This altarpiece combines the Assumption of the Virgin with two saints—the Archangel Michael subduing Satan, and Benedict. It was painted about 1493–95 for the Olivetan convent of Saint Michael in the artist’s native Cortona. Although Signorelli designed the altarpiece and must also have painted the Virgin and Saint Benedict, other parts may be by an assistant.
Much of the picture is abraded but the Virgin and Saint Benedict are relatively well preserved. The frame is sixteenth century.
The picture depicts Archangel Michael overcoming the Devil and a saint alternatively identified as Benedict (sixth century), founder of the Benedictine order, or Romuald (ca. 950–1027), founder of the Camaldolese. The white habit would be appropriate for a member of the Cistercian, Camaldolese, or Olivetan order, all of whom followed the rule of Saint Benedict, one of whose attributes is a birch twig discipline. The book he holds is probably intended to represent the rules of the order. Between the two figures, floating in a mandorla above a sarcophagus and accompanied by cherubim and music-making angels, is the Virgin, her head bowed, her hands clasped. The reference is clearly to her Assumption, the feast of which is held on August 15. The first certain reference to the picture is in 1860, when it is recorded by the Italian scholar Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle as on an altar in the church of the Trinity in the Tuscan city of Cortona. As noted by Kanter (1989), the convent of the Trinity was only founded in 1545. Thus the picture would have been moved there, most likely from the church of San Michele Arcangelo, which also belonged to the Cistercian order. This would explain both the presence of Saint Michael and of Saint Benedict. Presumably it adorned a chapel dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin.
Although Cavalcaselle ascribed the work either to Signorelli’s nephew Francesco or to Bartolomeo della Gatta, prior to 1953 it was generally ascribed to Signorelli. Subsequently it was more often considered a workshop production. Kanter and Henry (2002) emphasize that the work was designed by Signorelli, who must at the very least have painted the head and shoulders of the Virgin, the figure of Saint Benedict, and possibly that of Satan. Kanter suggests that the assistant can be identified with Signorelli’s son Antonio. The proposed date of execution is 1493–96.
[Keith Christiansen 2012]
probably church of San Michele Arcangelo, Cortona (suppressed in 1809 and all property transferred to Santissima Trinità); convent of Santissima Trinità, Cortona (in 1860); [Elia Volpi, Florence, in about 1927]; [J. Goudstikker, Amsterdam, until 1929; sold to MMA]
Amsterdam. Rijksmuseum. "Tentoonstelling van Oude Kunst," 1929, no. 133 (as by Signorelli, lent by J. Goudstikker, Amsterdam).
Amsterdam. Goudstikker. "Nouvelles acquisitions de la collection Goudstikker," November–December 1929, no. 39 (as by Signorelli).
Giovanni Girolamo Sernini Cucciatti. Raccolta di quadri più pregevoli, e di notizie singolari, spettanti a chiese, e luoghi pii di Cortona. [ca. 1781–85], c. 70v [published in Paul J. Cardile, "Quadri in chiese e luoghi pii di Cortona alla metà del Settecento," Annuario dell'Accademia etrusca di Cortona 19 (1980–81), p. 150], calls the painting above the high altar of the church of the monastery of San Michele Arcangelo a work by Andrea del Sarto or one of the best students of his school, possibly referring to this work.
Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. Unpublished manuscript. 1860 [Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, 2032/12273/III; see Ref. Zeri and Gardner 1980], suggests that the painting, then in the monastery church of the Trinità in Cortona, may be by either Francesco Signorelli or the painter Castiglione.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Fourteenth Century. Vol. 3, London, 1866, p. 33, mention it as in the convent church of Santissima Trinità in Cortona and attribute it to either Francesco Signorelli or Bartolommeo della Gatta; identify the saint on the right as Benedict.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. Geschichte der italienischen Malerei. Vol. 4, Leipzig, 1871, p. 39.
G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle and J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe. Storia della pittura in Italia. Vol. 8, Florence, 1898, pp. 523–24.
[Joseph Archer] Crowe and [Giovanni Battista] Cavalcaselle. A New History of Painting in Italy from the II to the XVI Century. Ed. Edward Hutton. Vol. 3, The Florentine, Umbrian, and Sienese Schools of the XV Century. London, 1909, p. 84.
J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Tancred Borenius. Vol. 5, Umbrian and Sienese Masters of the Fifteenth Century. London, 1914, p. 119.
L[uitpold]. Dussler. "Ein unbekanntes Altarwerk des Signorelli." Pantheon 3 (January–June 1929), pp. 212–14, ill., dates it between 1484 and 1491; suggests identifying the saint on the right as Romuald.
Umberto Gnoli. Letter to Bryson Burroughs. February 10, 1929, attributes it to Signorelli, dates it about 1505–10, and identifies the saint on the right as Bernard.
Catalogue des nouvelles acquisitions de la collection Goudstikker. Exh. cat., Goudstikker. Amsterdam, 1929, unpaginated, no. 39, ill., as by Signorelli; identifies the saint on the right as possibly Benedict but more probably Romuald.
Harry B. Wehle. "An Altarpiece by Signorelli." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 25 (February 1930), pp. 38–40, ill., attributes it to Signorelli; calls the saint on the right "almost certainly" Romuald.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 532, lists it as by Signorelli and identifies the saint on the right as Benedict.
Umberto Gnoli. "An Altarpiece by Luca Signorelli." Metropolitan Museum Studies 4 (1932–33), pp. 1–2, ill. opp. p. 1 (color), dates it to the last decade of the fifteenth century and relates it to the work of Perugino; identifies the saint on the right as Benedict; notes that Vasari describes a similar figure of Saint Michael included in an altarpiece painted by Signorelli for the Accolti chapel of the church of San Francesco, Arezzo (now lost).
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 458.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 16, The Hague, 1937, pp. 51–54, fig. 32, attributes it to Signorelli and dates it probably shortly before 1498; identifies the saint on the right as Romuald.
John Pope-Hennessy. "Francesco di Giorgio, Neroccio: Two Madonnas and an Altarpiece." Burlington Magazine 75 (December 1939), p. 230, mentions it as by Signorelli.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 114–15, ill., attributes it to a follower of Signorelli; calls the saint on the right probably Romuald.
Millard Meiss. "A Documented Altarpiece by Piero della Francesca." Art Bulletin 23 (March 1941), p. 63 n. 53, mentions it as by Signorelli; notes that Saint Michael's armor is related to that in the painting of the same figure by Piero (completed 1469; National Gallery, London).
Mario Salmi. Luca Signorelli. Novara, 1953, p. 54, attributes it to Signorelli's workshop; observes that the figure of the Virgin is derived from that in Signorelli's Pentecost in the Galleria nazionale delle Marche, Urbino; identifies the saint on the right as Benedict, noting that his presence suggests that the picture was made for an Olivetan church.
Pietro Scarpellini. Luca Signorelli. Milan, 1964, p. 142, calls it largely the work of assistants; dates it to the last decade of the fifteenth century; identifies the saint on the right as Benedict.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Central Italian and North Italian Schools. London, 1968, vol. 1, p. 399.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 187, 308, 434, 447, 607, as by a follower of Signorelli; identify the saint at right as Romuald.
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. 92–93, pl. 70, attribute it to Signorelli and workshop, assigning the design of the painting and possibly the head of the Virgin and the head and shoulders of Saint Benedict to Signorelli himself and the rest of the work to an assistant; tentatively ascribe to the same assistant a double-sided banner in the Pinacoteca comunale, Città di Castello; the predella of an altarpiece commissioned in 1498 for the Bichi chapel in Sant'Agostino, Siena (now dispersed); and a Madonna of Mercy with the Annunciation in the Pinacoteca comunale, Castiglion Fiorentino; state that the identification of this assistant with Luca's nephew Francesco remains hypothetical; date the painting about 1505.
Anna Padoa Rizzo. "Appunti raffaelleschi: L''Incoronazione di San Nicola da Tolentino' per Città di Castello." Paragone 34 (May 1983), pp. 4–5, pl. 3, believes that Raphael's Saint Nicholas of Tolentino altarpiece (destroyed) was influenced by compositions by Signorelli such as this one.
Laurence B. Kanter. "The Late Works of Luca Signorelli and His Followers, 1498–1559." PhD diss., New York University, 1989, p. 254, notes that the convent of Santissima Trinità, Cortona, was not founded until 1545; states that the convent of San Michele Arcangelo, also Benedictine, transferred all its property to Santissima Trinità when it was suppressed during the Napoleonic era, and that the presence of Saints Michael and Benedict suggests that the altarpiece was created for San Michele.
Tom Henry. "The Career of Luca Signorelli in the 1490s." PhD diss., University of London, 1996, pp. 23–24, 211–12, 341–43 [see Ref. Henry and Kanter 2002].
Tom Henry and Laurence Kanter. Luca Signorelli: The Complete Paintings. New York, 2002, pp. 192–93, no. 46, ill., state that in 1810 it was said to have come from the church of San Michele Arcangelo, Cortona; stress that the picture was designed by Signorelli, who painted at least the faces of the principal figures, and suggest that the assistant responsible for other parts of the painting may be Signorelli's son Antonio; date it about 1493–96.
Alessandro Delpriori inLuca Signorelli. Ed. Fabio De Chirico et al. Exh. cat., Galleria Nazionale dell'Umbria, Perugia. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2012, pp. 78–79, calls it a completely autograph work.
Tom Henry. The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli. New Haven, 2012, pp. 141–42, fig. 134, notes that a Madonna and Child of 1507 in San Medardo, Arcevia, repeat the poses here on a larger scale and in reverse.