This panel, together with two others in The Met (69.280.1
), formed part of an altarpiece dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist. Until 1975 (Zeri) the panels were ascribed to the leading painter of fourteenth-century Fabriano, Allegretto Nuzi (ca. 1315–1373/74). Nuzi worked in Florence in 1346 and his work is related to that of Bernardo Daddi and to a pupil/assistant of Daddi’s, Puccio di Simone (the so-called Master of the Fabriano Altarpiece, as he was christened by Richard Offner; Puccio is the author of a Saint Anthony with Donors
in the Pinacoteca, Fabriano, dated 1353, as well as an altarpiece in the Accademia, Florence, that is signed "Puccius Simonis"). An engaging narrator and the author of devotional images notable for their combination of decorative richness and hieratic, austere compositions, Allegretto worked in fresco as well as tempera and seems also to have painted wood sculpture. Ghissi was his most important assistant and closely imitated his master’s style, though in a vein more notable for its charm than depth of feeling. The altarpiece to which The Met panels belonged would seem to be an early work, of about 1370, and possibly based on designs by Nuzi—whence the felicitous compositions.
There is now no question concerning the reconstruction of the altarpiece, which had the rectangular format of a dossal, which had been common in the thirteenth century but less so in the fourteenth (see Additional Images, fig. 1). At the center was a Crucifixion
(Art Institute of Chicago) with, at the foot of the cross, a woman dressed in black widow’s garb. To either side were four scenes arranged in two tiers showing miracles from the life of Saint John the Evangelist as recounted in the Golden Legend. The scenes in the top row are arched, those on the bottom rectangular. The spandrels are decorated with figures of seraphim (at the extremities) and four saints: a young martyr holding a palm, Saint John the Evangelist in a cauldron of boiling oil, Saint Francis, and Saint Louis of Toulouse. The narrative sequence began with the four scenes on the left, running from upper left to lower right, and finished on the right hand side, beginning in the upper left. The opening scene is in the Portland Art Museum; three are in the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; three in The Met; and the concluding panel is lost.
The three scenes in The Met recount consecutive episodes. In the first (69.280.1) Saint John raises the young man Satheus to life. Satheus had been married only a short while when he died. His catafalque is accompanied by the young man’s mother and widow, who implore John’s intervention. Raised to life, Satheus then tells two former converts—Acteus and Eugenius—of the riches they forfeited in heaven through their backsliding; they implore forgiveness from the saint. (69.280.2). The third scene shows Saint John destroying the temple and statue of Diana through prayer (69.280.3), a deed that led to yet another trial: surviving a poisoned drink—the subject of a scene in North Carolina. In the event that Saint John’s martyrdom in a cauldron of boiling oil is shown in a spandrel, the last scene probably showed Saint John raising to life the two men who had been forced to drink the poison before him. This unusual emphasis on resurrection miracles was doubtless at the direction of the widow shown praying at the foot of the cross and must have had a very specific significance for her.
In 1992, Zampetti suggested that the panels may have belonged to an altarpiece seen by Giovanni Cavalcaselle (Crowe and Cavalcaselle 1900) in the sacristy of the church of San Niccolò in Fabriano. Like the altarpiece to which The Met panels belonged, that work had at its center a Crucifixion. However, given the presence of Saints Francis and Louis of Toulouse in the spandrels, it is also possible that Ghissi’s altarpiece was for a Franciscan establishment.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]