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Saint Nicholas
Benvenuto di Giovanni
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A bishop saint, a mitre on his head and his crosier leaning casually against his shoulder, stands reading a book. This is Saint Nicholas of Bari, an enormously popular saint who is thought to have lived in the fourth century, and about whom almost nothing certain is known. This is the right-hand panel of an altarpiece made by Benvenuto di Giovanni, other parts of which are also in the National Gallery’s collection: The Virgin and Child and Saint Peter.

Although Benvenuto has here abandoned the pala format, which showed figures in a single unified space and which had become popular during the later fifteenth century, for a more traditional triptych (a painting in three parts), he was still interested in achieving a sense of naturalism and monumentality. Both saints are large in comparison with the Virgin and Christ Child in the centre, while Nicolas’s flowing cope, bowed head and slightly bent knee give a feel of the plasticity and mass of a three-dimensional form. His crosier even casts a shadow on the marble of the parapet.

Key facts
Artist Benvenuto di Giovanni
Artist dates 1436 - after 1509/17
Full title Saint Nicholas
Group Altarpiece: The Virgin and Child with Saints
Date made 1479
Medium and support Tempera on wood
Dimensions 170 x 50 cm
Inscription summary Inscribed
Acquisition credit Bought, 1874
Inventory number NG909.3
Location in Gallery Not on display
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Altarpiece: The Virgin and Child with Saints

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Sienese painting of the second half of the fifteenth century blended the artistic ideals of its own time with a continued reverence for the language of earlier Sienese art. Nowhere is this more true than in this altarpiece, painted in 1479 by Benvenuto di Giovanni, possibly for a church in Orvieto.

In the centre the Virgin Mary is seated on an inlaid throne with the infant Christ on her knee; in the side panels saints stand like statues on a marble parapet which runs across the whole altarpiece. The figures are set against burnished and tooled gold backgrounds, and all are spectacularly dressed in accordance with the Sienese passion for jewels and textiles – but they look convincingly solid underneath their clothes.

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