Sandro Botticelli, Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius
Two Spalliera Panels
These two panels come from a series of four that were made by Botticelli late in his career, and which celebrate the life of Saint Zenobius, the patron saint of Florence who lived in the fifth century. The panels have the shape of paintings known as spalliere after the Italian word for shoulder: spalla. Paintings like this were usually hung at shoulder height, often in bedrooms. They were frequently made to celebrate marriages, but it seems unlikely this set was made for that purpose: it begins with Zenobius’s rejection of his fiancée in favour of a life in service of God. The panels show Zenobius’s conversion and baptism, his ordination as Bishop of Florence and the miracles that he performed there. Botticelli has painted young men in white robes as witnesses to many of these episodes; they may represent members of the religious youth group dedicated to the saint, the Compagnia della Purificazione e di San Zanobi (‘The company of the Purification and of Saint Zenobius’). It is possible that Botticelli painted these panels for their rooms.
Saint Zenobius was, along with Saint John the Baptist, Florence’s patron saint. He had been the city’s bishop in the fifth century and performed many miracles – including several where he raised the dead to life. The publication of Zenobius’s official biography in 1487 and again in 1496, written by a priest called Clemente Mazza, sparked a renewed reverence for the saint in the city. In 1500 Botticelli used Mazza’s stories to create a series of four rectangular paintings offering a visual chronology of the key moments in the saint’s life from baptism to death. Two of these panels are in the National Gallery’s collection: Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius and Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius.
Each of the panels includes at least three episodes from the biography. Botticelli has created backdrops like stage sets for each episode, drawing upon the architecture of fifteenth-century Florence but streamlining and beautifying it, and sometimes including imaginary features. In some scenes, such as Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius, the architecture is so close to the real city that particular public spaces such as the Piazza di San Pier Maggiore are identifiable.
The two National Gallery panels are the first in the series. They show Zenobius making the decision to convert to Christianity, his baptism and a series of miracles. The third and fourth panels are in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, respectively. They continue the theme of the conquest of death, with more instances of the saint bringing people back from death, and end with his death, surrounded by pupils of his spiritual teaching and those whom he healed.
The panels are the size and shape of paintings known as spalliere after the Italian word for shoulder: spalla. Paintings like this were usually hung at shoulder height, set into wooden panelling. Other examples of spalliere in the National Gallery include Venus and Mars, Joseph receives his Brothers on their Second Visit to Egypt and Joseph’s Brothers beg for Help.
Spalliere were usually made to decorate bedrooms and very often commemorated marriages. Normally they showed mythological scenes or stories drawn from poetry, with morals about love, marriage or virtue. A religious subject such as scenes from the life of a saint, as shown here, would have been very unusual and an unlikely subject for a marital bedroom. One possible patron is Francesco da Girolami, who may have ordered the panels to celebrate the marriage of one of his sons. The powerful Florentine Girolami family claimed to be descendants of the saint – it was Filippo di Zanobi de‘ Girolami who ordered Mazza’s biography.
Another suggestion is that the panels were not made for a domestic setting, but for a religious group. There was, in Florence, a religious youth group called the Compagnia della Purificazione e di San Zanobi (’The company of the Purification and of Saint Zenobius'). The panels might have been made for their meeting rooms. The inclusion of a number of young men wearing white vestments, such as those worn by choirs or members of these groups, supports this idea.