Domenico Veneziano, Head of a Tonsured, Bearded Saint
These three fragments painted in fresco (painting directly onto wet plaster) come from the outside of a house in Florence. They were removed in the mid-nineteenth century. They were part of a street tabernacle, a large outdoor altarpiece, painted high on a wall. It included a pair of full-length standing saints – only the heads remain – that would have surrounded the central image of the Virgin and Child enthroned.
This painting was on a house built by a member of the Carnesecchi family, who owned several properties in the area; the street was called the Canto de' Carnesecchi. This was a very visible spot on the route of religious processions in the city.
This group of fresco fragments come from a ’street tabernacle‘, an open-air altarpiece placed on the walls of a building for all to see. They were once extremely common across Europe – some can still be seen – and were intended to encourage citizens to worship even as they went about their daily lives in the city streets. This one was situated on the street known as the Canto de’ Carnesecchi in Florence, near the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
According to the sixteenth-century writer Vasari, this tabernacle was one of Domenico’s first works in Florence. The artist has signed the central section. The heads of two saints, one beardless and the other with a beard, come from two full-length figures who stood on either side of the central image of the Virgin and Child enthroned.This fresco was placed in a particularly important position on the route for religious processions in Florence. An eighteenth-century engraving shows its position: it was a prominent feature on the route between the Baptistery and Cathedral and the church of Santa Maria Novellla. This is a rare surviving example that can be viewed in a gallery: due to their outdoor location, few tabernacles survive in good condition.
The fresco was removed from the wall where it was originally painted in 1851 and restored. The bodies of the saints were apparently too damaged to be worth restoring.
This piece of public devotional art was probably commissioned by a member of the Carnesecchi family, who owned several properties in the area. The family also had two chapels in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. Records show that the family owned a house, built in the 1430s or 1440s, with an image of the Virgin on the outside – it became known as the ‘house of the Virgin Mary’.
A decade after their removal from the wall, the frescoes were sold separately. The National Gallery’s first director, Sir Charles Eastlake, bought the two heads of saints for his own private collection. They were purchased by the National Gallery in 1867, after his death. The central fragment was reunited with the the saints in 1886 when it was donated to the Gallery.