In this remarkably complete altarpiece, the Virgin and Child are surrounded by saints: Francis, displaying his stigmata, and John the Baptist to the left, James and Mary Magdalene to the right. In the pinnacles above, flanking the Crucifixion, are four other saints including Peter and Paul. The saints here are particularly relevant to the Franciscans, strongly suggesting it was commissioned for a Franciscan church. The Sienese painter, Ugolino di Nerio, the most accomplished follower and possible pupil of Duccio, is known to have made a career providing Franciscan communities with similar altarpieces for their churches in late medieval Italy.
Devotion and Religious Art
The growing influence of the Franciscan and Dominican orders resulted in numerous new churches to accommodate surging congregations and pilgrims. Religious communities had a major cultural and social significance and were indispensible to the rise of Italian urban culture. As a result, artists in the period met a growing demand for artwork to adorn churches and private chapels. Religion permeated Italian life in the 1300s, and religious images would have been encountered in many locations, both public and private.
The Virgin Mary tenderly holds the infant Christ who reaches up to touch her face. The trangular painting directly above (called a pinnacle) shows Christ crucified. The combination of an image of Christ's infancy with one of his death reflects the popular belief that the Virgin realized and contemplated her son's destiny, as should the viewer.
Latin inscriptions identify the four flanking saints, some of whom are recognizable by their attributes. Saint Francis (far left) bears stigmata on his hands; John the Baptist (left) wears the animal skins from his time in the wilderness; and Mary Magdalene (far right) carries the jar of perfume with which she anointed Christ. Only two of the saints in the pinnacles above are securely identifiable. St. Peter holds the keys of heaven and St. Paul the sword with which he was beheaded. By showing the principal figures in half-length (in what is called a dossal altarpiece), the artist gives them a directness and intimacy as they confront the viewer.