This altarpiece was probably made for the high altar of a Franciscan church dedicated to the celebrated preacher Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380–1444). He is shown in the centre holding the sign of the name of Jesus (IHS) and a related text from the Gospel of John.
Moretto da Brescia painted several altarpieces in which the Virgin and Child appear in the clouds. Standing to left and right of Saint Bernardino are Saint Jerome, with his attribute of a lion, and Saint Nicholas of Bari, who holds three golden balls. Saint Joseph, leaning against his flowering rod, and Saint Francis kneel and gaze up at the Virgin and Child, who are flanked by two female saints.
The Virgin turns to Saint Clare (1194–1253), who founded the female branch of the Franciscan Order, the Poor Clares. The infant Christ places a ring on Saint Catherine of Alexandria’s finger, alluding to the legend that she had a ‘mystic marriage’ with Christ.
Moretto painted several altarpieces in which the Virgin and Child appear in the clouds. The arrangement here, with groups of saints above and below, is similar to that found in a type of polyptych (a multi-panelled altarpiece) popular around Milan in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. In these, three or five saints appear below, with the principal saint in the centre; the Virgin Mary and Christ Child are seated in the clouds above flanked by two or four other saints. It is notable but not unusual that Moretto has divided the saints by gender – the female saints surround the Virgin, while the male saints congregate below. Three of the saints look up into the clouds, but otherwise there is a very strong division between the two parts of the composition.
The principal saint, Bernardino of Siena, stands in the centre below, silhouetted against the sky. He was a reformer of the Franciscan Order and the most celebrated preacher of his day in Italy. He holds the sign of the name of Jesus (IHS) and a book with a Latin text from the Gospel of John (17: 6): ‘I manifested thy name unto the men.’ This text was closely associated with Saint Bernardino and often appears in images of him, inscribed above his head or in his halo. The three mitres at his feet represent the bishoprics of Ferrara, Urbino and Siena, which he turned down in order to continue his preaching.
Saint Francis, founder of the Franciscan Order, kneels at front right, gazing up in rapture at the infant Christ. His hands are marked with the stigmata, the sacred wounds he miraculously received as a reward for the intensity of his identification with the suffering Christ. Saint Joseph kneels on the left, holding the staff that burst into flower as a sign he'd been chosen to marry the Virgin. Saint Bernardino particularly promoted the cult of Saint Joseph. Saint Jerome, dressed as a penitent, holds a book and is accompanied by a lion, a reference to his time spent as a hermit. Saint Nicholas of Bari, with a bishop’s crosier and mitre, stands behind Saint Francis looking up at Christ. He holds three golden balls which refer to the dowries he gave to three impoverished young women.
The infant Christ, who is seated on the Virgin’s lap in the clouds, places a wedding ring on the finger of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, alluding to her vision that she formed a mystic marriage with Christ. The Virgin looks towards Saint Clare, who founded the female branch of the Franciscan Order, the Poor Clares. Beside her is a monstrance, a vessel containing the Host, recalling the legend that she drove away invading Saracens by placing the Host at the entrance to her monastery.
The figures of Saint Jerome, Saint Nicholas, Saint Francis and Saint Joseph were all invented by Moretto for earlier pictures dating from the 1530s. Our painting was probably made for the high altar of a church dedicated to Saint Bernardino and attached to a Franciscan convent. The church cannot have been in Brescia because the elements copied from the earlier altarpieces would have been easily recognised.
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