Giovanni da Milano spent much of his career in Tuscany, and may have painted this small panel in Siena. Christ and the Virgin are shown as King and Queen of Heaven, carrying orbs and sceptres. Images of them seated on a double throne are rare, though there are a few examples by Sienese painters that Giovanni may have seen. Saints are gathered beneath the throne, gazing up at the holy figures.
The picture’s owner probably chose which saints to include. Saint Lawrence holds a grill, a reminder of his torture by fire. Behind him stand Saint John the Baptist and a saint whose mitre identifies him as a bishop. Saint Clare, wearing the black hood and brown cloak of the religious order for women that she founded (the Poor Clares), appears between Saint Catherine and Saint Lucy.
Other panels showing Christ and Mary enthroned together that also include Saint Clare were made for convents dedicated to her, so it’s possible that this panel was ordered by a Sienese convent of Clares.
Giovanni da Milano, as his name suggests, came from a town near Milan but spent much of his working life in Tuscany. His name first appears in records in Florence in 1346. It has been suggested that he also spent some time during the 1340s in the nearby town of Siena. Giovanni painted large altarpieces, wall paintings and small-scale panels for private contemplation, like this one.
Christ and the Virgin are shown as King and Queen of Heaven, holding orbs and sceptres. They are seated on a large wooden throne with curved sides, decorated with intarsia (wooden inlay) in red, gold, and black geometric patterns. The central decoration is a sunburst within a sphere. Images showing Christ and the Virgin seated on a double throne are rare but appear in a few Tuscan paintings, such as a fresco by Cimabue in the convent church of San Francesco in Assisi and a triptych by the Sienese painter Duccio, now in the Royal Collection. Here the Virgin sits at Christ’s left, a rare variation which occurs only in one Florentine manuscript illumination and a painting by the Sienese artist, Rinaldo da Siena. Rinaldo’s picture was made for a convent of the Poor Clares, the popular name of the religious order founded by Saint Clare.
Saint Clare also features here, wearing a black veil and brown cloak – the habit (uniform) of the Poor Clares. Like Clare, most of the saints can be identified by their clothing and the objects that they hold. They were probably chosen specifically by the patron. Saint John the Baptist is shown with bare feet and a tunic of camel hair, recalling the time he spent in penance in the desert. Saint Lawrence wears a robe with decorated borders and carries the grill on which he was martyred. Catherine of Alexandria stands opposite him, and the palm each holds is the symbol of martyrdom. Before being beheaded, Saint Catherine survived torture on the wheel, which she holds to her left. Saint Lucy is also shown with a palm and with a lit torch – a play on her name, lux meaning light in Latin. The central male saint has not been identified, though his mitre shows he was a bishop.
This panel probably dates from early in Giovanni’s career when he was in Siena. Particular motifs – such as the triple incised lines, visible just below the uppermost floral border and between the heads of Saints Catherine and Lawrence – were popular decorative features in Sienese painting of the period. Furthermore, the border of miniature rosettes resembles those used by the Sienese painter Naddo Cecarelli. The edges of the panel’s frame do not show any evidence of a hinge, ruling out the possibility that the picture was connected to another panel to form a diptych; small-scale independent devotional pictures were popular in Siena. These parallels and the presence of Saint Clare indicate the picture may have been made for a Sienese convent of the Poor Clares.
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