This is a fragment of a fresco that was discovered under whitewash in 1855. It shows a group of nuns; the central figure has a gentle gaze and gracefully places her hand across her breast. It is in good condition but some of the colours have faded. Traces of brown paint remain in the tunics, identifying the nuns as belonging to the order of Poor Clares, whose habit was brown. The order was founded by Saint Clare, a follower of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the thirteenth century. The nuns are called ‘Poor Clares’ because they take vows to live lives of poverty and penance. The fragment may have belonged to a scene showing Saint Francis handing the Rule (the regulations of the religious order) to the Franciscan friars and Poor Clare nuns gathered around him. The fresco decorated the wall of the chapter house of the church of San Francesco in Siena. Ambrogio Lorenzetti excelled in this technique and his wall-paintings decorate significant Sienese institutions including the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall.
The fresco comes from the chapter house of the convent church of San Francesco, Siena. It had been covered with whitewash but it was rediscovered in 1855 when it was cut out of the wall and kept in the room of the church’s caretaker, who decided to sell it in the 1870s.
A group of women are clustered together. The edges of their veils wave gently. The faces of the two women at the back are partly obscured by the cloaks of the figures in front of them, giving a sense of the depth of the crowd. Some of the women have brown eyes, others blue. The central figure has a gentle gaze and a delicate profile and holds her right hand across her breast.
There was intense international competition to buy this fresco fragment when it was sold in Siena in 1878. This was partly because its attribution to Ambrogio Lorenzetti was well-documented. Ambrogio decorated Siena’s most prestigious public buildings including the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall, with frescoes; an example that could be hung in a gallery was regarded as very precious. At the end of the nineteenth century, art historians and museum professionals were developing an appreciation for early Sienese painting.
The round fragment is set in a square block of plaster. Despite its history it is in fairly good condition: Charles Fairfax Murray, the agent who acquired the picture for the Gallery, remarked that the central head was in ‘perfect preservation’.
The women’s tunics were originally brown but only a trace of the colour remains. The brown habit and black cloak was the dress of the religious order known as the Poor Clares. This religious order was founded by Saint Clare of Assisi, a follower of Saint Francis, in the thirteenth century. The nuns lived lives of poverty and penance and so were called ‘Poor Clares’. We do not know where this fragment came from but the women might be part of a crowd gathered in a scene that showed Saint Francis giving the Rule (the name for the document governing the behaviour of those belonging to his order) to the Franciscans and the Clares, a scene found in other chapter houses, for example at San Lorenzo in Naples, which shows the Franciscan friars gathered on one side and the Clarisse nuns (another name for Poor Clares) on the other side of St Francis himself.
Other frescoes in the chapter house were The Crucifixion and The resurrected Christ, both painted by Ambrogio’s brother, Pietro. Ambrogio painted a further two scenes in the chapter house: Pope Boniface receiving Saint Louis of Toulouse as a Novice, and The Martyrdom of the Franciscans. The cycle of images may also have included The Stigmatisation of Saint Francis – the moment the saint received the wounds of Christ, caused by the nails of the Crucifixion.
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