This puzzling painting seems to be a picture in two halves. At the top the Virgin and Child embrace in a gilded sunburst. Below, Saint Anthony Abbot rings his bell and glowers at an elegant knight. This is Saint George, dressed in fifteenth-century armour, and a stylish straw hat – a contemporary French fashion. His emblem of the dragon curls around his legs, snarling at Anthony’s boar.
This is the only surviving signed work by Pisanello and one of only four panel paintings that are certainly by him. We don't know who this painting was made for, though Pisanello was a court painter and worked for various Italian noble families. It was always a single panel and its small scale suggests it was intended for private enjoyment.
This puzzling painting seems to be a picture in two halves. At the top the Virgin and Child embrace affectionately in a gilded sunburst which explodes in a blue sky. Below, ignoring them completely, two saints and medley of animals stand in a wooded wilderness. On the left a bearded Saint Anthony Abbot rings his bell and glowers at an elegant knight. This is Saint George, dressed in fifteenth-century armour, and a stylish straw hat, a contemporary French fashion. A dragon – his emblem – curls around his legs and snarls at Anthony’s boar.
This is the only surviving signed work by Pisanello, and one of only four panel paintings that are certainly by him (he also painted frescoes and made medallions). Another is The Vision of Saint Eustace. Here, very curiously, his signature, ‘Pisanus p[inxi]t’ (‘Pisano painted [this]’) is in the form of curling fronds of greenery with small blue flowers at the corners – right in the middle, at the bottom.
We don‘t know who this painting was made for, though Pisanello was a court painter and worked for various Italian noble families. It was always a single panel and its small scale suggests it was for private enjoyment. The iconography is unusual and must have had a particular meaning for the original commissioner. In some ways it resembles manuscript illuminations made for French aristocracy: the Virgin and Child shown in a sunburst comes from the medieval Apocalypse, the illustrated Book of Revelations, in which a woman clothed in the sun gives birth to a child to rule all nations. Saints George and Anthony were very widely venerated in northern Italy and they were often shown together, although rarely alone like this. Saint Anthony was a hermit, while Saint George was regarded as a patron of the medieval knightly class. Perhaps they represent two different ways of life, the ascetic – that is, renouncing worldly riches and pleasure – and the courtly.
Pisanello was especially famous in his lifetime for his images of animals. No preparatory drawings for this panel survive, but similar boars and dragons are found in drawings attributed to him (now in the Louvre, Paris and the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). He often reused details from drawings and model books, making it hard to date this panel. The horses’ heads are especially close to drawings Pisanello made for frescoes in Saint‘Anastasia in Verona around 1434–8. The panel was probably painted shortly after that.
The painting was not in good condition when it was bought in 1862 by Sir Charles Eastlake, the National Gallery’s first director, and was extensively restored for him. Very little of the surface of the upper part of the painting is original, but the restoration seems to have been reasonably faithful. In places we can see the underdrawing through the restored layers, as in the faces of the Virgin and Child. An elaborate gilded frame was made for Eastlake and contains copies of medals with portraits of Pisanello and Leonello d’Este, once thought to be a model for Saint George.
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