A fierce-looking old man with a fantastically curled beard glowers from a gilded background. He wears a monastic habit (a long, loose garment) – this is Anthony Abbot, the founder of Christian monasticism. He almost certainly once formed part of a polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) and was probably placed on the left of a central panel of the Virgin and Child.
The saint leans on a wooden staff in the shape of a tau-cross (a cross shaped like the letter T), his attribute. The Hospitallers of Saint Anthony, who looked after people affected by skin diseases, wore black robes decorated with a blue tau-cross. He holds a bound book with blue clasps, which has been rotated so we see it from an acute angle, giving an illusion of depth. The studs on the binding were drawn in but never painted.
An elderly man with a fantastically curled beard holds a book and leans on a stick, and wears a monastic habit (a long, loose garment). This is Anthony Abbot, the founder of Christian monasticism.
Born in Egypt in the third century, Saint Anthony gave up his wealth to live in the desert as a hermit, and organised his followers into communities devoted to prayer and manual labour. In the Middle Ages he was extremely popular both as an example of ascetic life – that is, renouncing worldly riches and pleasure – and because he was believed to be able to protect both humans and animals against disease. Some diseases, like ergotism and erysipelas, were known as Saint Anthony’s fire.
He almost certainly once formed part of a polyptych (an altarpiece made of several panels) and was probably placed on the left of a central panel of the Virgin and Child. Images of the Virgin and saints were popular on altarpieces in the Middle Ages, as Christians believed they could intercede with God on behalf of humanity. Anthony stands under a decorative gilded arch, with pointed cusps on the inside and scrolling pastiglia foliage in the spandrels. The outer rectangular moulding is modern; the arch and cusps are original but have been regilded.
Paintings were rarely signed at this period, so style and technique help us identify the work of different artists. The cusps and the pastiglia foliage are hallmarks of Giovanni di Nicola’s work; the idea of foliage in the spandrels comes from Sienese painting – and di Nicola was a pupil of the Sienese painter Lippo Memmi. In the fourteenth century artists often used different shaped punches to decorate gilded haloes, which can also help identify who a panel is by: if the same punches occur in two panels they might well be by the same person (although craftsmen could have shared tools). Many of the punches used on this panel are also found on other panels by di Nicola.
The panel is dated to about 1350 because di Nicola’s only signed work (a Virgin and Child in the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa) can be dated to then. In 1358, at around the same time, a ‘Iohannes Nicole pictor’ – pictor is Latin for painter – was elected to the communal council in Pisa.
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