Giovanni di Paolo was, with Stefano di Giovanni, il Sassetta, one of the two great visionary masters of mid quattrocento Siena. First recorded as a miniaturist in 1417, he was supplying independent pictures by 1420 and, over the course of a long and productive career, developed a highly individual and readily recognisable style, which must have struck a deep spiritual chord with patrons in his city. The ecstatic timbre of his major altarpieces respected regional tradition and iconography, although the rhythm of their pathos was personal, but it is in his predella panels that Giovanni di Paolo’s individuality is most happily expressed. Freer from iconographic precedent and patronal expectation, he was able to retell familiar narratives in his own language, or, as in this and the companion panel, The Investiture of Saint Clare (see the following lot in this sale), to interpret in pictorial terms scenes described in a text, in this case Thomas of Celano’s celebrated life of Saint Clare (d. 1253), the companion of Saint Francis, which had been written at the behest of Pope Alexander IV in 1257.
In his pioneering monograph on Giovanni di Paolo of 1937, John Pope-Hennessy correctly associated this and the companion panel with two further scenes, Saint Clare blessing the Bread before Pope Innocent IV (fig. 1; New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, no. 1871.59) and Saint Clare rescuing the son of Bona of Monte Giuliano who had been mutilated by a wolf (fig. 2; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, Edith A. and Percy S. Straus Collection, no. 44.571). The sequence began with The Investiture of Saint Clare, which was followed by that at New Haven. These scenes from the saint’s life were in turn followed by the two posthumous miracles: this panel of Saint Clare rescuing the shipwrecked; and the Houston picture.
The four panels were clearly intended for a complex in an establishment of Saint Clare’s order, the Poor Clares, presumably in Siena, and the relative modesty of the settings of both The Investiture of Saint Clare, the first in chronological sequence, and that at Yale were obviously suitable for such an establishment. Carl Strehlke endorsed a verbal suggestion of Keith Christiansen that the panels belonged to the altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints Peter Damian, Thomas, Clare and Ursula at Siena (Pinacoteca Nazionale, no. 191). The original location of this has not been established, but it may have been one of the four establishments of the Poor Clares in Siena, Santa Petronila, San Lorenzo, Santa Chiara or San Niccolò, for the last of which the artist had supplied his Saint Nicholas altarpiece in 1453.
Strehlke’s reconstruction (fig. 3) was questioned by Wilson, who, partly for iconographical reasons, suggested that the panels may have belonged to a ‘more extensive life cycle depicted on an armadio, custodia or ‘vita retabel’ (op. cit., 1996, p. 168). His view is, however, implicitly endorsed by Wenderholm (in the 2005-6 Berlin exhibition catalogue), who observes that a Crucifixion was probably the central element of the predella.
Pope-Hennessy (op. cit.) advanced a date in the second half of the 1450s, basing this in part on the character of the landscape in the Houston panel and on the obvious parallels between waves in this panel and those in the Saint Nicholas of Tolentino saving a Ship in Distress at Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, no. 713), which is securely datable to 1457, the year after that saint’s delayed canonization. This dating has been widely followed by, among others, Wilson (op. cit., 1996, c. 1455-60), Seymour (op. cit., about 1460) and Wenderholm (op. cit., about 1455).
This, the third of the known elements of the Saint Clare predella, would on the basis of Strehlke’s reconstruction (fig. 3) have been placed under the panel of Saint Clare herself in the altarpiece now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena. While its companion, Saint Clare rescuing the son of Bona of Monte Giuliano who had been mutilated by a Wolf at Houston represents one of the many posthumous miracles of the saint recorded by Thomas of Celano, in this compartment Giovanni di Paolo shows a miracle recorded by Bartolomeo da Pisa, whose De conformitate vitae beati Francisci ad vitam Domini Iesu, was issued at Assisi in 1399. He no doubt had a Pisan’s motivation for celebrating the event. His text is detailed:
Several Pisans were surprised by a terrible tempest during a dark and gloomy night on their way to Sardinia. The strong storm had already broken the stern of the ship, so that all those on board saw themselves close to death and invoked the Virgin Mary and many saints with shouts and lamentations. As their prayers were unanswered and they feared to sink, they started to invoke Saint Clare of Assisi: If she would free them from their perilous danger, they promised to make a pilgrimage from Pisa to Clare’s church, barefoot, in penitential robes, and with a pound of wax in their hands. Hardly had they made the promise when three lights descended from heaven; one stood on the bow of the ship, one on the stern and the third closed the break in the keel, through which the water poured into the ship. And all at once the sea calmed and the wind blew favourably. The three lights, however, never went out (Tommaso da Celano, Legenda sanctae Clarae virginis, cited in translation in Z. Lazzeri, ed., La vita di Santa Chiara, Collegio di S. Bonaventura, 1920, pp. 200-201). The artist omits the three lights, using the saint herself as his source of illumination, and shows the unabated storm as it is about to be stilled.
This depiction of a nocturnal miracle must rank as one of the supreme statements of Giovanni di Paolo’s genius as a narrative artist with a visionary sensibility. Saint Clare, in the billowing habit of her order that hides her legs and feet, grasps the four ropes attached to the mast of a small disintegrating boat as it sinks to the waterline, with five men whose heads are seen above the gunwale over which spray is breaking. The main sail, wind torn, is still attached to part of a yardarm that has just broken off; a lower arm has already been broken and a small piece of a white sail is being blown to the right. The dramatic sea is envisioned as rows of waves of dark grey water alternating with troughs, the latter like the waves – the spray of which is defined by tiny touches of white - described by delicate lines of white, which, like the boat itself and its sails, reflect the rays that radiate from the saint herself against the deep indigo of the night sky. Here, more even than in Saint Nicholas of Tolentino saving a Shipwreck at Philadelphia, one senses the medieval world’s fear of the uncontrollable. Before painting the panel, Giovanni di Paolo incised the lines of the mast on the priming. After the process of painting was complete, the thinnest of styluses was employed for the fine incised lines defining the nimbus that radiates from the saint.
This miracle and that illustrated in the panel at Houston must have been selected for complementary reasons. As their city owed much of its wealth to banking and commerce, the Sienese depended on the maritime trade, and so the miracle had a specific relevance to them. Pisa was the nearest major port to Siena and the trading links between the two are implied by the number of works by early quattrocento Sienese artists in the city, not least Taddeo di Bartolo and Martino di Bartolomeo, and numerous vessels must have sailed from Pisa to its colony of Sardinia. Trade mattered to Siena, but so did agriculture. As Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s celebrated mural in the Palazzo Publico demonstrates, the Sienese were very conscious of the importance of the ordering of their contrada, where wolves posed a continuing problem in rural areas. This gave the miracle of Bona of Monte Giuliano’s son an obvious relevance to Giovanni di Paolo’s intended audience: the miracle had taken place near Assisi, but the painter places it against a diagonal view of the ordered fields of the Sienese homeland, with its white soil, and eroded rocky bluffs representing the crete in the distance. The contrast between the violent waves in one panel and the rectangular fields in the other was surely deliberate, and as these were almost certainly painted on a single plank must have been carefully calculated, with the fastidious precision that Giovanni di Paolo seems initially to have learnt as a miniaturist.