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The Wolf of Gubbio
Sassetta
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In around 1220, Saint Francis of Assisi was living in Gubbio, Umbria. When a ferocious wolf began attacking livestock and people, Francis rebuked it, and tamed the animal by making the sign of the cross. He promised that, if it stopped terrorising the city, it would be forgiven and cared for. The wolf placed its right paw in the saint’s hand to seal the bargain.

This is the fifth of eight scenes from the life of Saint Francis made for the back of the double-sided San Sepolcro Altarpiece (seven are in the National Gallery’s collection). Of the eight, only this one depicts an event that’s not mentioned in Francis’s official biography. This scene is drawn from the fourteenth-century Fioretti (‘Little Flowers of Saint Francis’).

The notary on the left who records the bargain between the wolf and the saint was perhaps intended as a compliment to Francesco de' Larghi, the notary who did the paperwork for the altarpiece and oversaw payments for it.

Key facts
Artist Sassetta
Artist dates active by 1427; died 1450
Full title The Wolf of Gubbio
Series San Sepolcro Altarpiece
Date made 1437-44
Medium and support Egg tempera on poplar
Dimensions 87 x 52.4 cm
Acquisition credit Bought with contributions from the Art Fund, Benjamin Guinness and Lord Bearsted, 1934
Inventory number NG4762
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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