Ascension of John the Evangelist Altarpiece
This large, gilded polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece) is one of the few almost complete early Renaissance altarpieces in the National Gallery’s collection. It was made for the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, in Pratovecchio, Tuscany, probably in the 1420s.
Altarpieces on the high altar had to show the saint to whom the church was dedicated. Here, in the centre panel, we see Saint John the Evangelist being raised to heaven by Christ. A crowd of saints seems to watch from the large panels on either side.
The nuns at Pratovecchio were Camaldolites – a small, strict religious order found mainly in Italy – and the saints on the altarpiece would have been those who were important to them. This is one of the few surviving paintings of this date which might well have been commissioned by women – two abbesses – for the use of women.
This large, gilded polyptych (multi-panelled altarpiece) is one of the few almost complete early Renaissance altarpieces in our collection (the frame is modern). It was made for the church of San Giovanni Evangelista, in Pratovecchio, Tuscany, probably in the 1420s. This was the church for a house of nuns, making this one of the few paintings of this date we think may have been commissioned by women – two abbesses – for the use of women.
It probably sat on the high altar, as it shows the saint to whom the church was dedicated. In the centre panel, Saint John the Evangelist is being hauled up to heaven by Christ while scenes from his life are shown in the predella. A crowd of saints watch from the large panels on the left and right, while smaller saints stand in the pilasters. In the Middle Ages people believed that saints could intercede with God on their behalf at the Last Judgement, and the saints here are those who were important for the nuns at San Giovanni. Some of them are identified by inscriptions, although these are not original and might not all be correct.
In the pinnacles at the top are the Trinity – God the Father holds the crucified Christ while the dove of the Holy Ghost hovers between them – and the Annunciation, when the Virgin Mary was told by the Archangel Gabriel that she‘d bear a child. On one side we see Gabriel and on the other Mary. Below this is the descent into limbo, where Christ breaks down the gates of hell and leads souls out of purgatory.
The nuns at Pratovecchio belonged to the Camaldolese Order, a small reformed monastic order founded by an Italian monk, Saint Romuald, in 1012. Although they followed the Rule of Saint Benedict, Romuald wanted them to live a stricter and more solitary life. They wore white habits and lived in individual cells, like hermits, although they came together to eat and pray. We have parts of two other altarpieces made for Camaldolese houses, one from San Benedetto fuori della Porta Pinti, Florence, and another also for Pratovecchio.
This altarpiece may well have been commissioned by two abbesses of San Giovanni, Catherine and her successor Agatha. Saint Catherine of Alexandria appears in the right-hand main panel, while the saint in the bottom left corner with the inscription ’Apollonia' might have been intended as Agatha. Often, the objects that saints hold help us identify them, but it’s not clear if what she is holding is meant as a tooth or a breast (Saint Agatha was tortured by having her breasts cut off, while Apollonia had her teeth pulled out).
We do not have any documents showing exactly how this commission worked, but the artist, Giovanni dal Ponte, had a workshop in Florence, about 50km from Pratovecchio. The nuns presumably did not deal with the artist themselves, but would have been assisted by a male advisor, perhaps the prior of the local Camaldolese monastery at Poppiena; when this altarpiece was made its prior was a Florentine called Francesco, and Saint Francis appears here in the left pinnacle.