The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece
These images come from a large, four-tiered altarpiece created for the high altar of the choir of the church of San Pier Maggiore in Florence. It was made up of a number of separate panels, most of which are now in the National Gallery’s collection.
Although only the facade of the church remains today, it was one of the oldest and most important religious institutions in Florence when this altarpiece was made. It was founded by the first bishop of Florence, Saint Zenobius, in the fifth century. The picture formed the backdrop to one of the ceremonies relating to the ordination of each bishop of Florence until the late sixteenth century.
The altarpiece was most probably commissioned by the wealthy Florentine Albizzi family and many of its saints relate to their family or their trade as wool merchants. The central images showed the coronation of the Virgin by Christ surrounded by adoring saints – a highly popular image in Florence.
This was one of the largest and most expensive altarpieces made in fourteenth-century Florence, for the Benedictine convent church of San Pier Maggiore, one Florence’s most important and oldest churches.
The central panel shows the coronation of the Virgin by Christ, which occurred, according to legend, after her body and soul were taken up into heaven. The scene is framed by panels on the left and right which show rows of saints looking on. Above this main tier was another level of pictures, showing scenes from Christ’s life and after his death: the Nativity and Adoration of the Kings, the Resurrection and events after it, Christ’s ascension to heavenand Pentecost. Three pinnacles topped the whole construction, the central one showing the Trinity flanked on the left and right by panels showing adoring angels. The predella depicted scenes from the life of the church’s patron saint, Peter, and there were probably also two supporting pilasters on either side of the entire construction, decorated with images of saints.
An important and wealthy Florentine family, the Albizzi, commissioned the altarpiece; it is likely that various members contributed towards the cost of its production. Many of the saints depicted in the altarpiece relate to the Albizzi family while others have significance for the church.
San Pier Maggiore was founded by one of Florence’s patron saints, its first bishop, Saint Zenobius, in the fifth century, and became a Benedictine convent in the eleventh century. At the end of the fourteenth century it was rebuilt, with work completed at around the same time that this altarpiece was installed over the high altar of the choir. The altarpiece played an important part in the ecclesiastical life of the city: new bishops of Florence would process to the church on the way back from their ordination at the cathedral, and it served as the backdrop to a ceremony in which the bishop would become symbolically married to the church. The ritual was sealed when the bishop offered a ring to the convent’s abbess. This recognition and privilege were apt given that the church’s founder was the city’s first bishop.
The painting has been attributed to Jacopo di Cione on the basis of its style. Infrared reflectography has revealed that at least two artists were involved in the initial drawings for the painting – such a large scale painting was likely to be a collaborative project. Surviving documents refer to a ‘designer’: ‘Niccolaio’. His identity is unknown but he could be Niccolò di Pietro di Gerini who collaborated with Jacopo di Cione on other projects, or Niccolò di Tommaso. Considering how much he was paid for the work this designer might have provided a compositional drawing as well as have designed the construction of the woodwork. The documents also mention a decorative painted curtain made to cover the painting.
The majority of the panels which made up the main section of the altarpiece are in the National Gallery, while paintings from the predella and pilasters have been identified in other collections.