Saint John the Evangelist Causes a Pagan Temple to Collapse
Francescuccio Ghissi (Francesco di Cecco Ghissi) (Italian, Marchigian, active 1359–74)
Tempera on wood, gold ground
14 1/8 x 15 1/4 in. (35.9 x 38.7 cm)
Gift of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1969
Not on view
These three charming scenes belong to an altarpiece painted about 1370, probably for a church in the artist’s native Fabriano, in the region of the Marches. They illustrate the life of Saint John the Evangelist and follow the thirteenth-century Golden Legend. Saint John raises a young man, Satheus, from the dead; Satheus rebukes two former disciples for their interest in worldly goods, whereupon they return to Saint John and beg forgiveness; Saint John prays for the destruction of the Temple of Diana. Together with five other scenes, they were arranged in two tiers to either side of a Crucifixion. See metmuseum.org/collections for a reconstruction of the altarpiece.
This panel, together with two others in The Met (69.280.1–2), 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]
?church of San Niccolò, Fabriano (until at least late 19th century); ?barone Alberto Fassini, Rome; ?[Eugenio Ventura, Florence]; Mrs. W. Murray Crane, New York (by 1932–69)
Raleigh. North Carolina Museum of Art. "Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi's St. John Altarpiece," September 10, 2016–March 5, 2017, no catalogue.
Portland, Oreg. Portland Art Museum. "Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi's St. John Altarpiece," March 25–July 9, 2017, no catalogue.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. Storia della pittura in Italia. Vol. 4, 2nd ed. Florence, 1900, p. 23, mention as in the sacristy of the church of San Niccolò, Fabriano, a Crucifixion with a gold background and narrative scenes on the sides that they date to the middle of the 14th century [identified by Ref. Zampetti and Donnini 1992 as the altarpiece to which this panel belonged].
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 400, lists this picture and its two companions (69.280.1, 69.280.2) as three legendary scenes, in the collection of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, New York, and as in great part by Allegretto Nuzi.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 1, Romanesque and Gothic. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 111, attributes the three scenes to Allegretto Nuzi and identifies them as depicting legends of Saint John the Evangelist; as formerly in the baron Fassini collection, Rome, and the Eugenio Ventura collection, Florence; connects them with four scenes he saw in Rome (now North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, and Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon) and proposes a reconstruction of the original polyptych.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 344.
Federico Zeri. "Note su quadri italiani all'estero." Bollettino d'arte 34 (January–March 1949), pp. 21–22, fig. 5 (reconstruction of altarpiece), accepts Venturi's [see Ref. 1933] connection with the Raleigh and Portland panels and identifies a Crucifixion in the Art Institute of Chicago as the center of the altarpiece; proposes a reconstruction with the Crucifixion flanked on either side by four narrative scenes, the arched scenes above those without arches, one of which is lost; dates the work to Nuzi's late period.
George Kaftal. Iconography of the Saints in Central and South Italian Schools of Painting. Florence, 1965, cols. 620, 624, fig. 727, attributes the seven narrative scenes to Nuzi.
Fern Rusk Shapley. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Vol. 1, Italian Schools: XIII–XV Century. London, 1966, p. 76, under nos. K205A–D, accepts Zeri's [see Ref. 1949] reconstruction of the altarpiece and attributes it to Nuzi; dates it about 1370.
Luisa Vertova. "'What Goes with What?'." Burlington Magazine 109 (December 1967), p. 671.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, pp. 302, 304, connects the three MMA panels with the Chicago, Portland, and Raleigh pictures; calls the altarpiece a late work; attributes the Chicago painting to Nuzi's workshop and the narrative scenes in great part to the artist himself.
Federico Zeri. "Un'ipotesi sui rapporti tra Allegretto Nuzi e Francescuccio Ghissi." Antichità viva 14 (September–October 1975), p. 6, attributes the design of the altarpiece to Nuzi and its execution to Francescuccio Ghissi.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sienese and Central Italian Schools. New York, 1980, pp. 17–19, pl. 25, attribute the altarpiece to Ghissi, probably based on designs by Nuzi; tentatively date it to the early 1370s; follow the reconstruction proposed in Ref. Zeri 1949 except for switching the lower near left and lower near right panels; suggest that the missing eighth scene may have depicted either the baptism of the high priest Aristodemus or the funeral of Saint John.
Keith Christiansen. "Fourteenth-Century Italian Altarpieces." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 40 (Summer 1982), pp. 46, 48–49, figs. 43 (color), 45 (reconstruction), attributes the altarpiece to Ghissi and accepts Zeri's [see Ref. 1980] reconstruction; identifies the figures in the spandrels as Saint John in the cauldron of boiling oil (second from left), Saint Francis (second from right), and Saint Louis of Toulouse (far right).
Pietro Zampetti and Giampiero Donnini. Gentile e i pittori di Fabriano. Florence, 1992, pp. 24, 28 n. 31, colorpl. 49, attribute the altarpiece to Ghissi; identify it with a work mentioned in Ref. Crowe and Cavalcaselle 1900 as in the church of San Niccolò, Fabriano.
Christopher Lloyd. Italian Paintings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago: A Catalogue of the Collection. Chicago, 1993, pp. 108–10, fig. 1 (reconstruction), based on the female donor kneeling at the foot of the cross in the Chicago "Crucifixion," suggests that the altarpiece was painted for a local Dominican church or monastery in the Marches.
Joan Isobel Friedman inThe Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 23, New York, 1996, pp. 323–24, attributes the altarpiece to Nuzi.
Giampiero Donnini. "A proposito di Francescuccio Ghissi." Arte cristiana 84 (January–February 1996), pp. 13–14, 16, attributes the altarpiece to Ghissi.
Mojmír S. Frinta. "Part I: Catalogue Raisonné of All Punch Shapes." Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998, pp. 294, 480, attributes the altarpiece to Ghissi; classifies the punch marks appearing in this painting.
Alessandra Olivetti inLe Marche disperse: repertorio di opere d'arte dalle Marche al mondo. Ed. Costanza Costanzi. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2005, p. 119, under no. 47.
The narratives are based on Jacopo da Voragine's "Golden Legend."