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Saint Dominic and the Stigmatization of Saint Francis

Saint Dominic and the Stigmatization of Saint Francis
tempera and gold on panel
6 1⁄4 x 3 3⁄4 in. (15.9 x 9.5 cm.)
Private collection, France, late 19th century.
with Sotheby's Private Sales, where acquired by the present owner in June 2013.
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance, 28 May-15 September 2019, no. 43B (entry by C.B. Strehlke).

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Lot Essay

Upon taking his vows as a Dominican friar in the small town of Fiesole outside Florence, Guido di Pietro adopted the name Fra Giovanni da Fiesole. As a painter, the friar was unrivaled. Giorgio Vasari described him as having ‘a rare and perfect talent’ and his impact on Renaissance Florentine painting, and indeed the History of Art, cannot be overstated. His piety and modesty earned him the moniker ‘Fra Angelico’ or ‘Beato Angelico’ (‘Blessed Angelic One’) and in 1982, Pope John Paul II proclaimed his beatification, formally recognizing the painter’s dedication to God during his lifetime. When this exquisite little panel came to light in 2013, depicting Saint Dominic’s miraculous witnessing of the stigmatization of Saint Francis of Assisi, it represented an exceptionally rare discovery and its relation to a painting in the Detroit Institute of Arts made it a significant new addition to the artist’s oeuvre.

At the time of the painting’s sale in 2013, Laurence B. Kanter examined it firsthand and recognized it as the second valve of a small diptych and the accompanying panel to a Madonna and Child with four angels in the Detroit Institute of Art (fig. 1). The two panels were united publicly for the first time on the occasion of Carl Brandon Strehlke’s exhibition, Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance, held at the Museo del Prado in 2019 (loc. cit.). The two panels are almost identical in dimensions, the Madonna and Child being fractionally larger, measuring 6 3⁄8 x 3 7⁄8 in. (16.2 x 9.7 cm.). The panels would originally have been surrounded by a molded border and hinged together at the center. The present panel is cropped closer to the edge of the painted surface, accounting for its slightly diminutive size in relation to the Madonna, while the Detroit painting has retained a larger border of exposed wood.

The paintings’ intimate scale suggest the diptych was almost certainly intended as an object for private devotion, though the patron responsible for its commission from Fra Angelico for now remains a mystery. Saint Francis’ stigmatization is said to have taken place at Mount Verna on 14 September 1224, three years after the death of Saint Dominic in 1221. Yet here, Saint Dominic nevertheless appears miraculously at the scene, albeit portrayed as an elderly man, with lined hands and a snow-white tonsure and beard. That the artist, himself a Dominican friar, should choose his order’s namesake as the sole witness to a critical moment in the legend of Saint Francis of Assisi is perhaps not surprising. It may also hold the key to the diptych’s patron, who might themselves have been a Franciscan or Dominican or, indeed, an individual dedicated to both saints.

Though the scene is simple in its composition, the interaction between the figures is intense and psychologically complex. Fra Angelico expertly creates a subtle yet important distinction between the two saints, with Dominic as a passive (if astonished) witness and Francis as an active participant. Saint Dominic is positioned marginally closer to the foreground, his face shown in complete profile and raised upward as he gazes in beatified wonder. Saint Francis’ face, meanwhile, is shown in three-quarter view, his expression more concentrated as he cowers slightly beneath his raised hands, perhaps shielding his eyes from the bright light of the vision. Francis’ pose is reminiscent of that adopted by the same saint in the artist’s Crucifixion Group of 1427-30, originally from the Compagnia di San Niccolò del Ceppo, Florence (fig. 2). Painted on a far larger scale than the present panel, the cut-out figures were intended to imitate the effect of painted sculpture. The Saint Francis figure was removed from the group in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century and survives in fragmentary form today in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (fig. 3). The three-dimensional quality of the head, again shown in three-quarter view, and the sculptural folds of the habit in the Houston painting are replicated in miniaturist scale in the present painting. He similarly kneels, his right foot planted in front of him and his hands outstretched.

Fra Angelico depicts Mount Verna here as a simplified, barren landscape, allowing the viewer to better appreciate the psychological complexity of the scene. The setting also serves to amplify the saints’ gilt halos, which stand out against the grey rock, and the crimson wings of the Christ-like seraph whose golden rays strike Francis as he receives the stigmata. The austere landscape is expertly juxtaposed with the celestial setting of the accompanying Detroit Madonna, with its richly tooled, gold backdrop. The Virgin wears a scarlet gown with an opulent blue mantle, embroidered with gold stars and embellished with a gold fringed trim, again contrasting markedly with the coarse cloth and plain shades of the two monks’ habits. The artist employed fine, cross-hatched lines to mimic the rough weave of sack cloth in Francis’ habit, providing a convincing sense of texture and depth to the folds of fabric.

Strehlke dates the present painting to the cusp of 1430 (loc. cit.). While Fra Angelico’s treatment of the figures is acutely observed and naturalistic, his landscape is delightfully geometric, with a starkly modern feel. A similar rocky landscape can be found in Fra Angelico’s Saint Anthony Abbot shunning the mass of gold in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, a section of a predella from around the same period or slightly later, dated by Strehlke to circa 1430-35 (fig. 4).

The barren hillsides and squat, white buildings with red rooves reprised in the Houston panel also lend themselves for comparison to another small-scale work, similarly depicting Saint Francis receiving the stigmata in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome (fig. 5). The Vatican panel, in horizontal format measuring 10 7⁄8 x 13 in. (27.5 x 33 cm.), is one of a series of five panels depicting scenes from the life of Saint Francis, together forming the predella to an unknown altarpiece (for more on the Vatican panel, see L. Kanter and P. Palladino, Fra Angelico, New York, 2005, pp. 116-120, no. 24.B). Miklòs Boskovits dated the Vatican predella to circa 1430, while Kanter placed it slightly later, in 1429 (M. Boskovits, ‘Appunti sull’Angelico’, Paragone, XXVII, no. 313, 1976, pp. 37-38; L. Kanter, private communication, 14 February 2013). In the Vatican scene, the stigmatization is witnessed instead by Saint Leone, who is startled awake by the blinding light of the vision. The scene overall is shown from a wider viewpoint, the landscape – thick with vegetation in the foreground – is less abstract and the figures are less emotive and compelling and take up less of the pictorial space. While the composition of the present panel is more simplified than the Vatican scene, the result is a more refined arrangement, the treatment of the figures is more accomplished and the overall effect is more intimate and immediate.

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