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The Virgin and Child are surrounded by saints, each occupying a separate arched compartment bounded by spiral columns. The design is highly unusual and is not known in any other Italian paintings of the period. Its shape and layout have a very specific function: they map the Florentine Church of Santa Maria Novella, the city’s main church belonging to the Dominicans, the order of friars founded by Saint Dominic.
Each saint represents a chapel dedicated to them at the eastern end of the church. This explains why only three of the evangelists are shown, with the animals that became their symbols: Saint Mark with the lion, Saint Luke with the ox and Saint John with the eagle. Saint Matthew is missing because the church didn't have a chapel dedicated to him. It also explains the inclusion of three Dominican saints wearing the Order’s black cloaks. The sequence of saints in the panel mirrors that of the chapels on either side of the central altar, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The design of this work is unique among surviving Italian panel paintings. The Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child occupies the central arch, crowned by a triangular gable decorated with carved leaf-like sprays, called crockets. She is flanked on either side by five half-length images of saints, each contained within arches framed by spiral colonnades. Each tiny spandrel – that is, the space between the arches – is studded with a glass bead, intended to represent a gemstone. The saints can be identified by the objects they hold and by their clothing, but the artist has also included inscriptions with the names below each figure.
Three of the four evangelists appear: Mark with his symbol, the lion, whose muzzle and whiskers are painted in fine detail; Luke with the ox, to the left of the Virgin; and Saint John immediately to her right, with the eagle. Curiously, Saint Matthew is missing. Three saints, wearing the black cloaks of the Dominicans – a religious order of preaching friars – appear in a row to the Virgin’s left. They include the thirteenth-century saint, Thomas Aquinas, who is shown illuminating a church building with rays of light emanating from the palm of his hand. This refers to his spiritual illumination of the Catholic Church through his teaching and writings. Saint Peter Martyr to his left is shown holding a palm denoting his martyrdom, his wounds still bleeding. Closest to the Virgin is Saint Dominic himself, holding a lily.
Two saints to the right of the Virgin are shown wearing gilded brocades, similar to that of the Christ Child. Their effect is created by covering coloured paint with gold leaf and the scratching the gold away, in a technique called sgraffitto. The female saint is Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a princess killed for her faith after enduring torture at the wheel, which she holds by her side. Saint Thomas à Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury, occupies the far right arch. He wears an elaborate cope, mitre and bishop’s crosier. Executed in 1170 by King Henry II, by the Middle Ages his shrine at Canterbury was one of the most famous in Europe. Between them is Saint Mary Magdalene, dressed in red and opening the jar of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s feet (Luke 7:36) and his body after his death (Mark 16:1).
Recent research has revealed that the apparently eccentric selection and sequence of saints reflects the layout of the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella. Every saint depicted here had a chapel dedicated to them at the eastern end of the church in the fourteenth century. It was the main Dominican church in Florence, which explains the inclusion of the three Dominican saints. Santa Maria Novella was Andrea di Bonaiuto’s local parish church where, in 1365-8, he painted a series of frescoes for the walls of the so-called ‘Spanish Chapel’. The order of the saints in the panel mirrors the position of the chapels either side of the central altar, dedicated to the Virgin Mary; those on the left show the sequence of chapels on the church’s north-eastern side and those to her right, that of the south-eastern side.
The function of the painting remains unknown: could it have been ordered by a Dominican friar, once connected to the convent of Santa Maria Novella who had moved away, or was it intended as a visual plan of the church for visiting worshippers?
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