Saints Cosmas and Damian awaiting decapitation

This handsome unpublished panel of unusual iconography completes a predella of four elements and dual themes. The predella belonged to an almost intact altarpiece, signed and dated 1409, by the foremost Sienese painter of the years around 1400, Taddeo di Bartolo. The superstructure was a triptych of the Annunciation with a standing saint to each side, Cosmas and Damian. An attached gable and three detached predella panels are housed with the Annunciation in the Siena Pinacoteca. The format of the altarpiece--a narrative flanked by a pair of full-length patron saints -- derives from four landmark paintings in the Siena cathedral that sat on altars around the high altar carrying Duccio's Maestà. Taddeo di Bartolo's subject is a rendition of the most famous work of that group, Simone Martini's Annunciation (Uffizi, Florence, 1333). However, Taddeo adopted a style reminiscent of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, author of another of the cathedral paintings (Purification of the Virgin, Uffizi, Florence, 1342), and clearly knew Ambrogio's Annunciation for the city tax office in the Siena town hall (Pinacoteca, Siena, 1344).

Taddeo di Bartolo's Annunciation altarpiece came from the abbey church of San Michele al Poggio San Donato, known as the Abbadia San Donato, a Vallombrosan foundation of about 1100. Almost certainly the painting stood on the altar dedicated to the Annunciation where the cryptic pastoral visitor Monsignor F. Bossio recorded in 1575 an 'icona of the Annunziata'. F. Chigi's 1625-1626 list of Sienese artworks includes 'la Tavola dell'Annunziata di Taddeo di Bartolo' at the Abbadia of San Donato. After 1682/3 the church passed to the Discalced Carmelites and was transformed. Two Taddeo di Bartolo paintings were listed there in 1717 [Bibiblioteca Comunale, Siena Ms L.V.14], but the Annunciation had been removed by 1785, when G.G. Della Valle wrote that Abbot G. Ciaccheri had acquired a 'tavola' by Taddeo di Bartolo representing 'l'Annunziata'. Della Valle recorded an inscription identical to the one on the socle below the painting now in the Pinacoteca: '[Tha]deus Bartholi de Senis pinxit hoc opus anno Domini mille quatrocento nove'. (The letters bracketed are missing and 'deus' reads with difficulty.) About 1783, at the suppression of the convents, Ciaccheri collected paintings from Sienese churches that became the core collection of the Istituto di Belle Arti, now the Pinacoteca. An 1812 list of works for the Istituto (L. De Angelis) records an additional, barely legible inscription on the Annunciation altarpiece. In the dark ground under the Madonna and Gabriel is written: 'Fece fare Mariano di Pauolo de Rosso'.

Bossio indicated that the Annunciation altar was officiated by a cathedral canon, a situation probably of historic date. This helps explain why a cathedral painting format was adopted, though the type was generally in vogue. Ideally Mariano di Paolo de Rosso, patron of the painting, or some relative, would figure among cathedral canons or chaplains around 1400, but this is not the case. (Bossio names Faustus Milandronius as chaplain in his period, and that patronymic figures among the canons in the late sixteenth century.) Juspatronatus of a canonical altar was often ceded, and apparently occurred here.

Below the Annunciation at the center of Taddeo's triptych once stood two predella panels. Long detached, they entered the Pinacoteca with the superstructure, were listed with it, and are recognized in the literature as components of the altarpiece. Presently they hang on another wall of the gallery, separate from the Annunciation. They depict the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi and are of identical measurements (31 x 50.5 cm.). Thus their combined width is consonant with the Annunciation at the center of the altarpiece (112/113 cm. wide), once dividing borders or frames are considered. The two moments of adoration of the Child form a pictorial postlude to the main Annunciation scene, and the Marian narrative continues and concludes at the top of the altarpiece in the Dormition gable panel.

The brother saints Cosmas and Damian, standing respectively to the left and right of the Annunciation, were doctors from Arabia in the age of Diocletian. Willingly they gave themselves up to the proconsul Lysias who persecuted and ultimately martyred them. Jacobus de Voragine (d. 1298) included their narrative of sequential tribulations in his Golden Legend, which would have been the obvious source for Taddeo and his patron. The saints' story, rarely recounted pictorially, is unknown in Siena during Taddeo's period. Their inclusion on Taddeo's altarpiece is therefore exceptional. The appearance of the present, heretofore lost panel makes it clear that these circumstances produced novel results in Taddeo's hands.

In the Siena Pinacoteca a third narrative described as 'La Crocefissione' and later as 'Il Martirio dei Santi Cosimo e Damiano' was listed from early with the two Adoration stories. At 30 x 35 cm., the panel is of equivalent height with the other narratives, and its width is consonant with the lateral saints (44.5/45 cm.) when allowance is again made for framing elements. Each of these panels appears to have been slightly trimmed laterally.

After ordering that the doctors be tortured at their hands and feet, thrown into the sea, placed in an oven, and tied to the rack, Lysias had them crucified and stoned. Taddeo's Siena panel, properly The Crucifixion and Lapidation of Cosmas and Damian, shows the doctors sorely tried on their crosses, but the stones launched at them were miraculously turned back on their aggressors. Clearly the Pinacoteca panel took its place under one of the two lateral saints, but until the new present picture came to light it was not clear that it occupied the left side of the predella, under 'Sanctus Chosme,' the name inscribed in the socle below the standing saint.

The present, recently rediscovered panel (29.2 x 38.1 cm.) ends speculation on the subject of the scene from the saints' lives that would balance and complete the predella and so reconstitute the 1409 altarpiece. As partner to the Crucifixion and Lapidation, this end-piece to the predella concludes the saints' prolonged martyrdom. Taddeo devised an unusual decapitation scene, one as quiet and restrained as the opening event in the doctors' persecution is loud and violent. This is the poignant moment prior to the ultimate sacrifice by decapitation, and it is rendered with compelling emotive force. The first man to go to his death has dropped to his knees, his mantle has fallen to the ground as he prays. His brother, sometimes (but not in the Golden Legend) described as his twin, is robed identically in rose and blue. Enfolded within the crowd that leads the men to their doom, he gasps as he watches his brother prepare to meet his fate. Foremost is the executioner who advances, sword at his belt. This slender henchman walks light-footed, apparently tentative about his gruesome task. Numerous witnesses, mostly Roman soldiers, press in from the right, their lances in hand. The bare-headed man with red hair, also with an anguished expression, is probably another brother (they were five). A pivotal figure is the agent in a brilliant carmine mantle who pushes the doctor forward while he looks back to the directing judge of De Voragine's story, robed in saffron and violet. Progress to the left, and the orientation of the victim in that direction, toward what was the center of the altarpiece, provide a fitting compositional closure to the entire predella.

By rights the event shown here is the prelude to the decapitation of Damian, the saint standing above at the right side of the altarpiece. The inscription socle is lost, so the saint's identity is deduced by exclusion. De Varagine notes that Damian's name is 'from damum, which is sacrifice'. About 1460-1470 Sano di Pietro would dedicate a predella of six scenes to the legend of Cosmas and Damian below figures of the saints in the main register of his altarpiece for the Gesuati at San Girolamo in Siena (Siena, Pinacoteca). Probably Sano knew Taddeo's painting, yet by comparison his scenes are less evocative of the violence of the brothers' trials, and, particularly in the Decapitation, less conducive to meditative reflection. Sano depicted a subsequent moment when the executioner is ready to deliver his blow, but despite this his onlookers are placid. Also, in a different vein, are Fra Angelico's series of the saints' legend, including their crucifixion and decapitation, painted in Florence for the Medici toward the middle of the quattrocento.

Taddeo's moving scene of the moments before the decapitation bears many features common to the other elements of the predella. The gently lit grey ground appears to be a high plateau. It is bound at the front by a sharp edge and at the horizon by the painter's trademark landscape. Across the predella cliffs descend in sharp Vs to provide dark backgrounds that throw his colors and the poses of his animated figures into relief. Between adjacent scenes the mountains suggest a continuous range and so reveal Taddeo's sense for spatial values. Here in the denouement to the tale, the landscape opens. Efforts at chromatic continuity are another binding element. For example, the brilliant vermillion of a mantle in the Decapitation reappears across the predella and in the upper compartments. The open pose and the torsion of the red-robed agent are less agitated, but suggestive of the same anatomical exploration demonstrated in the stone-throwers. Here, the fervently praying Damian has already won a special halo. It is worked with punched circles in a stippled ground like the haloes on other components of the predella, but this one is more elaborate. An extra point-punch fills the circles in the main halo zone, and a thin perimetral ring was added. The upper border of the present panel has suffered somewhat (which explains its lesser height) leaving the punched decoration less than fully intact. At tracts, however, the principal punchmark is visible -- a trilobed arch, which appears on the other elements. Yet here four points replace a single point at the tips of the arches. These minor but distinguishing anomalies suggest that a separate hand executed this final scene and lavished on it special care. Judging by the intuitive sense for carefully cogitated pictorial narrative, the fine drawing (note the brothers' expressions), and sensitivity to chromatic values that vary between victims and perpetrators, Taddeo di Bartolo, master of the shop, painted this particularly fine and unusual narrative himself. Indeed, the panel's special qualities within a uniformly high standard altarpiece, may explain why the panel was separated from its group.

Taddeo di Bartolo returned to Siena about 1400 following a decade of travels. He had been the prolific purveyor of Sienese painting to Pisa, San Miniato, Genoa, Triora, Savona, Nice, and perhaps Lucca and Padua. Once again in his native city, he rapidly moved into the role of de facto official painter, working under the auspices of the city fathers in the cathedral and the town hall. He also made paintings for Montepulciano, Perugia, San Gimignano, Volterra, Gubbio, and Orte, and toward the end of his life, probably worked in Rome. His most refined paintings were produced between 1395 and 1410, and are characterized by the expressive drawing, engaging color, and observed detail apparent in the Decapitation. For years a master much in demand, Taddeo collaborated with seasoned assistants, as was the practice of the time. Contemporary predellas of equally high caliber include the Dominican subjects now split between Northampton, Philadelphia, and San Antonio, likewise infrequently depicted events where Taddeo himself took charge.

The patron Mariano di Paolo de Rosso almost certainly came from the noted Sienese Rossi family. Evidently they privileged San Michele al Poggio San Donato which sits a short distance off the Via dei Rossi from their palaces and near their parish church of San Pietro Ovile. (They also had altars in San Francesco.) Since Mariano di Paolo cannot be found in cathedral records, reference in his painting to the tax office Annunciation opens other possible associations. Perhaps Mariano or someone of his line was a doctor to whom the medical saints appealed. At present, a clear rationale for the patron's focus on Cosmas and Damian remains unknown.

A tantalizing possibility is that the picture records a historical event of the year it was signed. At noon on the feast of the Annunciation in 1409 the council to end the schism in Christendom opened at Pisa. One of the rival popes, Gregory XII, had spent months with his court in Siena at the end of 1407 to organize a meeting with his antagonist Benedict XIII. The Sienese labored to see their city become the venue. After much delay, the Council finally opened at Pisa, but Mariano di Paolo's painting may nonetheless record Sienese interest in the conflicted situation and their hopes for its end. Across the altarpiece various figures are painted over gold which is revealed by sgrafitto to particularly luxurious and luminous effect. Note on the present panel the executioner's armor, the soldiers' helmets, and the folds of the carmine mantle, and elsewhere in the altarpiece Gabriel's wings and the magis' tunics. Such a costly technique is a testament to the stature of the patron and to his commemorative effort with the painting.

The present predella panel would have been separated from the other elements about the time Ciaccheri removed the altarpiece from the abbey (1785) and before other components were listed together by De Angelis (1812). Those years were a florid period for foreign collectors of early Italian pictures. It is a great satisfaction that this beautifully painted, novel, and moving picture, so long outside of history, has come to light. Now, if only in the mind's eye, an important documented altarpiece from a key painter's best period can be almost completely reconfigured (fig. 1).

Gail Solberg

F. Chigi, 'L'elenco delle pitture, sculture e architetture di Siena compilato nel 1625-26 da Mons. Fabio Chigi poi Alessandro VII secondo il ms. Chigiano I.I.11', 1625-26, in Bolletino Senese di Storia Patria, n.s. XLVI (1939), c. 219r.

F. Montebuoni, Notizie de' pittori sanesi e statuarii copiate dal Tomo 13 delle Mescolanze, 1717, ms. 1717 (BCS ms. L.V.14), cc 30v-31, 68v.

G. Della Valle, Lettere sanesi sopra le belle arti, 3 vols., Rome 1985, II, pp. 187, 196-197.

L. De'Angelis, Prospetto della Galleria da farsi in Siena, presentato dall'ab. Luigi de'Angelis conservatore della pubblica Biblioteca e del Gabinetto delle Belle Arti al. Sig. Marie ed al Consiglio municipale de detta citta, ms., 1812 (BCS ms. AVIII.5, n. 8), no. 35.

L. De'Angelis, Ragguaglio del nuovo Istituto delle Belle Arti stabilito in Siena con la descrizione della sala nella quale sono distribuite cronologicamente i quadri dell'antica scuola sanese, Siena, 1816, p. 24, no. 1.

G. Solberg, Taddeo di Bartolo: His Life and Work, Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, Ann Arbor, 1991, pp. 189-90, 1031-1052 (with complete prior bibliography on the Annunciation altarpiece).

C. Barbieri, 'L'iconografia dell'Annunciazione a Siena e San Bernardino', in Presenza del Passato: Political Ideas e modelli culturali nella storia e nell'arte senese, Siena, 2008, pp. 155-168; fig. 41.

G. Solberg, 'Taddeo di Bartolo, L'Annucio ai Pastori e Adorazione dei Magi', in Apocrifi: Memorie e leggende oltre i vangeli, exhibition catalogue, Milan, 2009, no. 24, pp. 214-216; figs. 143 a, b.

Annunciation altarpiece, San Michele al Poggio San Donato (later Abbadia San Donato), Siena.

(Probably) Abbot Giuseppe Ciaccheri, Siena.

Private collection.

About Taddeo di Bartolo

Italian, 1362-1422, Siena, Italy, based in Siena, Italy