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This painting shows Clare, a holy woman who lived in Rimini from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries. According to her biography she had a vision of Christ enthroned and surrounded by the apostles and John the Baptist. Christ – the largest figure in this scene – showed her the wound on his side where he was pierced by a spear at his crucifixion. Saint John the Evangelist – shown here in pink robes – gave her a book inscribed with Christ’s words recorded in the Gospel of John: ‘My peace I give you my peace I leave you’ (John 14: 27).
An almost identical picture (now in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, Corsica) is part of an altarpiece that includes two other panels. It was made for the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rimini where Clare founded a convent. Our picture was probably also part of an altarpiece and made for the same church.
This scene is rare in Italian art. The kneeling figure on the left is the Blessed Clare, a holy woman who lived in Rimini from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries. According to her biography, she saw Christ enthroned and surrounded by the apostles and John the Baptist (shown holding on to Christ and wearing a camel-skin tunic, as was traditional). Our painting shows that vision.
In Clare’s vision, Christ – the largest figure in this scene – showed her the wound on his side where he was pierced by a spear at his crucifixion, as we see here. As she prayed for mercy, Saint John the Evangelist – shown here in pink robes – gave her a book inscribed with Christ’s words recorded in the Gospel of John: ‘My peace I give you my peace I leave you’ (John 14: 27). Clare was born in the 1260s. At the age of 34, she had a vision of the Virgin Mary surrounded by angels and began to lead a pious and selfless life, ministering to the sick. She founded a small convent with six companions. The chequered robes Clare wears in this painting are similar to those worn by the poor, and express her poverty and humility.
There is an almost identical but smaller picture in the Musée Fesch, Ajaccio, Corsica, which is part of an altarpiece made up of three panels (the others are The Adoration of the Magi and The Crucifixion). Cardinal Giuseppe Garampi, an eighteenth-century biographer of Clare, revealed that the Fesch picture was made for the convent’s parlour at Santa Maria degli Angeli in Rimini. Clare also featured in a fresco painting (now destroyed) in the chapter house of the same church. According to Garampi, the chapter house contained another altarpiece showing the vision of the Blessed Clare. He only describes the scene of Clare’s vision but it seems likely that he is talking about our panel, and that it was once part of a larger altarpiece. Since then, our picture has been associated with an image of the Adoration of the Magi now in Coral Gables, University of Miami, Florida.
Further documents that describe Clare’s canonisation – the moment her cult received approval – by Pope Pius VI in 1782 reveal that the altarpiece in the chapter house had a central image of the Virgin and Child with Saint Mary Magdalene and suggest that three pinnacles crowned it. It’s been suggested that two of these showed the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, with the annunciating angel on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other. The angel has been identified in a private collection. It has also been suggested that the central pinnacle was an image of the Crucifixion (now in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Strasbourg) though this is less likely.
It is possible that the altarpiece our picture and the Coral Gables panel, both larger than the Ajaccio pictures, were part of was originally made for the high altar of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Clare died in 1326 and was buried beneath the high altar of the church, so it would have been suitable to have this picture above it. The patron may have been Franciscan: Saint Francis is present in the Crucifixion scene in Ajaccio and in the possible Crucifixion pinnacle in Strasbourg. The presence of Saint Joseph and another saint, identified as Saint Stephen, worshipping at the Virgin’s feet in the Adoration scenes from both altarpieces might suggest the patrons were called Joseph and Stephen, but we can't be sure.
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