Giorgio Schiavone, Saint John the Baptist
S. Niccolò Altarpiece, Padua
These ten panels once made up a polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece) painted by Giorgio Schiavone, probably between 1456 and 1461. They were perhaps originally made for the chapel of the Frigimelina family in the church of San Niccolò in Padua.
In the fifteenth century the chapel may have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as she appears in the middle with saints on either side. We don‘t know exactly how the panels were arranged, but the full-length saints would have been in the bottom layer with the half-length figures above; this was a very popular format for Italian polyptychs. The altarpiece may well have had an elaborate frame, now missing.
The artist’s real name was Juraj Čulinović. Schiavone means ’Slavonian': he came from Dalmatia (in modern-day Croatia) but trained in Squarcione’s workshop in Padua in the late 1450s, when these panels were painted.
These ten panels once made up a polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece). The artist’s real name was Juraj Čulinović – Schiavone means ‘Slavonian’. He came from Dalmatia (in modern-day Croatia) but was an apprentice in Squarcione’s workshop in Padua in the late 1450s.
He has signed his name on a cartellino on the front of the Virgin’s throne: OPVS. SCLAVONI. DISIPVLI. / SQVARCIONI. S (‘the work of Sclavoni, Squarcione’s pupil’). He seems to have struggled a little with his Latin grammar: the third word originally read ‘discipulus’ but he corrected it to ‘discipuli’.
Schiavone’s style is similar to that of Carlo Crivelli in some ways – for example, his scattering of illusionistic fruits and flowers around his paintings. The way he painted, with gradually shaded variations of tone and no black outlines, and the solidity of his figures are closer to the style of his contemporary Andrea Mantegna, while his creased and crumpled draperies recall the paintings of Marco Zoppo. Both were also pupils of Squarcione.
The altarpiece was probably made for the chapel of the Frigimelinca family in the parish church of San Niccolò in Padua. In the middle of the sixteenth century the church had 11 altars, each belonging to an important local family. An eighteenth-century description states that there was once an ‘ancient altar’ in the Frigimelinca chapel which had been removed to the family’s palace; it apparently showed the Virgin and Child and saints in several panels and had the same inscription we see here.
The altar must have been dedicated to the Virgin Mary, as she appears enthroned in the middle. We don‘t know exactly how the panels were arranged, but the full-length saints would have been in the bottom layer with the half-length figures above. All would have been looking inwards at the Virgin and Christ Child in the centre. This was a very popular format for Italian polyptychs – look at the Demidoff Altarpiece by Crivelli. There may well have been an elaborate Gothic frame, now missing. Although the panels now have square tops, they may well have been cut down and have certainly been regilded, taking away any traces of the frame.
Saints were the heroes of the Middle Ages and those chosen would have been specially important to the commissioner. We see both ancient and modern saints, including one the patron might well have encountered personally: Saint Bernardino, who died in 1444, just before the altarpiece was made. With him in the lower level are Saints Anthony of Padua and Peter Martyr, both of whom lived in the Middle Ages, as well as the biblical John the Baptist. In the upper level are Saints Jerome, Catherine and Sebastian, as well as an female saint whose identity we don’t know. At the top of the altarpiece, above the Virgin and Child, there was an image of the body of Christ supported by two angels – together they represent the beginning and the end of the sacred story.
This is quite an academic altarpiece: the Franciscan Saint Anthony of Padua, the Dominican Saint Peter Martyr, Saint Jerome and Saint Catherine were all known for their scholarship. The interest in the Franciscan and Dominican Orders is typical of the period, although they were especially important in Padua where they were closely involved in the running of the university.