This panel shows a twelfth-century monk, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, having a vision of the Virgin Mary. It is shaped like an ‘overdoor’ – a picture designed to hang above a doorway – and was probably made to decorate the Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall) in Florence; Saint Bernard was patron saint of the building.
Here we see Bernard wearing a simple hooded cloak, seated in a rocky wooded setting. He has retreated there to read, write and immerse himself in spiritual contemplation; craggy rocks serve as a seat and desk. The paint surface is very worn but very faint traces of a pen – in his right hand – are still visible and his ink stand sits on top of his writing box.
Lippi’s son Filippino made a painting of this subject in which the Virgin is clearly dictating to the saint – our picture probably tells the same story.
The subject of this large, six-sided panel is rare, and so not easy to identify with certainty. The most likely explanation is that it shows Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s vision of the Virgin Mary.
Saint Bernard was a twelfth-century Cistercian monk who founded an important centre for the Order in the French town of Clairvaux. The Cistercians lived by very strict rules – they only wore undyed wool, for example – and their monasteries were usually set in remote areas. Here we see Bernard wearing a simple hooded cloak, seated in a rocky wooded setting. He has retreated to read, write and immerse himself in spiritual contemplation; craggy rocks serve as a seat and desk. The paint surface is very worn but very faint traces of a pen – in his right hand – are still visible and his ink stand sits on top of his writing box. His isolation and meditation were so intense that the Virgin Mary has appeared to him.
A painting by Lippi’s son, Filippino, also shows Saint Bernard being visited by the Virgin Mary while writing at his desk in the wilderness (it’s now in the Badia, Florence). The Virgin appears to be dictating to the saint, and his writing is legible – the words refer to a homily to the Virgin. These are followed by his own words that one ought to call upon Mary in order to be liberated from the chain of sin. Filippino includes a visual reference to this: a small chained devil.
It is likely that our painting shows the same subject. Traces of a devil’s tail can be seen on the seat just behind Saint Bernard, but the rest of the beast disappeared when the picture was cut down on all sides. This interpretation might explain the interaction between the Virgin and saint. He looks intently at her, as though listening, while she concentrates on the words on the page. Two Cistercian monks cower behind the rocks in the distance, one covering his eyes, perhaps blinded by the heavenly light of the vision which seems to be illuminating Saint Bernard’s desk.
The panel may have been made as a pair to an image in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence; Vasari records that Lippi made two ‘overdoors’ – paintings that hung above interior doorways – for that building. One showed Saint Bernard and another the Annunciation (now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). The patron saint of the Palazzo Vecchio was indeed Saint Bernard and the subject of the Virgin’s dictation to him was appropriate as it reinforced her vigilance over the city’s administration.
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