The Virgin presents the Christ Child, who balances on a gold-threaded pillow and blesses the viewer. Further gold detailing can be seen in the decoration running along the edge of the Virgin’s blue robe, which reveals the artist’s name in Latin: ‘PAULUS’. Behind the mother and child are three female saints each with an attribute relating to their martyrdom: Saint Catherine, with a broken spiked wheel; Saint Agatha, holding a tray with her severed breasts; and a third unidentified saint holding a dagger. Passing through the archway in the distance is the elderly Saint Joseph, leaning on a staff. They appear in an enclosed garden, symbolic of the Virgin’s purity.
Paolo de San Leocadio’s style is closely associated with that of north Italian masters, with whom he trained before moving to Valencia. He moved there under the patronage of the Borgia pope Alexander VI to paint large-scale frescoes for the city’s cathedral in 1472 to 81. This work dates to after this commission, when he painted several altarpieces for towns in eastern Spain.
The Virgin presents the Christ Child, who balances on a gold-threaded pillow as he blesses the viewer. Further gold detailing can be seen in the decoration running along the rim of the Virgin’s blue robe, which reveals the artist’s name in Latin: ‘PAULUS’. The sculptural solidity of the brightly coloured figures is complemented by the diaphanous veil on which Christ sits and the semi-transparent golden haloes that link the Virgin with the three female saints behind her.
All three saints carry palm fronds indicating that they are martyrs who died defending their Christian faith. The one nearest to us is Saint Catherine, who appears with the broken spiked wheel on which she was tortured. Behind her, Saint Agatha holds a tray with her breasts, which were severed as part of her persecution. The third saint holding a dagger remains unidentified as various saints, including Saint Christina, Saint Lucy and Saint Justina, are often represented with this attribute. Passing through the archway in the distance is the elderly figure of Saint Joseph, leaning on his staff and carrying a joiner’s saw that alludes to his profession as a carpenter. During the medieval period, Saint Joseph was often relegated to the background of paintings so that the emphasis was firmly placed on the connection between Christ and his mother.
The scene takes place in an enclosed garden filled with rose bushes, symbolic of the Virgin’s purity. It is framed by classical architecture animated by little figures, such as the putti at the base of the arch in the middle distance and holding garlands in the frieze along the back wall. The distant arch is flanked by two columns and in the spandrels are two nude figures of Victory. Above them is a bearded God the Father blessing with one hand and holding an orb with the other. Although active for much of his life in Spain, Paolo da San Leocadio was Italian by birth and was probably influenced by Renaissance architecture he saw in northern Italy during his youth.
The small size of this painting suggests that it may have been part of a portable altarpiece for a private chapel. The panel appears to have been slightly reduced along the top and left edges. The small-scale format is not typical of Paolo de San Leocadio, whose works mostly consist of commissions for prominent altarpieces in the Spanish towns of Castellón, Villa-real and Gandía. He also painted large-scale frescoes in the cathedral at Valencia, where he worked for almost a decade (1472–81) under the patronage of the Borgia pope Alexander VI.
This small panel is dated to about 1495, a period in the artist’s life about which not much is known. Claims that he returned to Italy are unfounded, but his style is closely associated with that of north Italian painters, and he had a clear influence on Valencian artists. Before that time these artists mainly worked in the Netherlandish style, influenced by contemporary artists such as Bartolomé Bermejo who painted the National Gallery’s Saint Michael for a church in a town south of Valencia.
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