This little painting for private devotion was almost certainly painted for the Olivetan monk who is being presented to the Virgin Mary and infant Christ by Saint Peter. Saint Catherine of Siena stands on the Virgin’s left. The two little keys hanging just below the monk’s elbow are cleverly echoed in the larger keys to heaven held by Saint Peter and may refer to a particular responsibility enjoyed by the monk. Traditionally, Olivetan monks carry keys to the monastery with them at all times.
The Virgin and Child are larger in this painting than the saints to either side of them and recall types from altarpieces by the fourteenth-century Sienese painters Duccio (1255–1319) and Simone Martini (1284–1344).
This picture is a good example of what made Sodoma so successful in Siena: his skilful blending of the traditions of the city’s past with his own free handling of paint and atmospheric effects and lighting derived from Leonardo.
This little painting for private devotion was probably made in the years after Sodoma completed his frescoes for the Chapel of Saint Catherine in San Domenico, Siena.
The Virgin Mary and Christ Child are flanked by Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Peter, who is in the position of honour on the Virgin’s right. Saint Peter presents a kneeling donor who can be identified by his robes as an Olivetan monk. The Olivetan Order was founded in 1313 by several noble families from Siena and the monks originally lived as hermits before the foundation of their monastery, Monte Oliveto Maggiore, south of Asciano in Tuscany. Sodoma carried out a series of commissions for the Olivetan monks at the Convento di S. Anna in Camprena in Piacenza and at Monte Oliveto Maggiore.
The picture was almost certainly painted for the monk depicted; the presence of Saint Peter may be related to the monk’s name or a reference to his links to Rome. Saint Peter was said to have founded the Church at Rome with Saint Paul; he was crucified in Rome and his remains are enshrined beneath the high altar at the Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican. Saint Peter is frequently depicted holding keys, as Christ entrusted him with the keys to heaven. The two little keys hanging just below the donor’s elbow here are cleverly echoed in the larger keys held by Saint Peter and are probably significant, perhaps referring to a particular responsibility enjoyed by the monk. Traditionally, Olivetan monks carry keys to the monastery with them at all times.
The Virgin and infant Christ are enthroned beneath a canopy known as a baldacchino, supported at both sides by small winged angels. Beyond the parapet to either side of the throne, trees are suggested with feathery brushstrokes against the hazy blue landscape and sky. The soft focus of Sodoma’s painting style recalls the sfumato, or ’smoky' effects, found in the work of Leonardo.
The Virgin and Child are larger in this painting than the saints to either side of them. This reflects a symbolic way of depicting relative importance which was more common in Sienese religious paintings of the fourteenth century than art of this date. The Virgin’s smooth oval features and Christ’s appearance and stiff-limbed pose recall types from altarpieces by the fourteenth-century Sienese artists Duccio and Simone Martini (1284–1344). Sodoma’s decision to adopt these consciously old-fashioned echoes may relate to the particular purpose of this painting. It may also relate to the revived republicanism in Siena during this period, when the citizens were looking back from the tyranny of the ruling Petrucci family to the city’s glorious past.
This picture is a good example of what made Sodoma so successful in Siena: his skilful blending of the traditions of the city’s past with his own free handling of the paint and effects of atmosphere and lighting derived from Leonardo.
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