St. Lawrence Recovered

Standing young man holding a cross and a book and facing left.

The Photoarchive allows researchers to trace the history of a work of art; the image of St. Lawrence by Niccolò di Buonaccorso of Siena reproduced at left offers an instructive example of this crucial aspect of our collection. The St. Lawrence not only provides significant insight into the artist's development but its history raises important issues regarding connoisseurship and scholarship. Niccolò (fl. 1372–d. 1388) is known primarily for his engaging small-scale altarpieces for private devotion, and for many decades scholars debated whether the artist was capable of working successfully on a grand scale. This painting, however, one of two surviving fragments of a large polyptych completed by Niccolò in 1387, offers compelling evidence that the artist was as accomplished at producing large-scale works as he was at executing small devotional paintings. The panel formed one of the altarpiece's wings, originally flanking a central image of the enthroned Madonna and Child now on display in the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego. Scholars were aware of the altarpiece as early as 1854, when the two panels were located in the church of Santa Margherita at Costalpino, a village near Siena. The Madonna and Child, however, disappeared before 1862 and only resurfaced at a sale in 1953.Young woman holding cross and book, facing left and standing on dragon. The St. Lawrence, while it remained in public view at the nearby church of Sant'Andrea a Montecchio, was neglected because it had been overpainted to depict St. Margaret (represented at right) sometime in the sixteenth century and thus did not accurately reflect Niccolò's abilities. Thus, this extraordinary example of the artist's large-scale public commissions was forgotten. When the Madonna and Child resurfaced, specialists reconsidered its companion piece. The panel was removed to Siena and cleaned, revealing not only St. Lawrence's powerful figure but also Niccolò's rich surface effects and exquisite handling of sgraffito decoration—a true revelation for art historians who had assumed the artist was unable to execute outstanding large-scale works. Niccolò's status as a major artist of monumental painting was restored.

Few images of the "lost" female martyr survive. As you can see from the Photoarchive's reproduction, the later artist retained St. Lawrence's pose, book, cross, and, curiously, his attribute, the gridiron on which he was martyred, but concealed the small band of patrons with St. Margaret's dragon. Thus, this important clue to the altarpiece's original location was hidden for centuries. The woman in Augustinian habit included in this group, possibly a widow depicted with her children, might have been a member of the Augustinian convent of Santa Maria Maddalena formerly outside the Porta Tufi, which was founded in 1339 by Margherita di Sanese di Benedetto da Siena but razed in 1526 during the battle of Camollia. It is probable that any works of art that survived this disaster would have been transferred to a local church such as Santa Margherita at Costalpino. Transforming St. Lawrence into Santa Margherita's patron would have fulfilled the devotional needs of the panel's new audience.

While the restored St. Lawrence is a rare document of Niccolò's large-scale work, the lost St. Margaret, enduring only in a rare photograph, reminds us that works of art are never static objects but rather the record of a series of interventions.


At top left: Niccolò di Buonaccorso (fl. 1372–d. 1388)
St. Lawrence, 1387
Tempera on panel
55 1/8 x 18 1/2 in.
Pincoteca Nazionale di Siena

At right: Italian, First Half of Sixteenth Century
St. Margaret, image painted over St. Lawrence
Oil on panel
55 1/8 x 18 1/2 in.

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