The Virgin Mary sits on a high marble throne with a curved back, the naked Christ Child asleep in her lap. An eagle crowns the throne. It – like the winged lion, bull and reading man – symbolises one of the authors of the Gospels. The Old Testament is evoked by the stone tablets to either side of the Virgin, carved with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew text.
This is the central panel of an enormous altarpiece made for the church of San Giorgio in Ferrara. It was commissioned by the Roverella family to commemorate Lorenzo Roverella, who had been Bishop of Ferrara from 1460 until his death in 1474. Our panel was flanked by two side panels and crowned with a lunette (a semi-circular panel) which shows the lamentation of Christ’s dead body (Louvre, Paris) – a stark contrast to the lively and colourful central image. A row of smaller images would have run along the bottom edge.
This is the central panel of an extraordinary altarpiece commissioned by the Roverella family for the church of San Giorgio in Ferrara. Looking up, worshippers would have been transported to the realm of the Virgin Mary, Christ, saints and angels. The bright, solid architecture and throne make it feel like we’re looking at a three-dimensional space. We‘re encouraged to imagine the sound of heavenly music – angels play stringed instruments and a miniature organ with swirling pipes (the front once bore an inscription, only a trace of which remains).
The Virgin, wearing a crown rather than a halo, sits on a high marble throne with a curved back, the naked Christ Child asleep in her lap. The sharp folds of her blue robe make her look like a sculpture in a niche. An oversized scallop shell, like that in Tura’s painting of a muse, shelters her head. Little carvings of cherubs, painted to imitate gilded bronze, appear to hold it up with ribbons. Symbols of the four authors of the Gospels – an eagle, winged lion, winged bull and reading man – crown the throne, while the stone tablets to either side of the Virgin, carved with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew text, evoke the Old Testament.
San Giorgio was once the city’s cathedral, but by the fifteenth century it had become the church of the order of monks known as the Olivetans. The altarpiece was a family project to commemorate Lorenzo Roverella, who had been Bishop of Ferrara from 1460 until his death in 1474. In 1476 his brother Niccolo Roverella (who was a prior of the church) and Lorenzo’s heirs gained permission to use the chancel chapel – the location of the high altar – for Lorenzo’s tomb and an altarpiece in his honour. As a result, various members of the Roverella family made wills to provide for the project; Nicolo’s nephew, Filiasio, the Archbishop of Ravenna, arranged for an annual donation of 200 ducats towards it. In 1487 it was installed on the high altar in the chancel.
This part of the church was remodelled in the early 1580s. It’s likely that the altarpiece was moved to a side altar at about this time, where it was seen by Girolamo Barrufaldi in 1706. His description allows us to imagine its original appearance. Our panel was flanked by two side panels and crowned with a lunette (a semi-circular panel) which shows the lamentation of Christ’s dead body (Louvre, Paris) – a stark contrast to the lively and colourful central image. The right-hand panel (Colonna Collection, Rome) shows a kneeling cleric presented to the Virgin and Child by Saints Paul and Maurelius. Only a fragment of the left-hand panel, which shows the head of Saint George, survives, but we know from another account by Barrufaldi, written in 1709, that he, along with Saint Peter, were depicted presenting another kneeling cleric. These side panels were each topped with another panel, one of the Blessed Bernard Tolomei, founder of the Olivetan Order, and the other of Saint Benedict.
Barrufaldi’s 1709 account went on to suggest that the kneeling figure on the left side panel was in fact Lorenzo, and that he was depicted knocking on a door, presumably to gain entry to the court of the Virgin. Barrufaldi interpreted the inscription on the organ at the base of the throne with two lines from a poem by a Ferrarese poet, which seem to exhort the angel to let him in: ‘Arise boy, the Roverella family are knocking outside. Let entry be given unto them. The Law says "knock, you shall be admitted".’ Barrufaldi based his identification of Lorenzo on the sculpture of him on his tomb, made by Ambrogio da Milano and Antonio Rosselino. Since only a fragment of this panel survives, we cannot be certain.
Barrufaldi suggested that the predella showed scenes of the lives of Bernard and Benedict, though so far none have been identified. Three round panels (called tondi) – which show the circumcision of Christ (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), the Adoration of the Magi (Fogg Art Museum, Boston) and the Flight into Egypt (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) – have also been associated with the altarpiece’s predella.
One of the arguments in favour of the tondi having been part of the predella relates to the theological message of the whole ensemble and relies upon the circumcision panel being at the predella’s centre. As a worshipper raised their eyes upwards from this panel, they would be confronted with the image of the sleeping infant Christ and, once their gaze reached the very top, the sight of the dead Christ in the lunette. The blood Christ shed at his circumcision and the image of his sleeping naked body as a baby foreshadowed his suffering and death, mourned in the upper panel. However, this association is doubtful: the woodgrain of these panels runs vertically and predella panels were usually painted on a single horizontal plank, and the pigments used do not fit with the bold, bright colours of the main panel.
There is some suggestion that the altarpiece expresses antagonism towards the Jews of Ferrara, because although Tura included the second commandment in the Hebrew text he covered it with Christ’s head. Christian-Jewish relations were indeed fragile in this period, but the d‘Este family, with whom the Roverella were closely connected, protected the Jews of their community. It seems unlikely that the Roverella who, by hiring Tura, were seeking to reinforce their ties with the d’Este and buy into the prestige of the court, would engage in such an undiplomatic association. The second commandment forbids the creation of images of God, and Tura might simply have been tempted to cover it up because his livelihood as an artist depended on doing just that.
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