and gold on panel, 24x30 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Sassetta, predella panel of the Arte della Lana altarpiece: St Thomas Aquinas at prayer, 1423-25, tempera and gold on panel, 24×30 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

For instance, in the scene depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas at prayer, the figure of the Saint kneeling in front of an altar surmounted by a splendid polyptych is minimal; nothing more than a black pedestal surmounted by a haloed egg. The real emotional vehicle is the spatial setting which juxtaposes interior and exterior, inviting us out into the cloister garden with its fountain as well as deep into the monastic library with its terraced rows of desks lit by stained glass windows. All is precisely and independently envisioned and subtly illustrative of the Saint’s monastic life. Only when we notice the grey dove of the Holy Spirit descending does this space take on full significance. Aquinas’ writings provided the foundation of the liturgy of Corpus Christi and here, kneeling before the altarpiece of the Virgin, he receives divine inspiration. The natural beauty, the waters of the well, the books on their reading desks: on all this Thomas has turned his back to embrace instead devotional solitude.

Sassetta, Madonna della Neve, 1430-32, tempera on panel, 240×216 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The frame of Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve (Madonna of the Snow) altarpiece for a chapel in Siena’s Duomo (1430-2) has survived intact so that it is possible to understand Sassetta’s ingenuity and use of historical reference. The main picture plane brings together the Virgin and Child, angels and saints in a unified space marked off by a patterned carpet. This unity is emphasised by the poses, gestures and positions of the figures, while the upper part of the altarpiece harks back to the tripartite divisions of a Gothic polyptych and is framed accordingly. As for the frame itself, Sassetta introduced a unique cassetta-type moulding which frames the bottom and continues to four-fifths up the sides to fit it into its shallow niche in the Duomo.

Upper panel of Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1433–35, Tempera and gold on panel, 21.6x29.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum

Upper panel of Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1433–35,
Tempera and gold on panel, 21.6×29.8 cm, Metropolitan Museum

In his Adoration of the Magi (c. 1435), a painting that was sadly cut in two, the upper part shows a concentrated attention to landscape we will see again in the Borgo San Sepolcro polyptych. The cavalcade depicted here is typical of the international Gothic courtly style reminiscent of Gentile da Fabriano, whose majestic Adoration of the Magi in Florence Sassetta may have seen there, and who he must have met when Gentile visited Siena. Everyone in Sassetta’s procession is decked out in the most extravagant contemporary court dress and the two magpies are, as are the two tall birds on the crown of the hill diagonally opposite, beautifully observed. Yet all this finery moves through a wonderfully still and sparse winter landscape, among bare trees. The riders, led by the star suspended against the white hill, pick their way along a path of bright stones and pass the pink gate of Jerusalem – unmistakably Siena’s Porta Camollia with the tower raising above.

Sassetta’s challenges

When Sassetta accepted the commission for the San Francesco altarpiece in Borgo, the challenge the painter faced was two-fold: not only was he facing the architectural constraints imposed by the wooden structure on the altar which, his contract stipulates, he was to follow, but he also needed to find a visual equivalent for the “poetics of Franciscan spirituality” (as Keith Christiansen called it) within the constraints of the iconographic programme.

Sassetta’s professionalism asserted itself immediately when he refused to accept the existing wooden structure and insisted on having a replica made in Siena where he would have the necessary facilities in his workshop. None of the documents relating to the altarpiece suggest substantial alterations of the 1426 structure which he must have followed closely. It is therefore the original carpenter who may be credited with combining two different traditional altar types: a tall gothic polyptych and a 13th century Umbrian vita-retable. For the front, as stipulated in the contract, Di Segna’s altarpiece was taken as a model while for the back possibly an earlier dossal format was adapted, an early version of which is still preserved in Assisi, consisting of double narrative tiers in each lateral panel so that biographical episodes flank the figure of Saint Francis.

The first, simple vita or dossal retables, were adapted to existing altar widths. It is the subsequent rapid growth in height, and therefore of overall size and width that required support systems such as buttresses anchored in the pavement at each side of an altar. The earliest example of a buttressed altarpiece, and also a prime example of a later complex dossal retable was extremely well-known to Sassetta: Duccio’s Maestà in Siena’s Duomo.

Buttresses were initially an architectural device, invented by gothic architects to permit them to construct buildings of soaring heights. In the same way the buttressed altarpiece permitted much loftier compositions. At the height of this development, the great gothic altarpiece essentially resembled gothic cathedrals. In the same way the internal structural organisation of the polyptych frame came to resemble church architecture itself. The most eloquent surviving example in stone of this phenomenon is the marble polyptych on the high altar of San Francesco, Bologna: a veritable church within a church.

Pierpaolo and Jacobello della Masegne, high altar ensemble, 1388-1392, marble, approx. 521 cm wide, San Francesco, Bologna

Pierpaolo and Jacobello della Masegne, high altar, 1388-1392, marble, approx. 521 cm wide, San Francesco, Bologna

Sassetta who, as we have seen, was a master at adapting his style when a commission’s constraints demanded it, while harking back to revered older models, nevertheless asserted his “modernity” in the Borgo polyptych by adding Sienese refinement in its visual language and by applying richly gilded pastiglia (raised decorative patterns applied to wooden moldings) and polychromy to the framework. Emulating his great predecessors, Sassetta achieved a near-miraculous technical and artistic unity for his double-sided altarpiece, thereby rising triumphantly to the challenges of iconographic and structural constraint.

It is all the more deplorable that the frame for Sassetta’s double-sided altarpiece has suffered the fate of many altarpiece frames and has not survived. Reconstructions based upon the 1439 iconographic programme (the scripta) and the surviving twenty-seven (out of sixty) panels, give an indication of what it must have looked like in its mounted form on the altar of San Francesco. In the next post a closer look at the scripta and how Sassetta artistically interpreted the prescribed iconography as well as a discussion of some aspects of Sassetta’s painting technique.

Selected sources

  1. Enzo Carli: “Sassetta’s Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece”, The Burlington Magazine, 1951
  2. C. Gardner von Teuffel, “The Buttressed Altarpiece: a forgotten aspect of Tuscan fourteenth century altarpiece design”, Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 1979
  3. Keith Christiansen et al, Painting in Renaissance Siena: 1420-1500, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988
  4. Henk van Os, Sienese Altarpieces 1215-1460, Groningen, 1988 and 1990
  5. Donal Cooper, “Franciscan Choir Enclosures and the Function of Double-Sided Altarpieces in Pre-Tridentine Umbria”, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 2001
  6. James Banker, The Culture of San Sepolcro during the Youth of Piero della Francesca, University of Michigan, 2003
  7. David Franklin, “A Contract Drawing for the Church of S. Francesco in Sansepolcro”, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz, 2004
  8. Machtelt Israëls, Sassetta’s Madonna della Neve, Leiden, 2003
  9. Machtelt Israëls et al, Sassetta, the Borgo San Sepolcro Altapiece, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Leiden, 2009