This little panel, which is also decorated on the reverse, shows Saint Dorothy with Jesus, a toddler, carrying a basket of roses. She caries a stem of roses in bloom and bud and gazes tenderly at the boy. Saint Dorothy was martyred for her faith in the city of Caesarea (in modern-day Turkey), in the fourth century.
According to legend she was mocked by a Roman scribe, named Theophilus, for claiming that in ‘Christ’s garden’ –heaven, in other words – roses always bloomed and apples were always in fruit. Cruelly, moments before her decapitation, he asked if she might then bring him some too. At these words Christ appeared as a small child, carrying a basket of fruit and flowers which he presented to the lawyer. Theophilus in turn converted to Christianity and was also eventually martyred.
The picture was made for private contemplation and its sweetness, soft pinks and lilacs, reflects not only the nature of the story but the fashion in Sienese painting for graceful, decorative images.
At first glance, this picture appears to show the Virgin Mary walking with the young Christ Child – but the details suggest otherwise. The little boy carries a basket of small rose buds, red and pink. The female saint, whose hair is just as blonde and wavy as that of the child, carries a stem of roses – four in bloom, one still a bud – in her long, elegant fingers. This abundance of roses suggests a connection with Saint Dorothy, a fourth-century saint from Caesarea (in modern-day Turkey).
The story of her martyrdom for her Christian faith tells that she was taunted as Christ’s ‘bride’ for proclaiming she could endure her suffering through her love for him. She believed that, after her death, she would enter ‘Christ’s garden’, as she called heaven, where roses were always in bloom and apple trees always in fruit. Just as she was about to be decapitated a Roman scribe, Theophilus, mockingly asked her to bring him some.
At this moment the young Christ appeared miraculously, carrying a basket filled with the fruit and flowers, an event that resulted in Theophilus’s own conversion to Christianity. Although the little basket in this scene does not contain apples, this panel commemorates the moment when Dorothy’s faith in Christ was rewarded and her pagan tormentors were proven wrong.
Dorothy’s gently curved, plump face and delicately downcast eyes, and the way in which the Christ Child wraps his fingers around her thumb, lend a sweetness to the scene. This is reinforced by the soft colours of their clothing: Dorothy’s dress has subtle lilac strokes in its shadows, and the pink cloak while faded was probably never bright. The child wears a pale orange tunic with contrasting purple hose. His face is carefully observed: the button nose, large eyes and fleshy chin are all characteristic of toddlers. The tenderness in Dorothy’s eyes as she gazes at him make this a powerfully emotional scene, the humanity of the figures contrasting with the ethereal gold-leaf background.
The fine, decorative effects, the variety of pattern and imitation of different materials are characteristic of painting in Siena, where Francesco di Giorgio was born and trained as a painter. These details elevate the picture from an object used to inspire devotion to a precious, luxury possession. The figures stand upon not just paving stones but deep red and green veined marble, perhaps inspired by Francesco’s practice as an architect. The border is indented with a floral design to give the gold texture. The haloes, too, are punched with concentric circles and crosses.
Saint Dorothy was not painted very frequently in Siena but there is a triptych by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s Galleria Nazionale which shows her to the right of the Virgin, offering a bunch of flowers to the infant Christ who occupies the central panel with the Virgin Mary. That picture was made for an order of nuns called the Umiliati (meaning ‘the Humble Ones’). Whoever commissioned this panel – perhaps a nun from the same order – seems to have used it for private prayer: the reverse of the painting is decorated with a green pattern in imitation of marble, which suggests that it was not intended to be hung permanently on a wall but rather that the back was intended to be seen as it was could be carried and used for devotion in a variety of locations.
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