An Update from Florence
December 2, 2022
What Professor Bent has been up to lately!
Upcoming scans, never-before-seen views, and dealing with Italian weather- an inside look into what Professor Bent has been doing.
Table of Contents:
The guilds of Florence agreed in 1336 to place effigies of their patron saints inside and outside the centrally located edifice of Orsanmichele, the grain distribution center that became a church in the middle of the fourteenth century. Only a few of them actually did so, and one of those was the Bankers guild, or Arte del Cambio.
In 1367 the elderly painter Andrea di Cione, called Orcagna, received the commission to produce a painting of St. Matthew with four narrative panels flanking the central figure of the standing evangelist (see figure 1). Orcagna ingeniously altered the typical triptych format commonly used by artists when producing devotional pictures so that the side panels folded backwards, rather than forwards over the central compartment, to allow it to fit around the contours of a pier that supported one of the open loggias on the south wall of the building. But Orcagna would not live long enough to see the project through to completion, and his much younger brother, Jacopo, was called upon to finish the job when Orcagna died in 1368.
Exactly who painted what has remained an open question, as the features of the figures in all five zones retain a certain consistency of form. Matthew stands in a typically Orcagnesque frontal pose, with a stylus in his right hand and an open book in his left (see figure 2). The figure’s furrowed brow, high cheekbones, and finely painted hair (and whiskers!) recall the stern Christ figure in Andrea’s Strozzi Altarpiece for the church of S. Maria Novella from 1357. The pink robe that surrounds Matthew’s blue garment fits loosely around his torso and arms, and then falls in diagonal folds from the upper left to the lower right, another feature common in Andrea’s oeuvre. But there’s a kind of dullness about the figure that does not correspond precisely to an autograph work by Orcagna, and that gives specialists a certain pause when evaluating the painting. A compelling interpretation is that Orcagna designed the image and got as far as roughly out the compositions, but that Jacopo then took up the project upon his brother’s death in 1368 and did the actual painting of the triptych.
Similarly, the four flanking narrative panels, each one dedicated to an important scene from the life of St. Matthew, reveal a painterly approach consistent with works by Orcagna, but an execution that seems less favorable by comparison (see figures 3 and 4). The facial figures of the bearded characters, particularly the areas between the nose and the end of the beard, slope outward at an angle inconsistent with the work of Orcagna but well within the norm for later paintings known to have been produced by Jacopo. These scenes were probably painted by the younger artist and then submitted to the Guild of the Doctors and Apothecaries as evidence of his skill when he applied for admittance to that body in 1369.
Oddly, the story reads from the lower left to the upper left, and then moves across the central compartment to the upper right before dropping down to lower right. In the first scene, Christ Calling St. Matthew, we see Jesus beckoning to Matthew, a money-changer who thus complicit with the Romans in their control of Palestine, who in turn accepts the invitation to follow. Behind Matthew we see a bench with a boy guarding a safebox, all references to contemporary practices of customer service in fourteenth-century Florence. The event illustrated here shows us the life of wealth and ease Matthew chose to surrender when he accepted Christ’s call of discipleship.
The scene above bears the image of Matthew Quelling Dragons, a fairly typical allegorical description of a saint’s ability to quiet the fury of sin or the presence of evil. Matthew and John the Evangelist (clean-shaven and youthful as always), armed with the truth of the books they hold in their arms, calm the threatening beasts while their masters remark upon the sudden impotence of their usually impressive weapons. The Gospels here defeat heresy not with power or might, but rather with the truth of the word.
The upper right panel depicts Matthew, joined again by the beardless John, reviving a dead boy, who sits upright on his funeral bier. To the left we see the infidel marvel at the active power of God’s word: they tilt their heads toward each other, gesture toward the resurrected child, and lift their hands in the air in surprise and dismay. Just as the upper scene across from it on the left side features the quieting of a pair of heretics, so too does this vignette emphasize the defeat of the enemies of Orthodoxy by the righteousness of One True Way.
In the final panel we see the martyrdom of Matthew, as the saint falls victim to an assassin’s blade while kneeling before an altar that has been partnered intentionally with the banker’s bench of his previous life’s work on the opposite side of the triptych. As with the pairing of scenes above, we again see our artists intentionally pairing up themes to emphasize a particular message: in this case, we encounter a protagonist’s spiritual development over a period of time. Matthew, who was once a money-changer working from a secular table in a bank, became a follower of Christ and was killed in front of a spiritual table in a church. The connection works well and shows this fundamentally important member of the banking trade as an honorable and godly man. One assumes the members of the Florentine Bankers Guild wished to be seen in the same light.
All the same, one cannot overlook the rather strange underlying message that these scenes present. Although Matthew was a banker, and although the Bankers Guild commissioned the work (which has been made clear by the addition of four roundels of gold coins on a red field that have been placed on either side of each flanking panel’s gable), the actual profession of money-changing does not necessarily come off in a good light. Indeed, we are informed that Matthew attains the Kingdom of Heaven in spite of his secular profession rather than because of it, and the Cione brothers seem to encourage members of the Florentine Arte del Cambio to turn their backs on such financial endeavors in order to focus on spiritual ones. Such is the dual and sometimes contradictory nature of religious painting in an early capitalistic society in which its most successful practitioners that worried constantly and openly about the implications of making too much money during one’s earthly existence. It troubled them greatly every time they heard a preacher remind them that it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it was for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of Heaven.
When, in 1369, the painting was finally installed in Orsanmichele, Jacopo di Cione submitted his portion of the painting to the Arte dei Medici e Speziali as a presentation piece by which his skills could be evaluated in anticipation of entry into the guild. At that time the picture faced the nearby tabernacle that Orcagna had completed only ten years earlier, as well as Bernardo Daddi’s miracle-working dossal of the Madonna del Orsanmichele inside it (figure 5). In a way, the single panel of Matthew and the narrative images next to it formed a sort of detached polyptych when see in tandem with the Madonna and the other pier panels and frescoes the surrounded it. Along with Giovanni del Biondo’s St. John the Evangelist (figure 6) and a number of other panel paintings of patron saints just like it, the image of St. Matthew injected a sense of pictorial elegance and gold-encrusted spirituality to the new church of Orsanmichele that now stood in place of the former grain distribution center of Florence.
Bent, George R. Public Painting and Visual Culture in Early Republican Florence (New York, 2017).
Kreyenberg, Gert. Orcagna (Andrea di Cione): Ein universeller Künstler der Gotik in Florenz (Mainz, 2000).
Taylor-Mitchell, Laurie. “Images of St. Matthew Commissioned by the Arte del Cambio for Orsanmichele in Florence.” Gesta 31/I (1992): 54-72.