Carlo Crivelli, Saint Michael
Four Panels from an Altarpiece, Ascoli Piceno
These panels came from an altarpiece which Crivelli painted for a side chapel in the Dominican church at Ascoli Piceno, in the Italian Marche. The saints are identifiable by their attributes: Saint Michael, Prince of Archangels, fighting the devil; Saint Jerome, one of the Doctors of the Church, with his tame lion; Saint Peter Martyr, the second saint of the Dominican Order, a knife buried in his skull; and Saint Lucy, with her eyes on a wooden dish. The choice of saints must have had a special meaning to the original patron.
Although we don’t know who commissioned this polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece), plainly no expense was spared. The saints’ haloes and damask backgrounds would have sparkled and flickered in the candlelight of the Middle Ages, and lit the church with a glittering golden glow.
These panels came from an altarpiece which Crivelli painted for a side chapel in the Dominican church at Ascoli Piceno, in the Italian Marche. Crivelli painted two altarpieces for San Domenico, and their history is complex and intertwined.
In 1476 he was commissioned to do a large polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) for the main altar. Shortly after, he painted a smaller altarpiece for one of the chapels in the nave. Five panels from this survive: these four, and a Virgin and Child (now in Budapest). The whole was probably topped with a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, now lost.
In the nineteenth century parts of both were sold to a Russian prince, who mounted them in a grand frame to make a three-tiered altarpiece for the chapel of his villa in Florence. The whole complex is known after him as the Demidoff Altarpiece. In the 1960s the four saints in the upper tier were removed and are now displayed separately. Saints Michael and Lucy are still in their nineteenth-century frames, Jerome and Saint Peter Martyr without.
San Domenico was the church of the Dominican Order, one of the two chief mendicant – from the Latin word mendicare (‘to beg’) – orders of the Middle Ages. The Dominicans were friars who, although they took religious vows, were not confined to a monastery but lived in towns and cities. Founded in the thirteenth century to provide educated preachers and teachers for a growing urban population, they were vowed to poverty, although this did not prevent them commissioning costly works of art. San Domenico was a small church, and typically for the Franciscans and Dominicans, relied heavily on lay men and women for financial support. Fra Constanzo, the prior who oversaw San Domenico’s restoration in the late fifteenth century, raised funds by encouraging the laity to found private side chapels in the nave, and local families strove to outdo each other each other both artistically and spiritually in their decoration.
Unlike the high altar at the east end behind the screen, altarpieces in these chapels were clearly visible to the general public, though often screened off by iron gates. The altarpiece from which these came was quite small – the panels are less than 1 metre high – but of a very high quality. Although we don’t know who commissioned it, plainly no expense was spared. The panels were once set in a gilded frame with rounded arches, outlines of which can be seen on the panels of Jerome and Dominic. The saints’ haloes and the damask backgrounds are very similar to those Crivelli had used on the slightly earlier high altarpiece. They would have sparkled and flickered in the candlelight of the Middle Ages, and lit the church with a glittering golden glow.
The saints are identifiable by their attributes. Saint Michael, as Prince of Archangels and commander of the heavenly host, was in the place of honour on the Virgin’s right, with Saint Jerome, one of the Doctors of the Church, beside him. On the Virgin’s left were Saint Peter Martyr, the second saint of the Dominican Order and dedicatee of the chapel which housed the altar, and Saint Lucy. The choice of saints must have had a special meaning to the original patron.