The only Gothic altarpiece in the Metropolitan’s collection with all of its components, this work was painted for Alderotto Brunelleschi’s chapel in the church of San Leo in Florence. He and his uncle Silvestro are portrayed in the predella. In the main panels are Saints Bernard and Sylvester, and Nicholas and Julian flank the central scene where Christ crowns his mother accompanied by angel musicians. The roundels above contain busts of unidentified prophets and of Christ. The scenes in the predella show the apostles Peter and Paul appearing to Constantine in a dream and Pope Sylvester baptizing Constantine, Sylvester raising the bull, and Sylvester binding the mouth of a poisonous dragon and resuscitating magicians killed by the dragon’s breath.
This is the Museum’s only intact Gothic polyptych. It consists of a center panel showing the Coronation of the Virgin accompanied by two music-making angels, and two lateral panels with, from left to right, Saints Bernard, Sylvester, Nicholas, and Julian the Hospitaller. Above the saints are roundels with busts of unidentified prophets and, above the central panel, a bust-length image of Christ holding an open book with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega (the beginning and the end). The predella contains episodes from the life and legend of Saint Sylvester, who was pope from 313 to 345 and played a key role under Constantine (it was supposedly to him that Constantine made his notorious "donation" granting papal sovereignty over Rome and the western empire; the forgery was unveiled by Lorenzo Valla in the fifteenth century). In the first scene the apostles Peter and Paul appear to Constantine in a dream and instruct him to be baptized by Sylvester, which occurs to the right. In the second he wins a debate before the emperor by raising a bull back to life. In the third he binds the mouth of a poisonous dragon and brings back to life two magicians who had been killed by the dragon’s lethal breath. Between the scenes are depictions of two kneeling figures, while on the plinths of the colonnettes are coats of arms which, together with the inscription on the altarpiece, make it possible to identify the two men as Alderotto and Silvestro Brunelleschi.
Thanks to the research of Covi (1950–53, 1958) the history of the altarpiece can be reconstructed in some detail. Alderotto was the nephew and legal heir of Silvestro. They were descendants of a very old Florentine family (though they belonged to a different branch from that of the famous architect Filippo Brunelleschi). Silvestro and Alderotto both served as priors in the city and enjoyed considerable wealth. Alderotto was the manager and representative of Silvestro’s business affairs. He was married and by 1391 had two sons. For his part, Silvestro drew up a will in 1391, designating contributions to the hospitals of Santa Maria Nuova and San Giovanni tra l’Arcora and providing for the construction and decoration of a chapel in the small parish church of San Leo (the Brunelleschi chapel was on the right side of the church). He seems to have died not long after May 11, 1394, for that June Alderotto filed a notice promising to pay the debts of his deceased uncle, among which were the payments for the chapel. As executor, it was thus Alderotto who undertook supervision of this obligation and probably commissioned the altarpiece, appearing on its base together with his uncle. Covi has translated the Latin inscription as follows: "Alderotto Brunelleschi had this altarpiece made with what (or the goods which) his paternal uncle Silvestro left in reparation for his soul and the souls of his people, in the year of Our Lord 1394". It is Silvestro’s patron saint who occupies the place of honor to the right of the Virgin and the legend of Saint Sylvester that decorates the predella. Saint Bernard was the patron saint of Silvestro’s brother—the father of Alderotto. Julian is the patron saint of travelers and, therefore, of inns: the Brunelleschi were innkeepers. Nicholas must have been important to Alderotto. At the bottom of the central panel is the date 9 November, which Covi has explained by noting that this was a day of special devotion to Saint Sylvester, whose principal feast is, however, December 31.
Until 1975 the author of the altarpiece was anonymous, though a consistent body of works had been assembled under the name of the Master of 1399—the date appearing on one of the attributed paintings. Boskovits (1975) suggested that this master might be identified with Giovanni di Tano Fei, who joined the guild of the Medici e Speziali in 1384 and the painters’ association in 1405. This identification gained further credibility through the research of Bacarelli (Giuseppina Bacarelli, "Le commissioni artistiche attraverso i documenti: novità per il maestro del 1399 ovvero Giovanni di Tano Fei e per Giovanni Antonio Sogliani," in Il "Paradiso" in Pian di Ripoli: studi e ricerche su un antico monastero. Ed. Mina Gregori and Giuseppe Rocchi. Florence, 1985). In a payment to Fei in 1401 by the nuns of Saint Bridget the woodworker Salvi di Giovanni is stated to have been responsible for the wood support for the commissioned work; it would be interesting to know whether he also made the frame for the MMA altarpiece. Fei was a minor painter in Florence, and the church of San Leo was a minor church. His work shows a clear debt to the example of Taddeo Gaddi as well as to Agnolo Gaddi and Jacopo di Cione.
Examination of the donor figure of Alderotto Brunelleschi with infrared reflectography revealed a drawing of a profile beneath his garments (see Additional Images, figs. 1, 2). The altarpiece was cleaned in 2013. [Keith Christiansen 2013]
Inscription: Inscribed and dated: (frame, at base of central panel) HANC·TABVLAM·FIERI·[FECIT] ALDEROT[T]VS·DEBRVNEL[L]ESCHIS·QVE·DIMISSIT· / SILVESTER·PATRVVS·SVVS·P[RO]REMEDIO·ANIME SVEE[T]SVORVM·A·D·M·CCC·L·XXXX·IIII (Alderottus Brunelleschi had this altarpiece made with what his paternal uncle Silvester left for the redemption of his soul and the souls of his family in the year of our Lord 1394); (bottom, central panel) DIE VIIII MENSIS NOVENBRIS (ninth day of the month of November); (frame, at base of left panel) S[AN]C[TV]S·BERNARDVS·ABB[AS] / S[AN]C[TV]S·SILVESTER·P[A]P[A] (Saint Bernard, abbot; Saint Silvester, pope); (frame, at base of right panel) S[AN]C[TV]S·NICCHOLAVS·EP[ISCO]P[VS] / S[AN]C[TV]S IVLIANVS M[ARTY]R (Saint Nicholas, bishop; Saint Julian, martyr); (on open book held by Christ) AUU (Alpha and Omega); (on scrolls held by prophets, in pseudo-Kufic)
Brunelleschi chapel, church of San Leo, Florence (from 1394); private collection, Florence (until about 1825); vicomte de Cambis-Alais, Avignon (bought in Florence in about 1832–at least 1861); [Ercole Canessa, New York]; Philip Lehman, New York (by 1928–d. 1947); his son, Robert Lehman, New York (1947–50)
Marseilles. location unknown. "Les trésors d'art de la Provence," 1861, no. 1190 (lent by comte de Cambis Alais) [see Parrocel 1862].
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Stefano Rosselli. Sepoltuario Fiorentino. 1657, p. 1013 [see Ref. Covi 1950-53], reports it as in the church of San Leo in Florence, and quotes its inscription.
Giuseppe Richa. Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine. Vol. 4, Florence, 1756, pp. 151–52, mentions it as in the Brunelleschi chapel in the church of San Leo in Florence.
Léon Lagrange. "Exposition régionale des beaux-arts à Marseille." Gazette des beaux-arts 11 (November 1861), p. 436, mentions it in the Marseilles exhibition of 1861, and tentatively suggests Giottino as the artist.
Étienne Parrocel. Annales de la peinture. Paris, 1862, pp. 92–93, mentions it in the Marseilles exhibition of 1861 and tentatively suggests the names of Giotto and Simone Martini, without attributing it to either of them.
Marius Chaumelin. Les trésors d'art de la Provence exposés à Marseille en 1861. Paris, 1862, pp. 8–10, attributes it to Taddeo di Bartolo, comparing it with an altarpiece attributed to him in the Louvre.
Guido Carocci. Il mercato vecchio di Firenze. Florence, 1884, p. 66, mentions it among the works which disappeared from the church of San Leo in Florence and quotes its inscription.
Arnaldo Cocchi. Le chiese di Firenze dal secolo IV al secolo XX. Vol. 1, Quartiere di San Giovanni. Florence, 1903, p. 125, confuses it with another altarpiece in the church of San Leo in Florence, but quotes the correct inscription; includes a sketch of the church exterior as it appeared in fourteenth century.
Robert Lehman. The Philip Lehman Collection, New York: Paintings. Paris, 1928, unpaginated, pl. LVIII, attributes it to a Pisan master and identifies the standing saint on the extreme right as Philip rather than Julian.
Bernard Berenson. "Quadri senza casa: Il Trecento fiorentino, I." Dedalo 11 (1931), pp. 986–88, ill., notes analogies with Niccolò di Pietro Gerini in the faces of Christ and the Virgin but considers it part of the Orcagnesque tradition.
Mario Salmi. "Aggiunte al Tre e al Quattrocento fiorentino." Rivista d'arte 16 (1934), pp. 73–76, figs. 5 and 6, tentatively attributes it to Francesco di Michele, while also observing chracteristics of Agnolo Gaddi and Niccolò di Pietro Gerini within an Orcagnesque tradition.
Walter Paatz and Elisabeth Paatz. Die Kirchen von Florenz. Vol. 2, Frankfurt am Main, 1941, p. 460, lists it among the works that disappeared from the church of San Leo in Florence.
Dario Covi. "The Provenance and Donors of an Italian Altarpiece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Marsyas 6 (1950–53), pp. 58–69, pl. 19, identifies it as the painting in the Brunelleschi chapel in the church of San Leo in Florence, quotes contemporary documents and other writers before the suppression of the church, discusses the lives of the donors, explains the inscription, notes the influence of Taddeo Gaddi as pointed out by Richard Offner, and attributes the work to an eclectic painter of the Florentine school.
George Kaftal. Iconography of the Saints in Tuscan Painting. Florence, 1952, col. 929, no. 285c, fig. 1051 bis (detail of Saint Sylvester), erroneously as still in the Philip Lehman collection; tentatively attributes it to the Florentine school.
"Recent Accessions." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (February 1952), p. 188, ill., attributes it to an unknown Pisan painter and erroneously suggests that it may have been painted by an artist working at the papal court in Avignon during the Great Schism (1378–1417); misidentifies the figure of Saint Julian as Saint Philip.
Dario Covi. "A XIV Century Italian Altarpiece." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (January 1958), pp. 147–55, ill. (overall and details), based on an earlier article [Ref. Covi 1950–53], elaborates on the provenance of the painting and the lives of the donors.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 105, attributes it to Jacopo di Cione.
Federico Zeri. "Appunti sul Lindenau–Museum di Altenburg." Bollettino d'arte 49 (1964), p. 50, attributes it to an unknown artist, possibly of Spanish or Portuguese origin, who painted works in the Princeton University Museum, the Bestagini collection in Milan, and the Sanctuary of the Impruneta near Florence.
Guy-Philippe de Montebello. "Four Prophets by Lorenzo Monaco." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 25 (December 1966), p. 155, finds it stylistically related to the work of Orcagna and Agnolo Gaddi.
Bernard Berenson. Homeless Paintings of the Renaissance. Ed. Hanna Kiel. Bloomington, 1970, pp. 95, 247, pl. 143 [same text as Ref. Berenson 1931].
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 49–52, ill., remark that the composition of the central panel derives from a polyptych by Giotto and his pupils in the Baroncelli chapel in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, note similarities to the work of Taddeo Gaddi, Jacopo di Cione, and the school of Agnolo Gaddi, and compare the painting to a group of panels by an unknown artist active in Florence in the 1390s [see Ref. Zeri 1964].
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 219, 308, 355, 363, 378, 421, 435, 450, 466, 534, 538, 608.
Miklòs Boskovits. Pittura fiorentina alla vigilia del Rinascimento, 1370–1400. Florence, 1975, pp. 132, 359, 361, pl. 139a, attributes it to the Master of the Madonna of 1399—the name given to the artist of a panel, dated 1399, of the Madonna and Child at Figline Valdarno and active in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries—and suggests the possible identification of this artist as Giovanni di Tano Fei [Giuseppina Bacarelli confirms this identification in "Il 'Paradiso' in Pian di Ripoli: studi e ricerche su un antico monastero," Florence, 1985].
Richard Offner. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Ed. Hayden B. J. Maginnis. supplement, A Legacy of Attributions. New York, 1981, p. 59, calls the artist the Metropolitan Master of 1394 and tentatively attributes to the same painter a Coronation of the Virgin (Bargello, Florence) and a fresco of the Last Judgment (Palazzo degli Spedalinghi, Prato).
George Bisacca and Laurence B. Kanter inItalian Renaissance Frames. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1990, pp. 16–17, figs. 8 and 9, describe its construction, providing a diagram of how the component pieces were put together.
Erling S. Skaug. Punch Marks from Giotto to Fra Angelico: Attribution, Chronology, and Workshop Relationships in Tuscan Panel Painting. Oslo, 1994, vol. 1, pp. 270–71; vol. 2, punch chart 8.7, classifies it by punch marks and halo tooling with works attributed to the Master of 1394/1399 [see Ref. Boskovits 1975]
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, p. 237, classifies a punch mark appearing in this painting and attributes it to the Master of 1394.
Elena Merciai. "Il probabile Giovanni di Tano Fei: un'interprete bizzarro del gotico internazionale a Firenze." Arte cristiana 91 (March–April 2003), pp. 79–80, 88, 90–91 nn. 1, 6, 8, fig. 4, agrees that the Master of 1399 can probably be identified with Giovanni di Tano Fei and publishes a list of about thirty works that she attributes to this artist, including the MMA picture; attempts to reconstruct this artist's career.
Victor M. Schmidt. Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250–1400. Florence, 2005, pp. 110, 136 n. 9, points out that both the testator and executor (i.e., actual commissioner) are depicted on the predella [see inscription].
Lorenzo Sbaraglio inFascino del bello: opere d'arte dalla collezione Terruzzi. Ed. Annalisa Scarpa and Michelangelo Lupo. Exh. cat., Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome. Milan, 2007, p. 405, under no. I.9, relates the scalloped edge of Saint Julian's robe to those seen on several of the nymphs in "Allegory of Love," attributed to the Master of Charles of Durazzo, in the Terruzzi collection.
Angelo Tartuferi inDalla tradizione gotica al primo Rinascimento. Florence, 2009, p. 98, fig. 2 on p. 101.
Angelo Tartuferi inArte a Figline: dal Maestro della Maddalena a Masaccio. Ed. Angelo Tartuferi. Exh. cat., Palazzo Pretorio, Figline Valdarno. Florence, 2010, p. 134.
The original engaged frame is from Florence and dates to about 1394 (see Additional Images, figs. 3–5). The frame for this magnificent early Gothic altarpiece is made of poplar. The arched spandrels within the peaks at the top which encircle small roundels retain their original punchwork and pastiglia gesso work which further decorates the predella panels at the base. The original water-gilded surface on a red bole and gesso layer transitions seamlessly from the painted panels. Alternating blue and red paint embellishes the spaces between the consoles or dentil brackets along the three peaks, beneath the torus moldings under the panels and across the top of the predella along the base. A sgraffito inscription incised in blue paint across the frieze identifies the donor. The pinnacles and Solomonic columns were reworked at an earlier time.
[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2017; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]