The Dal Ponte Polyptych
Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and John the Baptist and Saint Peter Martyr and a Bishop Saint, both in the National Gallery’s collection, are panels from the Dal Ponte Altarpiece. It was a multi-part altarpiece and we can tell that these panels would have formed part of the upper tier because the vaulted ceiling is painted as though viewed from below. The third panel of the upper tier is in a private collection.
The altarpiece, made for the church of San Francesco in Casale Monferrato, was dedicated to Saint Andrew and he was depicted in the main panel (Brera, Milan). Saint Francis and Saint Agatha with Kneeling Donor (Accademia Albertina, Turin) was on the left of the main panel and Saints Catherine and Sebastian (Brera, Milan) was on the right. The meticulously painted luxury, humanity and sense of space in these panels show the influence of Francesco Cossa, with whom Spanzotti had worked as a young man, as well as Flemish, Burgundian and Milanese painting.
Saints Nicholas of Tolentino and John the Baptist and Saint Peter Martyr and a Bishop Saint are panels from the Dal Ponte Altarpiece by Giovanni Martino Spanzotti. It was a multi-part altarpiece known as a polyptych, made for the church of San Francesco in Casale Monferrato, a town about 60 km east of Turin. These panels would have formed part of the upper tier. We can tell this because the vaulted ceiling is painted as though viewed from below.
Saint Nicholas of Tolentino was a thirteenth-century Augustinian friar from the Marche region of central Italy. He ministered to the poor and criminals and built a reputation as a miracle worker. He died in 1305 and was canonised by Pope Eugene IV in 1446. He has a radiance in the centre of his chest and gazes at a crucifix. Saint Nicholas appears frequently with these attributes in Piedmontese art. The words in his book are a quotation from the Gospel of John, 15: 10: PRECEPTA PATRIS MEI SERVAVI (‘I have kept my father’s commands’). Saint John the Baptist can be recognised by his traditional robe of camel skin and his scroll marked with the words ’ECCE AGNVS DEI QVI TOLLIT [PECCATA MUNDI]‘ (’Behold the lamb of God who takes away [the sins of the world]').
Saint Peter Martyr was a Dominican friar from Verona. He holds a martyr’s palm, while in his head is the hatchet with which perceived heretics assassinated him. The bishop may be Saint Evasio, of about the third century AD, who was a missionary and bishop of nearby Asti. He was beheaded by pagans in the forests surrounding Casale Monferrato and his relics are preserved in the Cathedral there.
The other surviving panels of the altarpiece are in Turin, Milan and a private collection. Saint Francis and Saint Agatha with Kneeling Donor (Accademia Albertina, Turin) was the left-hand panel of the main tier. The pattern of the haloes and the rosetted ceiling resembles those in the National Gallery’s pictures and the style seems very similar. The altarpiece was dedicated to Saint Andrew and he was depicted in the main panel (Brera, Milan). The right-hand panel of the main tier was Saints Catherine and Sebastian (Brera, Milan). The saints in the main tier are luxuriously costumed, standing on an elaborately tied floor against a mountainous landscape with a cloudy sky. The halo and floor patterns in the Brera panels are very like those in the Turin panel. The Turin and Milan panels are wider than those in the National Gallery, which have not been cut. This suggests that the upper tier was narrower than the main tier of the altarpiece, or that it was framed differently. Meticulously depicted luxury, humanity and a sense of space in these main tier panels show Spanzotti’s influences from Francesco del Cossa, with whom he had worked in Bologna as a young man, Flemish and Burgundian painting, as well as the work of Foppa, Zenale and Bramantino in Milan.