The unusual choice of scenes on this small panel and their uneven arrangement makes this work unique in early Italian painting. The upper scene on the left shows the ascension of Saint John the Evangelist to heaven – an image practically unknown in Western art.
Mourners bow in respect towards Saint John’s tomb; he appears far above them in heaven, surrounded by Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels and other saints. This scene is complemented by the coronation of the Virgin – angels below crane their necks to watch. The lower scenes show Saint Catherine of Alexandria preaching to the Emperor Maxentius on the left, and Saints Francis and John the Baptist on the right.
The panel was probably made as a pair to another picture of identical dimensions in Rome (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini) showing six scenes of episodes from the life of Christ. It was probably made for the church of Sant Agostino in Rimini.
The uneven arrangement of scenes on this small panel makes it unique in early Italian painting. The chosen scenes are also unusual: the upper scene on the left shows the ascension of Saint John the Evangelist to heaven, an image practically unknown in Western art.
Mourners bow in respect towards Saint John’s tomb beneath an altar; the saint – wearing a bishop’s mitre – is shown far above them in heaven surrounded by Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels and other saints. This scene is complemented by the coronation of the Virgin which, according to the Golden Legend, took place after her assumption into heaven. A group of angels below crane their necks to watch.
Below this, on the left, Saint Catherine of Alexandria preaches from the pulpit to the Emperor Maxentius, who sits in the architectural throne. Between them a group of pagan philosophers bow down before her, converted to Christianity by her words. The smallest scene at the bottom right shows Saints Francis and John the Baptist; both had spent time in prayer and abstinence in the desert and so they share this arid, mountainous landscape. Saint Francis is shown kneeling to receive the stigmata – wounds identical to those of Christ after his hands were nailed to the Cross. If you look closely you’ll see that Giovanni, the artist, has used varying shades of red to depict the blood on his hands. John the Baptist is recognisable because of his camel-skin tunic, the simple and uncomfortable clothing he wore in the desert.
The textiles are particularly elaborate: the Virgin’s robes are painted with striations (stripes) in gold leaf which follow the lines of the drapery folds and give the impression that she is glowing; others are decorated with gold floral patterns. This emphasis on elegance, gilding and decorative patterns recalls the art of the Eastern Christian (Byzantine) empire – Giovanni’s hometown of Rimini had close trade links with Byzantium on account of its position on the eastern coast of Italy. Each figure has a different facial expression: puzzled, amazed, devout or serious. The bulky figures, such as the chubby children in the top left scene, and the attempt at creating convincingly three-dimensional architectural features show the influence of Giotto, who was working in Rimini at the turn of the fourteenth century when this panel was made.
Another picture by Giovanni (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome) has the same dimensions, and its six scenes of episodes from the life of Christ are all divided with a decorative red and blue border identical to that in our panel (although the scenes are of equal size, unlike here). It’s unlikely the two formed a diptych since there is no evidence of holes for connecting hinges, but it’s highly likely they were made as a pair and used for private contemplation.
The prominence of Saint John the Evangelist in our panel might link it to the church of Sant Agostino in Rimini. There was a community of Augustinian hermits there, but the church was dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist before their arrival in the mid-thirteenth century. After that time it was dedicated to both saints.
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