I really enjoyed researching this discussion post for my Arts and Humanities class. I hope you enjoy reading it, too!
Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece, c. 1324
Italian, Simone Martini, Tempera on wood, 78 X 101 inches
This altarpiece, called a polyptych for it’s multiple panels, features a central panel surrounded by four smaller scenes from the central figure’s life. The central panel is framed by a multifoiled ogival arch and depicts Agostino Novello as a young man carrying a red book. This book could be the Constitutiones of the Order, which he reformed. The two small round portraits flanking the central panel depict him as an old man, still holding a red book. The four smaller scenes are called predellas.
Painted in the International Gothic style, the Altarpiece originally hung in the church of Sant’Agostino, presumably above Agostino Novello’s sarcophagus, forming his funerary monument.
Agostino Novello was a highly respected religious figure who lived from 1240 to 1309. Pope Nicholas IV appointed him as his confessor and Grand Penitentiary. He was elected Prior General in 1298. Despite trying to refuse, the pope forced him to accept. He resigned the office in 1300 and lived as a hermit near Siena. He helped found Siena’s hospital of Santa Maria and ministered to the people in Siena and the surrounding towns. He died in 1309, and was beatified by Pope Clement XIV in 1761.
Many miracles were attributed to him after his death. Four of the miracles are depicted in the predellas. Three out of four of the miracles involve children. This piece is unusual for it’s time for its high proportion of child miracles. It is also unusual in its highly detailed depiction of gore. Each predella depicts a violent death, followed by a miraculous resurrection after prayers are made to Agostino Novello.
The first miracle scene features a child being graphically mauled by a wolf outside of a Tuscan town. The child has lost an eye and a lot of blood. The second miracle scene depicts a child falling to his death from a balcony. The third features a young man and his horse falling off a cliff. The fourth features a nursemaid rocking a baby’s cradle so violently, the child is flung to the ground, bleeding profusely from a massive head injury.
The explicit violence of the predellas is unusual for the time. Usually blood would not be painted at all, and the cause of death displayed symbolically rather than vividly depicted. The graphically depicted injuries would suggest that this altarpiece had a dual purpose; to glorify Agostino’s deeds, but also promote child safety awareness. This seems even more apparent when you examine the second and fourth miracle scenes. After falling from a balcony, the resurrected child is shown clenching his fist at his mother, who apparently should have been watching him more closely. In the fourth miracle scene, the nursemaid is not depicted rejoicing with the family, indicating that she has been relieved of her post for unnecessary roughness.
My professor commented on my discussion post, asking for clarification on the International Gothic Style and for a bit more background on child mortality at the time. Here is my reply:
Thank you, Professor! The International Gothic Style is a style of art that originally developed in Burgundy, Bohemia, France and northern Italy in the late 14th century. The style, featuring elongated human figures, rich colors, and natural looking plants and animals, spread throughout western Europe, largely through the relatively portable illuminated manuscripts. Traveling, sought after artists such as Master Theoderic of Bohemia and the Limbourg brothers of the Netherlands helped spread this style throughout Europe, lending it the name “International”.
I will include the link to the essay I found very helpful here: https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/23120
The essay: When Life Triumphs, by Fabian Lacouture, stresses how much child mortality affected those living in fourteenth century Italy. Klapisch-Zuber provides a statistical study on child mortality in Florence between 1300 and 1550. 20% of children died before age three. Of those that survived infancy, 30% died before the age of 10, and and 34% before the age of 15.
As Fabian Lacouture writes: “Considering the infant mortality risks that plagued Italy for almost three centuries, it is very likely that representations of children’s accidents would have reminded viewers of their own experiences with premature death, whether the child who died was their own or a close relative’s.” If children were not carefully watched at all times, terrible accidents might befall them. An open window or door would provide an opportunity for a chicken to enter the home and peck the baby’s eye out. A young child might crawl onto the family hearth and catch on fire. A mother might turn her back on her child for an instant, and the child might run past her and jump off the balcony. Commercial baby gates, window screens, and safely enclosed cooking areas as we know them today were not “the norm” back then.
Most of the upper class employed a “wet nurse” or nursemaid to care for the children until they reached the age of 3. There was a lot of mistrust of nursemaids, and many people were of the opinion that early childcare should be provided by the mother. The predella of the careless, rough nursemaid taps into that common feeling.
Seeing a painting depicting a graphic representation of all too common childhood accidents would have a cathartic effect on the viewer. They would feel helpless and horrified, looking at the predellas of a child’s untimely death, and then feel great relief when the child was miraculously restored to his family. This use of dramatic tension would also serve to heighten the perceived power of Agostino Novello, to whom the cathedral was dedicated.
I must note that while researching infant mortality in art, my 2-year-old and 4-year-old managed to creep past me, unlock the front door, and run down our driveway. I managed to catch them just as they were about to run into the street, which abounds in speeding freight trucks. That evening, my husband and I took another step toward child safety by installing an out-of-reach bolt on our front door.
I think one of the messages of the altarpiece was: “It’s great when a saint’s intercession saves your child, but prevention really is the best cure”.
“Agostino Novello.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 30 May 2014. Web. 04 June 2014