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Saint Francis and the Poor Knight, and Francis's Vision
Sassetta
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According to his biography, the young Saint Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy merchant, gave his expensive clothes to a poor knight. The next night God sent him a vision of a great palace, and promised it to him and his soldiers (that is, the army of Franciscan friars he was to found). This the first of eight paintings from the back of an elaborate double-sided altarpiece by Sassetta, which was one of the outstanding artistic commissions of fifteenth-century Italy.

The theme of poverty and its rewards runs through the altarpiece, perhaps encouraged by the stringent attitudes of the Observant (reformed) Franciscans, who attracted many followers at this time. Francis’s elegant dress contrasts vividly with the knight’s ragged clothes: his spurs are silver and his robe is silver, painted over with a red lake glaze. The richness of his home is emphasised by the use of gold for the bedhead, cover and pillow.

Key facts
Artist Sassetta
Artist dates active by 1427; died 1450
Full title Saint Francis meets a Knight Poorer than Himself and Saint Francis's Vision of the Founding of the Franciscan Order
Series San Sepolcro Altarpiece
Date made 1437-44
Medium and support Egg tempera on poplar
Dimensions 87 x 52.5 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with contributions from the Art Fund, Benjamin Guinness and Lord Bearsted, 1934
Inventory number NG4757
Location in Gallery Room 52
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San Sepolcro Altarpiece

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These paintings were once part of one of the largest and most splendid altarpieces of the early Italian Renaissance. Made up of almost 60 panels, the double-sided altarpiece was painted for the high altar of San Francesco in Borgo San Sepolcro, a town near Arezzo. The back, which was seen primarily by the friars, showed Saint Francis in glory surrounded by eight scenes of his life, seven of which are in the National Gallery’s collection.

Unusually, surviving documents tell us a lot about how it was commissioned, constructed and paid for. The project was begun in 1426 but had foundered, and in September 1437 Sassetta took over. In early 1439 two friars visited him in Siena, bringing the scripta, a document stating what he was to depict. Although they provided the text, the artist provided the imagination: the scripta states that the friars, themselves artisans, and the painter together should decide on the details.

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