In 1924 The Metropolitan Museum acquired a triptych signed by Segna di Buonaventura, Duccio’s nephew and among his most faithful and prominent followers in Siena. Subsequent research (Wehle 1940 and Zeri 1958) has established that, in fact, the three panels comprised the center and end sections of a dismembered pentaptych (five-paneled altarpiece), along with a fourth panel in The Metropolitan Museum and a fifth in Assisi (see fig. 1 above). In its original configuration the altarpiece would have shown, left to right, Saint Benedict (with, above, an angel and an apostle; The Met 24.78c
), Saint John the Baptist (Perkins Collection, Sacro Convento di San Francesco, Assisi), the Madonna and Child (with, above, Saint Paul, Christ, and Saint Peter; The Met 24.78a
), Saint John the Evangelist (The Met 41.100.22), and Saint Silvester Gozzolini (with, above, an apostle and an angel; The Met 24.78b
). The panels of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist—both of which belonged to the art historian-dealer Herbert Horne in Florence prior to 1920—would, like the other three components of the altarpiece, also have been crowned with pairs of half-length figures, two of which have been tentatively identified by Gaudenz Freuler (1997) with a King David (location unknown) and a Jeremiah (Keresztény Múseum, Esztergom, Hungary). The constituent panels of the altarpiece are unevenly preserved, Saint John the Baptist having suffered the most and the Saint John the Evangelist the least. This variation in condition may have been one of the factors leading to the dismemberment of the polyptych, obviously motivated by the art market. In the 1980s The Met's three panels forming what was a false triptych were separated; however, some of the framing elements on these three panels are original, as are the inscriptions identifying the two monastic saints, and these have been preserved. The panels of Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist are in modern frames.
This must have been an important commission: when intact, the altarpiece would have resembled Duccio’s polyptych in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena (the so-called polyptych 47). Its form, with simple, rounded arches and a molding running, box-like, around the bottom and sides of the altarpiece, became old-fashioned after Simone Martini established the template for the fully articulated Gothic polyptych in his altarpiece for San Domenico in Pisa in 1319 (Museo di San Matteo, Pisa). This new type incorporated tracery, pinnacles, pilasters, and a predella. It also introduced the use of elaborate motif punches. The haloes and borders of Segna’s altarpiece are inscribed free-hand, in the tradition of Duccio. Taken together, these factors suggest that the altarpiece cannot date much after 1320.
The pairing of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist—the forerunner of Christ and the beloved disciple—to either side of the Madonna and Child is not uncommon and may relate either to the dedication of the chapel or to the name of the patron. On the other hand, the presence of Saints Benedict (ca. 480–543) and Silvester Gozzolini (1177–1267) virtually assures that the altarpiece was painted for a monastery of the Silvestrine order, which was founded by Silvester in 1231 and followed the rule of Saint Benedict. This fact has raised the possibility that the altarpiece was painted for the Sienese church of Santo Spirito (Zeri and Gardner 1980). Founded in 1311, a document assures us that in 1317 the church and convent belonged to the Silvestrines from Montefano, near Fabriano—the mother hermitage of the order. In 1430 the convent was turned over to the Vallombrosans, then, in 1437, to the Black Friars and, finally, to the Dominicans (see Alfredo Liberati, "Chiese monasteri oratori . . . sensi," Bollettino senesi di storia patria
9 , pp. 136–37). This hypothetical provenance is not attested by any document, and given the history of the church, it is just as likely that the altarpiece was painted for another Tuscan city. Segna was much active outside Siena. In 1319 he was living in Arezzo, where he painted a crucifix for the Benedictine abbey of Sante Flora e Lucilla. For Castiglione Fiorentino, near Cortona, he painted a large crucifix and a Maestà
. Silvestrine establishments were particularly associated with Umbria, Tuscany, and the Marches and it is possible that The Met’s altarpiece was for a Silvestrine establishment in the vicinity of Cortona or Perugia. Carli (1972) has noted that Meo da Siena repeats Segna’s composition of the Madonna and Child in an altarpiece painted for a hermitage north of Perugia (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Perugia), and this, too, might be thought to indicate its origin from a church in that area.
Segna’s art is dependent on the early work of Duccio, and his figures have a regal, hieratic formality that removes them from the delicately nuanced, affectively human world Duccio explored in his mature paintings. Segna’s ascetic, harshly featured saints consciously evoke a more archaic art, and he notably retained the Byzantine use of gold striations on draperies—emblematic of the sacred world of icons. Yet this austere grandeur did not preclude a courtly elegance and a search for new solutions to express the relationship of mother to child by constantly varying the pose of the infant Christ. In this Segna must have been inspired by the example of Simone Martini (Cateni 2003), whose influence is beautifully exemplified in the complex pose and gesture of the Christ Child in The Met’s panel.
Keith Christiansen 2013