Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Pérussis Altarpiece

Circle of Nicolas Froment
Oil and gold on wood
Three panels, each 54 1/2 x 23 in. (138.4 x 58.4 cm)
Credit Line:
Purchase, Mary Wetmore Shively Bequest, in memory of her husband, Henry L. Shively, M.D., 1954
Accession Number:
Not on view
The subject of this large altarpiece, the adoration of the empty cross on Golgatha, is unusual. According to a documented inscription on the lost original frame, the painting was made in 1480 for Aloisius Rudolphe de Pérussis, whose family coat of arms and motto are displayed on the side panels. One of the kneeling donors, presented by John the Baptist and Saint Francis, may be Aloisius himself. Originally from Florence, the Pérussis or Peruzzi took refuge in Avignon after they were exiled by Cosimo de' Medici in 1434. Included in the background landscape is a faithful topographical view of Avignon.
The Pérussis Altarpiece, which was first documented in 1743, in the Chartreuse de Bonpas, near Avignon, derives its name from its donors, who were members of the Pérussis family. Originally from Florence, the Pérussis or Peruzzi were exiled by Cosimo de' Medici in 1434 and took refuge in Avignon, where they established themselves as part of an active Italian community engaged in banking and mercantile operations. According to an eighteenth century drawing that reproduces this altarpiece and the inscription on its lost original frame, the painting was made in 1480 for Louis di Rodolfo Pérussis, whose coat of arms and motto are displayed at either extremity of the picture (Pithon-Curt et al. 1743–50 and Labande 1932). The large retable is composed of three panels, but divided by the frame into five vertical sections. Clearly it was never intended to have folding shutters. Its subject, the Adoration of the Holy Cross, is unusual. A tall, empty wooden cross dominates the central panel. The viewer is made aware of the absence of the crucified body of Christ by the three nails that are still implanted in the wood, the remnant titulus at the top, and the grieving pair of angels. Bones are scattered on the ground, marking the site as Golgotha (literally, "the place of the skull"). Two male donors—most likely Louis di Rodolfo Pérussis and another family member—kneel on either side in veneration of the Cross, their hands clasped in prayer. They are presented by Saint John the Baptist on the left and Saint Francis on the right. The harmonious and detailed landscape that stretches far behind the figures and the cross represents a faithful topographical view of Avignon; a winding road leads to the bank of the river and the tower of Philippe le Bel, from which the famous medieval bridge Pont Saint-Bénezet spans the Rhone. Situated on the opposite bank is the old city with its major landmarks, the cathedral Notre-Dame-des-Domes and the Palace of the Popes, while in the distance, beyond the plain, lies Mont Ventoux.

The retable’s exceptional subject of the Adoration of the Holy Cross and the appearance of both John the Baptist and Saint Francis can perhaps be explained by the fact that the Peruzzi family, while in Florence, resided in the quartiere of Santa Croce, where they had a chapel endowed in the Franciscan church of that name; furthermore, John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence. A second altarpiece, now lost, which also represented the Veneration of the Cross, was commissioned by Louis de Pérussis in 1480 and hung in the church of the Célestins at Avignon; this church received an important relic of the True Cross in 1477. Perhaps also relevant to the iconographic program of the present painting is the fact that in 1472 members of the Florentine community in Avignon decided to build a chapel for their own use, dedicated to Saint Francis and the Holy Cross. The chapel was not completed before Louis's death in 1484, but it may have been the site for which the altarpiece was originally destined (Léonelli 1981 and Cahn 1983).

The painting’s simple forms, the clear, even light, and the realism of the portraits and the panoramic landscape are characteristic features of the Avignon school, and recall the art of Nicolas Froment, who was active in Provence from around 1462 until his death in 1484. When the MMA altarpiece is compared with the latter’s documented works, however, stylistic differences become apparent, which make an attribution to the master himself unlikely. The characterization of the heads is more objective and less caricature-like in the MMA picture, and the composition shows a desire to eliminate detail that contradicts Froment’s interest in richness of surface (Rousseau 1957). Until more information is gained about Nicolas Froment’s close students and followers, the Museum's altarpiece must be assigned to an anonymous artist in his circle.

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2013]
Inscription: Inscribed: (on cross) inri; (on banderoles held by angels on wings) DATVM · EST · DE · SVPER · [it is ordained from above]
Chartreuse de Bonpas, near Avignon (?until French Revolution); Chapelle des Pénitents, Vedènes, near Avignon (until 1913; sold to Fournier); Louis Fournier, Paris (1913–24; his sale, Frederik Müller [sous la direction de Ant. W. M. Mensing], Amsterdam, June 24, 1924, no. 1, as by Nicolas Froment, for fl. 72,000, ?bought in); [Frederik Müller, Amsterdam, ?from 1924, certainly by 1932; and/or Anton W. M. Mensing, Amsterdam]; [Anton W. M. Mensing, Amsterdam, until d. by 1937; his estate, by 1937–51; posthumous sale, Sotheby's, London, February 28, 1951, no. 23, as by N. Froment, for £600 to Mrs. De Veux, i.e. Wildenstein]; [Wildenstein, New York, 1951–54; sold to MMA]
Jean-Antoine Pithon-Curt. Histoire de la noblesse du Comté-Venaissin d'Avignon et de la principauté d'Orange, dressée sur les preuves. Vol. 2, Paris, 1743–50, p. 388, note a [see Labande 1932, p. 154], describes the retable and transcribes the text on its original frame, stating that it was commissioned in 1480 by Aloisius Rudolphi de Perussiis; identifies him with "Louis de Pérussis, conseiller, puis consul de la ville et lieutenant du viguier d'Avignon, mourut en cette cité le 15 avril 1484 . . . enseveli dans le choeur des Cordeliers".

Collection Louis Fournier de Paris, tableaux anciens de diverses écoles. Frederik Muller, Amsterdam. June 24, 1924, p. 5, no. 1, pl. 1, attribute it to Nicolas Froment and call it the Peruzzi retable, noting that the family's coat-of-arms are shown in the two lateral panels; identify the donor figures as an uncle and his nephew and assert that they are shown with their patron saints, John the Baptist and Saint Francis, with the city of Avignon in the background; state that the altarpiece was given by the Peruzzi family to the abbaye de Bompas [also spelled Bonpas], near Avignon, in the fifteenth century and transferred in the seventeenth century to the Chapelle de la confrérie des Pénitents at Védènes, also near Avignon, where it remained until it was sold to Fournier in 1913.

Wilhelm von Bode. Letter. in or shortly before 1924 [comments reported in Fournier 1924], sees the influence of Antonello da Messina on Froment in this work.

Louis Dimier. Histoire de la peinture française: Des origines au retour de Vouet, 1300 à 1627. Brussels, 1925, pl. 21, ascribes it to "Ateliers Provençaux".

L.-H. Labande. Les primitifs français: Peintres et peintres-verriers de la provence occidentale. Marseilles, 1932, vol. 1, pp. 38, 153–55; vol. 2, pls. 64, 65 (overall and details) and 63 (drawing that records inscription on original frame), sees the strong influence of Nicolas Froment in these panels, noting that the same artist was almost certainly responsible for the retable of Louis de Pérussis made in 1480 for the church of the Célestins, Avignon, and now lost; comments on the difficulty of identifying the particular members of the Pérussis family represented here with "patron saints"; believes the altarpiece was taken from the Chartreuse de Bonpas during the French Revolution and identifies its current owner as Frederik Müller, Amsterdam; publishes an eighteenth-century drawing that copies the composition and records the inscription on its original frame.

L.-H. Labande. "Notes sur quelques primitifs de Provence." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 9 (1933), pp. 99–103, figs. 7–8 (overall and detail), asserts that of all the works associated with the known oeuvre of Froment, this retable seems to be stylistically closest to him; discusses the composition of the other Pérussis retable—in the church of the Célestins, Avignon, before the Revolution—observing that its central panel, recorded in an eighteenth-century drawing (fig. 6), represented, like the MMA altarpiece, the Adoration of the Cross; notes that the frame of this altarpiece was inscribed and dated: "Ludovicus Rudolphi de Perussiis de Florentia hoc opus fecit fieri, anno Domini MCCCCLXXX".

M. Marignane. Nicolas Froment. Paris, [1936], pp. 45, 68–75, pls. 10 and 11 (drawing after painting with its original frame), mentions this polyptych in the context of "new attributions identifiable with Froment's certain works and which can be considered from the hand of the Master"; identifies the donor on the left as Louis de Pérussis and the one on the right as his son Louis Rodolphe de Pérussis; claims that a monogram "N.F." can be made out on the gold fringe encircling the latter's hat and associates it with Nicolas Froment; believes the angels adoring the Cross are not by Froment, but are the work of a collaborator; attributes the drawing after this painting to Philippe Sauvan.

Charles Sterling. La peinture française: Les primitifs. Paris, 1938, p. 111 n. 113, mentions it as an example of Provençal paintings that closely imitate Netherlandish compositions and figure types and comments on its poor condition.

Louis Réau. French Painting in the XIVth, XVth and XVIth Centuries. London, 1939, p. 22, notes that Labande (1933) views this polyptych as the work that most resembles the technique of Froment's certain works.

Charles Jacques [Charles Sterling]. Les peintres du Moyen Age. Paris, 1941, pp. 33, 53, no. 66, pl. 102, tentatively attributes the altarpiece to Nicolas Froment and his workshop but notes that the painting's poor condition and restorations make it difficult to judge the credibility of this attribution; suggests that the older donor figure is Louis Pérussis, who served as a witness for Froment when the latter bought two houses in Avignon in 1474; compares the heads in a Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (no. 67, private collection, Paris [Thiébaut 1983, ill. p. 271])—with their eyes wide open, and their hard, slightly tensed profiles—to those in the Pérussis Altarpiece.

Jean-Louis Vaudoyer. Les peintres provençaux de Nicolas Froment à Paul Cézanne. [Paris], [1947], p. 35, pl. 22 (detail of landscape).

Grete Ring. A Century of French Painting 1400–1500. London, 1949, p. 227, no. 224, rejects the attribution to Nicolas Froment and fails to see a close relationship to his art or the art of Provence in general; finds this polyptych far closer to the Flemish school—in particular Rogier van der Weyden—than any secure work by Froment; observes that the Virgin and Child with Saints and Donors (no. 225 [see Jacques 1942]) "seems to go well together with the 'Pérussis Altarpiece'".

Theodore Rousseau Jr. "The Pérussis Altarpiece." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 15 (June 1957), pp. 222–27, ill. (overall and details), and cover (color detail), discusses this picture at length and mentions the other painting commissioned in 1480 by Louis de Pérussis (now lost), that also features a tall, empty cross; suggests that Louis or the Pérussis family had a particular devotion to the cross as a symbol, and may have owned a fragment of the True Cross; rejects attribution to Froment and notes that the realism of the sitters' faces points to a northern training for the artist, while the two saints suggest Italian models; tentatively proposes attribution of the MMA panels to Tomas Grabuset, who collaborated in 1481 with Froment, or to Philippe Garcin, who was paid in June 1500 for work done in Louis' house in Caumont [although Louis died in 1484]; adds that both artists were stained-glass workers as well as painters.

"Altare dei Peruzzi." Sele arte 6 (July–August 1957), p. 19, ill. (detail), report that Theodore Rousseau (1957) has suggested that the painter of these panels, which show the influence of both Flemish and Italian art, might be Tomas Grabusset [sic], who was active in Avignon in about 1480.

Michel Laclotte. L'école d'Avignon: La peinture en Provence aux XIVe et XVe siècles. Paris, 1960, p. 106, ill. p. 107 and frontispiece (color details), calls it the best of the surviving Provençal primitives produced after 1475 and showing the influence of Froment and Netherlandish painting; admires particularly the frankness of the donor portraits and the panoramic landscape, which he calls the earliest painting of Avignon seen from Villeneuve.

Madeleine de Guilhermier. L'installation d'une famille Florentine à Avignon au XVe siècle: Les Pérussis [Travaux & Mémoires, XV, Faculté des Lettres, Aix-en-Provence]. Aix-en-Provence, 1960, pp. 115–18, 174–75 nn. 407–9, ill. p. 113 (overall) and pp. 61 and 123 (details), wonders if it might originally have been commissioned for another site in Avignon, but arrived at the Chartreuse de Bonpas—where Louis did not have particular ties—as payment for a debt to the convent, recorded in a document of 1485, and inherited by the other branch of the Pérussis family from Michel de Valspergues; suggests other possible authors of thepainting.

Marguerite Roques. Les apports néerlandais dans la peinture du sud-est de la France, XIVe, XVe, XVIe siècles. Bordeaux, 1963, pp. 181–82, pl. 80, tentatively attributes it to Froment, comparing the faces of the saints with certain heads in his Resurrection of Lazarus (Uffizi, Florence); considers it more likely that the lost painting commissioned by Louis Pérussis for the abbaye des Célestins was the work of Froment.

Robert Mesuret. "Les primitifs du Languedoc, essai de catalogue." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 65 (January 1965), p. 29, no. 115.

Michel Laclotte. Primitifs français. Paris, [1966], p. 40, ascribes it to a follower of Froment.

Katharine Baetjer. "Pleasures and Problems of Early French Painting." Apollo 106 (November 1977), pp. 341, 349 n. 6, fig. 3 and colorpl. 2 (detail).

Marie-Claude Léonelli in Le Roi René en son temps, 1382–1481. Exh. cat., Musée Granet. Aix-en-Provence, 1981, pp. 214–15, no. D22, ill. [not lent to exhibition], attributes it to a collaborator of Nicolas Froment and identifies the kneeling donor on the left as Louis Pérussis; notes that he is presented by John the Baptist, patron saint of the Florentine confraternity founded in 1477 in the Augustinian church of Avignon; suggests that the "painfully ugly" donor on the right might be Raoul [sic for Rodolphe], the only son of Louis; commenting on the presence of Saint Francis, notes that Louis Pérussis made numerous gifts, including paintings, to the church of the Franciscans in Avignon, where he had himself buried; adds that the Florentines in Avignon had begun the construction of a chapel dedicated to Saint Francis and the Santa Croce in 1472, and concludes that in 1480, when he commissioned this picture, Louis was anticipating the construction of this chapel; also notes that during this year the Florentine colony in Avignon was experiencing particular hostility from the native Avignonese, who had forbidden them to hold municipal posts; the inclusion of John the Baptist, Saint Francis and the Santa Croce can be understood, therefore, as an attempt to bind this Florentine community together; considers the landscape the principal appeal of these panels and notes that its realism and unifying role in the composition completely erases the artificial tripartite division of the retable.

Walter Cahn. "A Note on the Pérussis-Altar in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York." Essays in Northern European Art Presented to Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann on His Sixtieth Birthday. Ed. Anne-Marie Logan. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1983, pp. 61–65, fig. 1, does not find it stylistically close to Froment; discusses the rare theme of the Adoration of the Cross from which Christ is physically absent and suggests that its choice in two works commissioned by Louis de Pérussis may relate to the fact that in Florence, his native city, the family resided in the quartiere of Santa Croce and that they possessed a chapel which they had endowed in the Franciscan church of that name; notes that Saint Francis and John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence, appear again in the the lost Pérussis painting made for the church of the Célestins; further observes that in 1477 the Célestins had received a notable relic of the True Cross from King René of Anjou.

Dominique Thiébaut in L'école d'Avignon. Paris, 1983, pp. 130, 249–50, 254, 271, 279, no. 75, ill. pp. 249, 94 (detail of landscape), suggests the painter may have been part of Froment's circle.

Denis Coutagne et al. Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne, 1990. Exh. cat., Musée Granet. Aix-en-Provence, 1990, pp. 93, 127, fig. 41 (detail of landscape).

Charles Sterling. "Tableaux français inédits: Provence." L'Oeil no. 422 (September 1990), pp. 51, 53.

Hervé Aliquot. La Chronique d'Avignon. [Avignon], 1990, pp. 82, 103, ill. pp. 88–89.

Dominique Thiébaut in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 13, New York, 1996, p. 264, notes that none of Thomas Grabuset's documented works have been identified and mentions the MMA altarpiece among hypothetical attributions to him.

Bernard Sournia and Jean-Louis Vayssettes. Villeneuve-lès-Avignon: histoire artistique et monumentale d'une villégiature pontificale. Paris, 2006, pp. 233–34.

Emma Capron in Late Medieval Panel Paintings: Materials, Methods, Meanings. Exh. cat., Richard L. Feigen & Co. London, 2011, pp. 222–25 n. 9, fig. 17 (color), under no. 16, as attributed to Nicolas Froment; finds it stylistically and thematically close to the School of Nicolas Froment fragment, "A Kneeling Donor Introduced by Saint Peter".

Alison Wright in Ornament & Illusion: Carlo Crivelli of Venice. Ed. Stephen J. Campbell. Exh. cat., Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Boston, 2015, pp. 58, 77 n. 6, fig. 21 (color), mentions it in connection with Crivelli's "Crucifixion" (probably late 1480s; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), which also has a divided sky with blue below and gold above; suggests that Enguerrand Quarton's "Coronation of the Virgin" (1453–54; Villeneuve-les-Avignon) may have influenced this element of the MMA picture's composition.

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