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Sassetta, Saint Francis before the Sultan

Key facts
Full title Saint Francis before the Sultan
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 86.4 × 53.2 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with contributions from the Art Fund, Benjamin Guinness and Lord Bearsted, 1934
Inventory number NG4761
Location Gallery F
Collection Main Collection
Saint Francis before the Sultan

Saint Francis of Assisi, eager to defend his faith through martyrdom, went to Syria to preach to its Muslim population around 1219, at the time of the Fifth Crusade (one of a series of invasions of Muslim countries by Christian armies attempting to recapture the Holy Land). He was captured and taken before Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil, who was defending Damietta from the Christian forces. He attempted to convert the Sultan to Christianity, offering to go through fire for his faith. The Sultan politely declined and sent Francis back to the Christian army.

This painting comes from the San Sepolcro Altarpiece, a large and complex altarpiece painted for the Franciscans of Borgo San Sepolcro. The back of the altarpiece depicted Saint Francis in Glory surrounded by eight scenes from his life, seven of which are in the National Gallery’s collection. This panel was next to The Wolf of Gubbio: Franciscan writers treated the two stories together as examples of Francis’s preaching and peacemaking.

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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.