June 22, 2012
Photo archives like that of the Frick Art Reference Library allow researchers to trace the history of a work of art: a case in point is this image of St. Lawrence by Niccolò di Buonaccorso of Siena. This remarkable panel and its complex history not only offer insight into the artist's career and critical fortunes but also remind us that paintings and sculptures often undergo major alterations throughout their existence.
Niccolò (fl. 1372–d. 1388) is known today primarily for his engaging small-scale altarpieces for private devotion, and throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries specialists debated whether the artist was capable of working successfully on a grand scale. Yet this painting, one of two surviving fragments of a large polyptych completed by Niccolò in 1387, proves that the artist also produced compelling large-scale works. The St. Lawrence panel originally formed one of the polyptych's wings, flanking a central image of the enthroned Madonna and Child now on display in the Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, California. 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. Unfortunately, the panels were removed from the church before 1862 and the Madonna and Child disappeared from the record for almost a century, eventually resurfacing at a sale in 1953. The St. Lawrence technically remained on public view at the nearby church of Sant'Andrea a Montecchio but was neglected by researchers because it had been extensively overpainted to depict St. Margaret (see rare photographic reproduction) sometime in the sixteenth century. Thus, this extraordinary example of the artist's major public commissions was forgotten. When the Madonna and Child appeared at auction, specialists reconsidered its companion piece. The overpainted panel was identified by its frame and removed to Siena to be cleaned and photographed. Restoration revealed St. Lawrence's powerful figure and Niccolò's exquisite handling of sgraffito decoration—a revelation for art historians who had maintained that the artist's refined style could not be adapted to monumental projects.
Few photographs of the "lost" female saint survive. As you can see from the Photoarchive's reproduction, the artist who repainted the panel 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 kneeling below St. Lawrence 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 convent of Santa Maria Maddalena formerly outside the Porta Tufi of Siena, which was founded in 1339 by Margherita di Sanese o di Benedetto da Siena but razed in 1526 during the battle of Camollia. It is probable that any work of art that survived this disaster would have been transferred to a local church such as Santa Margherita at Costalpino. Transforming St. Lawrence into St. Margaret, Santa Margherita's patron, would have fulfilled the devotional needs of the image's new audience and may account for the extensive overpainting of the panel.
While the restored St. Lawrence is an exceptional document of Niccolò's lesser-known 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.
Niccolò di Buonaccorso (fl. 1372–d. 1388), St. Lawrence, 1387. Tempera on panel, 55 1/8 x 18 1/2 in. Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena
Italian, first half of sixteenth century, St. Margaret, image painted over St. Lawrence. Oil on panel, 55 1/8 x 18 1/2 in. Destroyed.