Paolo Uccello (Paolo di Dono) (Italian, Florence 1397–1475 Florence)
Tempera on wood, gold ground
Shaped top, central panel, overall, with engaged frame, 18 x 11 in. (45.7 x 27.9 cm); central panel, painted surface 16 1/2 x 9 1/2 in. (41.9 x 24.1 cm); left wing, overall, with engaged frame, 18 x 5 5/8 in. (45.7 x 14.3 cm); left wing, painted surface 16 1/2 x 4 1/4 in. (41.9 x 10.8 cm); right wing, overall, with engaged frame, 18 x 5 1/4 in. (45.7 x 13.3 cm); right wing, painted surface 16 1/2 x 3 3/4 in. (41.9 x 9.5 cm)
Bequest of Lore Heinemann, in memory of her husband, Dr. Rudolf J. Heinemann, 1996
Uccello is best known for his battle scenes for the Medici palace and for frescoes in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella, Florence; however, he also painted small devotional panels. This portable triptych includes the depiction of a nun of the Brigitine order at the foot of the cross, identified by an inscription as Sister Felicity. It was for her private devotions in her cell at the Brigitine convent of Santa Maria del Paradiso near Florence that the triptych was painted. A Felicità di Francesco Casavecchia joined the order in January 1455, which is about the date of the painting.
This portable triptych can be attributed to Paolo Uccello, one of the most fascinating painters of the first half of the fifteenth century, for the combination of Gothic and Renaissance features. Much discussion has focused on the character his art. Issues of attribution and chronology continue to be debated. Born in 1397, he worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti on that artist’s first set of bronze doors for the Florentine baptistery (ca. 1412–16). In 1415 he was inscribed in the guild of the medici e speziali, to which painters belonged as this guild provided pigments. In 1424 he was inscribed in the Compagnia di San Luca (the painters’ association) and left for Venice the following year to design mosaics; he returned to Florence in 1430/31. He was, therefore, absent from Florence during the years of Masaccio’s key activity and the paintings currently proposed as his early work are Gothic in character, though they show a strong sense of geometry. His famous battle scenes divided between the National Gallery, London, the Louvre, Paris, and the Uffizi, Florence, were formerly dated to ca. 1459, based on the notion that they were painted for the Medici Palace. However, it has now been shown that they were painted for the Bartolini Salimbeni family and probably date from ca. 1435–40. It is in the 1430s that his art is most progressive in character and demonstrates a profound interest in perspective as well as in geometry as the basis for figure construction. By comparison with the great works of that decade, his later paintings can seem almost surreal in their imaginative use of the geometry of perspective to create a fairytale-like landscape populated by insubstantial, doll-like figures. The predella he painted for an altarpiece in Urbino, documented to 1467, typifies this final phase. As Longhi (1952) was the first to recognize, it is with the later work of Uccello that this triptych bears closest analogies. Parronchi (1965) has suggested that the picture was painted not by Uccello but by his daughter Antonia, who was also a painter and Carmelite nun. However, there is no documented work by her and on balance it seems more likely that the triptych is by Uccello. It is somewhat worn, but the large folds of drapery combined with delicately described but somewhat caricatured faces and hands are typical of Uccello. Especially relevant is a predella with roundels showing the Virgin Mary, the dead Christ, and John the Evangelist that formed part of an altarpiece formerly in the Oratory of the Annunciation, Avane; it bears an inscribed date of 1452.
In addition to the Crucifixion shown on the center panel, the MMA triptych depicts, in the pinnacles of the two lateral panels, the Annunciation (the Virgin is shown seated on a foreshortened bench against a silver background that has oxidized). A standing Madonna and Child is shown in the right hand panel while in the left hand one is the figure of Saint Bridget (ca. 1304–1373), a Swedish noblewoman who after being widowed devoted herself to pilgrimage and a life of discipline. She was a prolific writer and is here shown with a burning candle with which she performed penitence. Kneeling before the Crucifixion is a nun wearing the habit of the order of Saint Bridget, identified by an inscription as Sister Felicity (Suor Filicita). On January 26, 1455 (1454 Florentine style, since the new year began on March 25), Felicità di Francesco da Casavecchia took her vows in the Bridgettine convent at Bagno a Ripoli before the altar of the crucifix and in the presence of the archbishop Antonio and the confessor of the convent, fra Taddeo di Nofri. This triptych must commemorate this event and would have been kept by Suor Felicità in her cell for her private devotions. Her presence in the convent is noted through 1457. This information derives from documents in the Archivio di Stato, Florence, kindly transcribed and furnished to the Museum by dott. Matteo Mazzalupi (see Notes).
[Keith Christiansen 2013]
Inscription: Inscribed, central panel: (at bottom) S. FILICITA; (on cross) I.N.R.I.
?marchese Visconti; [Vittorio Frascione, Florence, in 1945, as by Paolo Uccello]; [Eduardo Moratilla, Paris, until 1952, as by Paolo Uccello]; [Eduardo Moratilla, Paris, Pinakos, Inc. (Rudolf J. Heinemann), and Knoedler, New York, 1952–68, as by the Prato Master]; [Eduardo Moratilla, Paris, and Pinakos, Inc., from 1968]; [Rudolf J. Heinemann, New York, until d. 1975, as by Paolo Uccello]; Mrs. Rudolf J. Heinemann, New York (1975–d. 1996)
Roberto Longhi. Letter to Knoedler. [1952?], calls it a mature work by Paolo Uccello; identifies the saint on the left wing as Margaret, and the small kneeling figure in the Crucifixion as a patron abbess.
Alessandro Parronchi. "Due note para-uccellesche." Arte antica e moderna 30 (April–June 1965), p. 178, fig. 67a, attributes it to Paolo Uccello's daughter Antonia, a Carmelite nun; identifies Saint Bridget on the left wing, and states incorrectly that the Christ Child on the right is held by a female saint, not the Madonna.
Alessandro Parronchi. Paolo Uccello. Bologna, 1974, p. 66, fig. 24a, repeats the attribution to Uccello's daughter Antonia, and tentatively identifies the figure holding the Christ Child as Saint Francesca Romana [see Ref. Parronchi 1965].
Miklós Boskovits and Serena Padovani. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Early Italian Painting, 1290–1470. London, 1990, p. 178, fig. 3, as whereabouts unknown; attribute it to Uccello and consider it the artist's last known depiction of this subject.
Anna Padoa Rizzo. Paolo Uccello: catalogo completo dei dipinti. Florence, 1991, pp. 128, 132, apparently attributes it to one of Uccello's children, either Donato or Antonia, mentioning it as a work that reuses motifs from a Crucifixion in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, which she calls a late work by Uccello and collaborators (probably identifiable as one of these children).
Keith Christiansen in "Recent Acquisitions, A Selection: 1996–1997." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 55 (Fall 1997), p. 26, ill. (color), attributes it to Paolo Uccello and believes it was probably painted in the mid-1430s, possibly for the convent of Santa Maria del Paradiso near Florence; identifies Saint Bridget of Sweden on the left wing and the Virgin and Child on the right; notes the inscription identifying the small Brigitine nun kneeling in the Crucifixion as Suor Felicità.
Laurence B. Kanter. "The 'cose piccole' of Paolo Uccello." Apollo 152 (August 2000), pp. 17, 20 n. 28, fig. 13, accepts the attribution to Uccello.
Victor M. Schmidt. Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250–1400. Florence, 2005, pp. 120–21, 138 n. 45, p. 218, fig. 75, believes that the inscription identifying the kneeling nun as Sister Felicità was added after her death, hypothesizing that "after the death of the nun, the triptych remained in the convent, most likely Santa Maria del Paradiso just outside the walls of Florence, and her name was added to ensure that she continued to be remembered in her fellow nuns' prayers".
Miklós Boskovits. "Preghiere dipinte." Arte cristiana 94 (March–April 2006), pp. 82–83, fig. 3.
Hugh Hudson. Paolo Uccello: Artist of the Florentine Renaissance Republic. Saarbrücken, Germany, 2008, pp. 190–92, 200, 218 n. 6, p. 305, no. 35, attributes the design to Uccello and the execution to a workshop assistant, dating it to the late 1440s or early 1450s.
Aldo Galli inThe Alana Collection. Ed. Miklós Boskovits. Vol. 1, Italian Paintings from the 13th to 15th Century. Florence, 2009, p. 134, discusses it in connection with a triptych of 1462 by Neri di Bicci also made for a nun of the Brigitine convent of Santa Maria del Paradiso near Florence.
Matteo Mazzalupi (in correspondence of October 10, 2013) furnishes the following information concerning the Suor Felicità mentioned in the inscription: On January 26, 1455 [1454 Florentine style], in the church of the monastery of Santa Brigida del Paradiso, before the altar of the Crucifixion, in the presence of the archbishop Antonio and the confessor general Fra Taddeo di Nofri, “soror Felicitas Francisci de Casavecchia, soror Hieronima Iohannis Spina et soror Scolastica Andree Tagi de Florentia” took their vows (Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Notarile antecosimiano, 18513, notaio Giovanni Salvetti, anni 1436–1458, c. 202r). No Sister Felicità is included in the many records pertaining to the monastery in this notary's acts between 1436 and 1454. Sister Felicità di Francesco reappears among the lists of nuns in every act until the end of April 1457: April 13, 1455 (c. 204r–v), October 9, 1455 (cc. 207v–208v), January 26, 1456 (cc. 209v–211r), April 4, 1456 (c. 214r–v), and April 24, 1457 (cc. 226v–227r). Her name is omitted from the lists of nuns of July 8, 1457 (cc. 228v–229r), and April 9, 1458 (c. 233r–v).