This remarkably fresh and beautifully preserved panel was rediscovered in 1969, when it was sold at Christie's as a work by the as-yet-anonymous Duccesque artist known as the Master of Monte Oliveto. At the time of the auction, the background behind the diminutive saint was completely overpainted, but the quality of the panel was nevertheless recognized by Sir John Pope-Hennessy, who acquired the picture and promptly had it cleaned. During this process, a revelation emerged: a sumptuously inlaid marble throne; a portion of the figure of Saint Francis, clad in brown robes and holding a book; a delicately embroidered cloth of honor running down the panel at right; and a richly colorful marbled floor were all revealed.
Almost immediately after its cleaning, the panel was published by Louisa Vertova as work of the so-called Master of Città di Castello, an early follower of Duccio's whose oeuvre was initially reconstructed by Frederick Mason Perkins in 1908 around a Madonna and Child Enthroned in the Pinacoteca Comunale at Città di Castello. This attribution was taken up by Federico Zeri and echoed by Bernard Berenson in whose photographic archives the painting is listed has having been sold at Christie's by the wife of the well-known collector Harold H. Bompas. In 1979, James Stubblebine published his monumental Duccio di Buoninsegna and his School, which gathered together for the first time in one place a great number of early Trecento pictures painted by, and under the influence of, the great Sienese master. Stubblebine catalogued the Pope-Hennessy Saint Peter as the work of an artist he named the “Polyptych 35 Master”, after a tabernacle (inv. no. 35) in the Pinacoteca in Siena. In a 1982 review of this two-volume effort, Miklós Boskovits noted that, among other similar designations, the Polyptych 35 Master identified by Stubblebine might not be an independent hand, but rather a subset within the oeuvre of a known artist. As Boskovits writes, “Stubblebine does not seem to believe that artists were subject to sometimes considerable alterations of taste, preferences, or mood, and, as a consequence, to qualitative oscillations....To my mind...the catalogues of the “Christ Church Tabernacle Master,” the “Bern Master,” and the Tabernacle 35 Master”...might be considered expressions of three successive phases of Duccio's career” (M. Boskovits, "Review of 'Duccio and His School' by James H. Stubblebine; 'Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop' by John White," The Art Bulletin, New York, vol. LXIV, No. 3, September 1982, p. 497).
In the decades that followed, art historians have made significant progress in understanding the complex landscape of Sienese painting in the wake of its brilliant founder. The Master of Città di Castello, whose career was once thought to extend into the third decade of the 14th century, is now understood as a master who had already achieved maturity by c. 1305, and who was trained in the immediate circle of Duccio. But although more than a dozen pictures are now assigned to his hand, very little remains understood about their relative chronology. At the same time, scholars have begun to consider the Master of Monte Oliveto as an artist who may not have become active until a decade or more later, and whose works reveal an understanding of Duccio's innovations filtered through the influence of one of the great master's closest pupils, Segna di Buonaventura. In 2003, a major exhibition in Siena devoted to Duccio and his followers revisited many of these discussions, and suggested that Stubblebine's so-called Tabernacle 35 Master might have been an associate of Duccio's, and in any case that the group of works assigned to him in the 1979 book do not form a stylistically homogenous group.
Scholarship devoted to this fascinating aspect of early Italian painting continues to develop. At present, the most convincing stylistic connections to the present work appear to exist in the oeuvre of the Master of Monte Oliveto, whose insistent linearity, unique approach to the depiction of physiognomy, and use of palette – particularly his bright reds and subtle tonal balances of greens and blues – mirror those in this Saint Peter. Indeed, the patterning on the cloth of honor, visible at right in the present work, seems identical to that in a tabernacle wing by the Master of Monte Oliveto at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (inv. 41.190.31bc). While there is yet to be scholarly consensus on the attribution of the present picture, its original context is clear: the little Saint Peter must have originally been part of a small-scale devotional Enthroned Madonna surrounded by saints (and possibly angels), like those at the Art Institute of Chicago (1937.1007; attributed to Ugolino di Nerio) and the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1975.1.1; attributed to Segna di Buonaventura). The inclusion of Saint Francis, who appears in the background, suggests that this would have been a Franciscan commission. The Enthroned Madonna of which the present Saint Peter was originally part could have been a standalone work, a wing of a diptych, or even the central panel of a triptych intended for private devotion.