A princess of great learning and beauty, Saint Catherine of Alexandria (fourth century) was challenged to a debate with fifty pagan orators, all of whom she converted to Christianity. Here she counts off the points of her dispute to two men who wear haloes as an indication of their conversion by her arguments (and future martyrdom by Emperor Maxentius). Two diminutive donors wearing the habits of Franciscan tertiaries kneel at the left. It dates about 1380.
Registered in the painters’ guild—that of the Medici e Speziali—in 1369, and active into the early fifteenth century, Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni is one of the many Florentine painters who bridge the gap between the austerely hieratic style practiced by Andrea di Cione (known as Orcagna), with its rigorous integration of figure and space, and the more lyrical, emotionally engaging world of Lorenzo Monaco. Over the years a corpus of works has been assembled that makes it possible to trace the stages of his otherwise poorly documented career. Cenni’s earlier paintings show affinities with those of Giovanni del Biondo and Jacopo di Cione (Andrea’s younger brother) and, like theirs, are notable for their rich ornamentation and delicately modeled figures combined with a tendency towards geometric clarity. Later, he falls under the sway of Agnolo Gaddi (see 41.100.33), the most popular painter in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century. Much of his work was done for the periphery of Florence or the towns of the Florentine state (Certaldo, Sesto Fiorentino, Castelfiorentino, San Casciano in Val di Pesa). His earliest dated work is from 1370: a Madonna and Child with Saints Christopher and Margaret in the church of San Cristoforo in Perticaia (Rignano sull’Arno). His most important fresco cycle, illustrating the Legend of the Cross, is in a chapel adjacent to the church of San Francesco in Volterra and dates from 1410. The Metropolitan’s panel—among the most exquisite paintings by the artist—was originally attributed to Agnolo Gaddi and then, by Berenson (1925–26), to Giovanni del Biondo; Berenson later (1963) recognized a number of other panels as by the same artist. Zeri (1963) argued that these pictures constituted the early phase of Cenni di Francesco di Ser Cenni and this is now accepted by virtually all scholars. The MMA panel is usually dated to the early 1380s—about the time of Cenni’s fresco of the Adoration of the Magi in the church of San Donato Polverosa, Florence, which is dated 1383.
The MMA picture shows an enthroned princess disputing with two saints dressed in the red robes characteristic of doctors and scholars. She wears a richly patterned Lucchese silk robe with an ermine-lined mantle (see The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, ed. David Jenkins, New York, 2003, vol. 1, ill. 6.2: camucha di una e di du sete; see Additional Images, fig. 1) and her throne is ornamented with the elaborate Gothic openings so favored by Francesco Talenti in his work on the Florence cathedral and at Orsanmichele. In addition to her crown and gold girdle, the princess wears a brooch with a depiction of a winged Amor and was, in consequence, first identified as an allegorical figure of Charity, while her two disputants were identified as the physician saints, Cosmas and Damian. (On the depiction of the Amor, see Erwin Panofsky, Studies in Iconology, "Blind Cupid," New York, 1962, pp. 95–128.) However, there can be little doubt that the princess is intended as the fourth-century Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who was martyred under emperor Maxentius. Gordon (1995) suggested that the round openings in the sides of the throne allude to the wheel that is Saint Catherine’s emblem. Famed for her wisdom, according to the Golden Legend Catherine was challenged to dispute with the fifty wisest men of the kingdom. In Cenni’s panel she is shown counting off her points to the astonishment of her two disputants, who, converted by her arguments, were subsequently martyred, thereby earning the haloes. In the lower left, kneeling on the patterned floor, are two diminutive female supplicants wearing buff-colored habits with a red cross ornamenting the scapular; the older one is veiled (the original color of her veil was black) while the younger one has the short-cut hair of a novice. Kanter (1994) has plausibly identified the two supplicants as belonging to the lay order of the Humiliati, which was founded in Lombardy and in Florence had as its principal establishment the convent of Ognissanti (founded in the thirteenth century and subsequently, in 1571, transferred to the Franciscans). A female convent was established at Santa Marta a Montughi (outside Florence) in 1341, and it is possible that it was for a member of this convent that Cenni painted his picture. The work is thus most likely for the private devotions of the kneeling supplicants. Presumably Catherine was the namesake of the older supplicant and it is this possibility that led Kanter to suggest that this figure may be intended to represent Suor Caterina di Jacopo Guiderelli, who was among the first nuns to join the convent in 1343. This remains no more than a working hypothesis.
The frame of the panel is modern. As indicated by the absence of a tooled border along the upper edge, the panel has been cropped and probably had a triangular gable.
[Keith Christiansen 2014]
Otto Kahn, New York (by 1917–d. 1934); Mogmar Art Foundation, New York (1934–41); [R. Langton Douglas, London and New York, 1941–d. 1951]; Mrs. R. Langton Douglas, later Mrs. E. Fowles, New York (1951–d. 1981)
New York. F. Kleinberger Galleries. "Italian Primitives," November 12–30, 1917, no. 9 (as "An Allegory: A Votive Picture," by Agnolo Gaddi, lent by Otto H. Kahn).
New York. Richard L. Feigen & Co. "Bedford Collects," May 9–June 10, 1972, no. 2 (as "St. Catherine with St. Cosimo and St. Damian," by Giovanni del Biondo).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Painting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence 1300–1450," November 17, 1994–February 26, 1995, no. 19 (as "Saint Catherine Enthroned with Two Saints and Two Donors").
Osvald Sirén and Maurice W. Brockwell. Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Italian Primitives. Exh. cat., F. Kleinberger Galleries, Inc. New York, 1917, pp. 32–33, no. 9, ill., as "An Allegory: A Votive Picture," by Agnolo Gaddi, lent by Otto H. Kahn; identify the seated female figure as a kind of Caritas, the two male figures on the right as Saints Cosmo and Damian, and the kneeling donors on the left as members of some religious organization devoted to hospital work
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 3, The Florentine School of the 14th Century. The Hague, 1924, p. 557 n. 1 (continued from p. 556), as "Charity, SS. Cosme and Damian and two donors," by Agnolo Gaddi.
William B. M'Cormick. "Otto H. Kahn Collection." International Studio 80 (January 1925), p. 282, attributes it to Agnolo Gaddi and incorrectly describes it as a Virgin Enthroned with two angels and two kneeling figures in the costumes of nuns.
Bernardo Berenson. "Due illustratori italiani dello Speculum Humanae Salvationis." Bollettino d'arte 5 (1925–26), p. 308, fig. 22, identifies the subject as Saint Catherine disputing and calls it one of the last works of Giovanni del Biondo.
Bernhard Berenson. Studies in Medieval Painting. New Haven, 1930, p. 116, fig. 114 [repr. of Ref. Berenson 1925–26].
Lionello Venturi. Pitture italiane in America. Milan, 1931, unpaginated, pl. LIII, attributes it to Giovanni del Biondo and identifies the two standing male figures as Saints Cosmas and Damian.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 242, tentatively lists it as by Giovanni del Biondo, and calls it "Catherine disputing with the Doctors, and Nun and Boy as Donors".
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 1, Romanesque and Gothic. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 64, attributes it to Giovanni del Biondo and identifies the two standing male figures as Saints Cosmas and Damian.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 208.
Frederick Antal. Florentine Painting and its Social Background. London, 1948, p. 206, pl. 69, notes the attribution to Giovanni del Biondo, but considers it closer to Cenni di Francesco.
George Kaftal. Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting. Florence, 1952, col. 225, attributes it to Giovanni del Biondo.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 216, pl. 299, attributes it to a Florentine painter close to Giovanni del Biondo whom he calls the Master of the Kahn Saint Catherine, also assigning to this artist a Madonna Madre di Virtù (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City), a Madonna of Humility with Angels and the Twelve Apostles (Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Lugano-Castagnola), and a portable triptych (Portland Art Museum, Portland, Ore.).
Federico Zeri. "La Mostra 'Arte in Valdelsa' a Certaldo." Bollettino d'arte, 4th ser., 48 (July–September 1963), p. 255 n. 5, suggests that Cenni di Francesco may have painted the various works attributed to the Master of the Kahn Saint Catherine.
Fern Rusk Shapley. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Vol. 1, Italian Schools: XIII–XV Century. London, 1966, p. 28, under no. K1925, notes Berenson's attribution [see Ref. 1963] to the Master of the Kahn Saint Catherine.
Miklòs Boskovits. "Ein Vorläufer der spätgotischen Malerei in Florenz: Cenni di Francesco di ser Cenni." Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 31 (1968), pp. 273, 275, 290 n. 4, p. 291 n. 6, attributes it to Cenni di Francesco.
Rudolf J. Heinemann inSammlung Thyssen-Bornemisza. Castagnola, Switzerland, 1971, p. 77, notes the opinions of Berenson [see Ref. 1963] and Zeri [see Ref. 1963] and ascribes the Thyssen-Bornemisza picture to Cenni di Francesco.
Miklòs Boskovits. Pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370–1400. Florence, 1975, pp. 127, 291, fig. 307, attributes it to Cenni di Francesco and dates it about 1380 or a little earlier on p. 127 and 1380–85 on p. 291.
Bruce Cole. Agnolo Gaddi. Oxford, 1977, p. 73, lists it as "Charity with Saints Cosmos and Damian and Two Donors," and attributes it to the Master of the Kahn Saint Catherine.
A[nna]. Padoa Rizzo inDizionario biografico degli italiani. Vol. 23, Rome, 1979, p. 536, doubts the attribution to Cenni di Francesco [see Refs. Zeri 1963 and Boskovits 1968].
Richard Offner. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Ed. Hayden B. J. Maginnis. supplement, A Legacy of Attributions. New York, 1981, p. 52, fig. 117, lists it as by the Rohoncz Master, the name given to the artist of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Madonna.
Keith Christiansen inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1981–1982. New York, , pp. 37–38, ill. (color), as by the Master of the Kahn Saint Catherine; dates it about 1380; notes that the kneeling donors wear the habits of Franciscan tertiaries and that the panel was probably cropped at the top.
Miklós Boskovits and Serena Padovani. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Early Italian Painting, 1290–1470. London, 1990, p. 56–57.
Laurence B. Kanter inPainting and Illumination in Early Renaissance Florence: 1300–1450. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1994, pp. 183–86, no. 19, ill. (color), dates it between the latter half of the 1370s and 1383; suggests that the kneeling donors may be nuns from the Order of the Humiliati who founded a convent at Santa Marta a Montughi in 1341, noting that the elder of the two donors could possibly represent Suor Caterina di Jacopo Guiderelli, one of the first nuns to enter the convent; considers it unclear whether it was originally an independent devotional image or part of a larger work.
Dillian Gordon. "Renaissance Painting and Illumination at the Metropolitan." Apollo 140 (February 1995), p. 50, colorpl. 1, notes that the spokes in the roundels of the throne allude to the wheel of Saint Catherine's martyrdom; says the two kneeling donors are probably members of a confraternity.