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This altarpiece is considered Ortolano’s masterpiece. In it he achieves effects of startling realism through his deep understanding of anatomy, optics and perspective. It was made for the church of S. Maria in Bondeno, a small town to the north-west of Ferrara.
Saints Sebastian (centre) and Roch (left), both invoked in times of plague, are accompanied by Saint Demetrius (right). Saint Demetrius is rare in Italian art – so rare he is identified here by a paper at his feet. He wears full plate armour, the reflections in its polished surface depicted with incredible skill. His gesture – thoughtfully resting his face on his hand – echoes Raphael’s Saint Paul in the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). However, Ortolano’s decision to cover Saint Demetrius' mouth is very unusual. The meticulously observed still life of objects in the foreground was certainly influenced by the musical instruments similarly placed on the stony ground in Raphael’s altarpiece.
This altarpiece is considered Ortolano’s masterpiece. In it he achieves effects of startling realism through his deep understanding of anatomy, optics and perspective.
It was made for the church of S. Maria in Bondeno, a small town to the north-west of Ferrara. A new chapel was dedicated to Saints Sebastian, Roch and Demetrius in 1483. In 1516 Alfonso I d‘Este, Duke of Ferrara, became patron of the church and in 1520 Garofalo’s Resurrection (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) was painted for the altar to the right of the high altar. This painting by Ortolano was made for the altar on the left at about the same time.
Saint Sebastian (in the centre) was a Roman officer martyred in the third century. By the end of the fifteenth century he had become one of the most venerated saints in Christendom, chiefly as a protector against the plague. He is usually shown, as here, tied to a tree and pierced by the arrows which miraculously failed to kill him. Ortolano has depicted the musculature of Sebastian’s arms and left leg, revealing the position of veins below the knee, with great anatomical accuracy. The crossbow and wolf-fur quiver of arrows discarded on the ground are also observed and recorded with incredible realism. The device with the toothed bar and handle leaning against the crossbow is a type of crank used to draw back the crossbow string. It would be removed before the arrow was fired.
Saint Roch (on the left), was born in Montpellier, France, in the fourteenth century and travelled to Italy as a pilgrim, where he contracted the plague. In paintings he is generally shown revealing a plague sore on his thigh, but here the sore is discreetly concealed by shadow. Ortolano has omitted the helpful dog who usually accompanies Saint Roch in paintings, but included a startlingly realistic wicker-covered glass flask and sack at his feet.
Saint Demetrius (on the right) is rare in Italian art. The fact that his name has been written on a paper at his feet suggests that no one at the time was expected to recognise him. Proconsul on the Greek island of Thessalonica, he was martyred by being run through with spears shortly before AD 305. He is always depicted as a warrior holding a sword and frequently a shield – his red cloak symbolises his martyrdom. Here, he is wearing full plate armour, the reflections in its polished surface observed and depicted in incredible detail. His gesture – thoughtfully resting his face on his hand – must have been suggested by Raphael’s Saint Paul in the Saint Cecilia Altarpiece, sent from Rome to Bologna in 1516 (now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Bologna). However, Ortolano’s decision to cover Saint Demetrius' mouth is very unusual, as is his choice of giving him a beard. The meticulously observed still life of objects on the ground in Ortolano’s painting was certainly influenced by the musical instruments similarly placed on the ground in Raphael’s painting.
Ortolano’s altarpiece may once have had a lunette above it depicting the Risen Christ, which might explain why both Saint Sebastian and Saint Roch are looking upward.
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