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Sassetta, Saint Francis before Pope Honorius III

Key facts
Full title Saint Francis before the Pope: The Granting of the Indulgence of the Portiuncula
Artist Sassetta
Artist dates active by 1427; died 1450
Series San Sepolcro Altarpiece
Date made 1437-44
Medium and support Egg tempera on poplar
Dimensions 88.4 × 52 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with contributions from the Art Fund, Benjamin Guinness and Lord Bearsted, 1934
Inventory number NG4759
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
Saint Francis before Pope Honorius III

In a vaulted green hall, Pope Honorious III blesses Saint Francis of Assisi, watched by assembled cardinals and various others. This is the third of a series of eight panels depicting episodes from Saint Francis’s life. They were part of a sumptuous double-sided altarpiece Sassetta made for the friars of Borgo San Sepolcro, which was completed in 1444. The back showed Saint Francis in Glory surrounded by these narrative scenes, seven of which are in the National Gallery’s collection.

According to the scripta, the written instructions setting out the subject matter for the altarpiece, this scene shows Pope Honorious III granting Francis the Indulgence of the Portiuncula in 1216. The friars at San Sepolcro may have requested this episode because they believed, wrongly, that Ranieri Rasini, a local holy man who was buried below the altar at San Sepolcro, was a witness to this event. The friar at the far left, turning to look over his shoulder, is possibly intended to represent Ranieri.

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San Sepolcro Altarpiece


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.