In the 1330s the Sienese city council commissioned four altarpieces showing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the city’s protector, to decorate the cathedral. This panel by Pietro Lorenzetti, one of the city’s most important artists, comes from the altarpiece dedicated to the birth of the Virgin which was placed upon the altar of Saint Sabinus, one of the city’s patron saints.
The scene comes from the lower part of the altarpiece, called the predella. It shows the moment, according to legend, that the saint smashed a pagan idol – the small goddess in white robes – in order to demonstrate the powerlessness of Roman deities. Sabinus was thought, mistakenly, to be the first Bishop of Siena. Here he is shown wearing a bishop’s mitre, accompanied by his two deacons who were tortured to death as punishment for his act. Eventually, however, Sabinus converted the Roman Governor, Venustianus, seated on the right on a regal stool made to resemble twisted lion’s forms. Both men were martyred for their faith.
This small panel shows the story of Saint Sabinus, Bishop of Spoleto and one of the patron saints of Siena, provoking the wrath of the Roman governor, Venustianus, by challenging the power of the pagan deities.
Venustianus is seated on the stool carved to resemble contorted lions’ forms. He had threatened Sabinus, wearing a bishop’s mitre, with death unless he sacrificed one of his companions to the pagan gods. In response Sabinus, accompanied here by his two deacons Marcellus and Exuperantius, asked for one of these gods to be brought to him. The statue which has been fetched is Venus, dressed in a long white gown and holding the golden apple awarded to her by the Trojan prince, Paris, as a prize for being the most beautiful goddess. The legend of Saint Sabinus in fact refers to a statue of Jupiter but Lorenzetti may have chosen Venus instead as a play on Venustianus’s name.
After prayer, Sabinus took the statue and smashed it to pieces. By way of punishment, Venustianus tortured his deacons to death. Venustianus spared Sabinus – and Sabinus later cured him of blindness, an event that spurred his own conversion to Christianity. Both he and Sabinus were eventually martyred for their faith. Pietro may have chosen this story from Sabinus’s life as it provided a parallel to the main story of Saint Bartholomew’s life, which told of his refusal to worship pagan idols and was probably depicted on the predella.
The picture comes from a much larger altarpiece showing the birth of the Virgin made for the Cathedral in the Tuscan town of Siena. Pietro Lorenzetti and his brother Ambrogio were two of the city’s most sought-after painters at this time – in the previous decade they had completed frescoes for the facade of the Ospedale of Santa Maria della Scala, a hospital for abandoned children and the sick opposite the Cathedral, and for one of the council rooms in the town hall.
Pietro’s altarpiece was one of four commissioned for the Cathedral by the city’s council which depicted key events from the life of the Virgin. The central image of the Virgin’s birth was flanked by images of Saints Sabinus and Saint Bartholomew. Saint Sabinus, whose relics were buried in the Cathedral was one of Siena’s patron Saints; he was mistakenly thought to be the first Bishop of Siena. This scene is the only surviving panel of a series of narrative scenes running across the bottom of the altarpiece, called the predella. These would have shown episodes from the lives of these saints as well as some scenes from the life of the Virgin.
The main panel is now in Siena’s Cathedral museum. The other three altarpieces – painted by Siena’s most important artists– were dedicated to other events in the Virgin’s life surrounded by more of the city’s patron saints. They were: The Annunciation by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi (Uffizi, Florence), The Purification by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Uffizi, Florence) and The Nativity – now lost – possibly by Bartolommeo Bulgarini.
This picture was donated to the Gallery by Charles Fairfax Murray who acted as an agent for the Gallery in the late nineteenth century. With his help the Gallery secured a number of Sienese pictures of this period which was then little known to collectors.
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