Jacopo di Arcangelo—better known as Jacopo del Sellaio after the profession of his father, a saddler (sellaio
in Italian)—was one of the most prolific painters in late fifteenth-century Florence and a specialist in works for the domestic sphere. According to the sixteenth-century biographer Giorgio Vasari, he began his career in the workshop of Fra Filippo Lippi, training alongside Sandro Botticelli as one of Lippi’s “infinite number of pupils.” He was independent by 1460, when he inscribed in the Florentine painters’ confraternity of Saint Luke, and by 1469 he was working in a compagnia
, or business partnership, with Biagio d’Antonio in a shared workshop in the center of Florence. The Met’s two Scenes from the Story of the Argonauts
) are a product of this arrangement, as are the famous great chests, or cassoni
, today in the Courtauld Gallery, London, completed by Sellaio and Biagio in 1472 for the wedding of Lorenzo Morelli and Vaggia di Tanai Nerli.
Sellaio entered a new alliance in 1473, this time with the painter Filippo di Giuliano di Matteo, with whom he decorated the Nenti chapel in the church of Santa Lucia dei Magnoli. He and Filippo renewed their partnership in 1480, and in 1490 they took on a third partner, Zanobi di Giovanni Adimari. On Sellaio’s death in 1493 the workshop passed to his son Arcangelo, who was, in turn, succeeded by his son Giovambattista. Whereas Arcangelo’s historical profile has been reconstructed and his works identified with those of the so-called Master of the Miller Tondo, nothing is known of Giovambattista other than that he was still active as a painter in 1548.
Sellaio’s oeuvre can be reconstructed on the basis of several altarpieces that he alone painted for churches in his resident quarter of Florence, the Oltrarno. Three of these were mentioned by Vasari: the Pietà with Saints Frediano and Jerome
, begun in 1484 for the confraternity of San Frediano, called La Bruciata, in the church of the same name (formerly Berlin, Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum; destroyed 1945); a Crucifixion with Saint Lawrence and Other Saints
for the same church, datable on documentary evidence to 1490–93 (now in the seventeenth-century church of San Frediano in Cestello, Florence); and a monumental Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian and Assumption of the Virgin
, now cut into at least four fragments, completed around 1486 for the confraternity of the Poponcino in the basilica of Santa Maria del Carmine. In addition, two panels of the Annunciation
at Santa Lucia dei Magnoli have long been ascribed to Sellaio on the basis of style and linked to the 1473 commission in which he and Filippo di Giuliano were paid for other work at the church. Over 150 paintings have been grouped around these works, including dozens of devotional and secular panels for domestic interiors. Together, they reveal an artist who headed a large and industrious workshop, and who sensitively reinterpreted the works of his most famous contemporaries—especially Botticelli and Filippino Lippi—with a lively approach to narrative and a penchant for elegant, willowy figures. His landscapes are especially imaginative.The Picture:
The Virgin kneels before the infant Christ with her hands joined in prayer and her eyes lowered in solemn reverie. The Child is surrounded by rays of divine light, as described in Saint Bridget of Sweden’s miraculous vision of the Nativity (published in 1377), and grabs his mother’s veil, foreshadowing the shroud in which he would be buried. He also clasps a goldfinch, alluding to lore that a goldfinch pulled a thorn from Christ’s crown during the ascent to Calvary and became forever stained with his blood (hence the red mark on its beak). Beside the Virgin is Christ’s young cousin and the patron saint of Florence, John the Baptist, carrying his customary reed cross and scroll inscribed with his future proclamation, “Ecce Agnus Dei” (Behold the Lamb of God). On the hilltop at the right are two shepherds gazing toward the star of Bethlehem, visible in the sky in the upper left. The distant seascape, with its steep blue cliffs rising over the water, alludes to the Virgin’s popular epithet, the “Stella Maris” (Star of the Sea); the same is recalled in the gold star on the shoulder of her cloak. The tree stumps in the background are a reference to Matthew 3:10: "And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which not bringeth forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.”Type of Picture:
The picture belongs to a category of object known in fifteenth-century Florence as a colmo da camera,
or domestic tabernacle. Colmo
, meaning ridge, describes the arched top of the panel, whereas camera
, meaning bedroom, refers to the room in which such pictures were normally hung. As one of the most popular private devotional objects in domestic interiors, colmi
were a staple product in Florentine workshops. They were often produced serially, in an almost assembly-line fashion, and then sold on the open market to Florence’s middle- and upper-class citizens. They most commonly depicted the Virgin holding the Christ Child in her arms—either at full or half-length and sometimes accompanied by saints or angels—or kneeling before him in adoration, as here. The popularity of the adoration type is generally associated with Fra Filippo Lippi, and more specifically with the altarpiece of the same subject he painted for the private chapel in the Palazzo Medici, Florence, in the 1450s. Lippi’s immediate followers—such as the Master of the Castello Nativity and the Pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino—and pupils, such as Domenico di Zanobi and Jacopo del Sellaio, contributed to the subject’s ubiquity with their endless stream of variants for domestic settings. Variant Compositions:
Sellaio’s workshop was especially prolific in the production of panels depicting the Virgin adoring the Christ Child in wilderness settings. He and his assistants painted no less than forty colmi
of the subject as well as at least ten tondi, circular panels that served a similar function (see, for example, The Met’s tondo by Sellaio’s contemporary Lorenzo di Credi: 09.197
). The Met’s picture, which has been unanimously regarded as Sellaio’s since 1904, is often compared to four other versions, namely the two colmi
in Philadelphia (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and Baltimore (Walters Art Museum) and two tondi in Florence (Galleria Palatina) and Venice (Ca’ d’Oro, Galleria Franchetti). While these paintings are comparably high in quality and are generally similar in design, it is important to recognize that they also have some substantial differences. Sellaio rarely duplicated his designs verbatim, always adding some kind of variation, either compositional or iconographic, even as he repeated popular themes. For example, in each of the panels mentioned above, the landscapes are different and the figures are never in the same pose; sometimes the Child is recumbent (as in the tondo in Venice) while in others he reaches up toward his mother (as in the panels in Philadelphia, Florence, and Baltimore). Furthermore, the panels in Philadelphia, Florence, and Venice feature one of the workshop’s most popular forms of customization: the insertion of various biblical or hagiographical episodes in the landscape background. The Philadelphia panel includes the journey of the Magi, the young Saint John entering the wilderness, and Saint Jerome doing penitence; the Florence tondo features Saint Jerome doing penitence; and the Venice panel shows the young Tobias with the Archangel Raphael. Though The Met’s picture lacks such narrative details, which were presumably added at the request of a patron to personalize the picture or enhance its efficacy as a devotional aid, it is nevertheless rich in penitential undertones: the goldfinch in the Christ Child’s hands, the way he attempts to cover himself with his mother’s veil, and the prominence of the inscription on the Baptist’s scroll all suggest the painting was intended to stimulate a reflection on Christ’s death and resurrection. The intimate rapport between mother and son, expressed by their solemn eye contact and by the Virgin’s state of deep, introspective melancholy, seems likewise designed to provoke contemplation on the Virgin’s sorrows. On account of these features, it is tempting to wonder if the painting found a buyer in a member of one of Florence’s many penitential confraternities, such as the several to which Sellaio belonged and for which he often worked.Date:
Zeri (1971) dated The Met’s panel to the late 1480s, and indeed, the rich palette, meticulous definition of the landscape and high technical quality are typical of Sellaio’s work in this decade. In its close attention to detail and careful modeling of the figures’ faces (possibly in oil), the painting comes close to the San Frediano Pietà
, which was largely complete by 1486 (though Sellaio’s son Arcangelo was asked to add finishing touches to the surface and provide a predella in 1506). The drastic elongation of the figures also approaches the San Frediano Crucifixion
, executed between 1490–93, while the palette corresponds to the three beautiful spalliera
(wainscot) panels depicting the Legend of Orpheus and Eurydice
divided between Rotterdam (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen), Kyiv (Khanenko Museum), and Kraków (Wawel Castle), generally dated to the second half of the 1480s.
The date in the late 1480s is also confirmed by the pose of the Christ Child, which had a lengthy afterlife in the work of Sellaio’s followers. With one hand raised to grab the Virgin’s veil and the other clutching the bird to his chest, the Child’s gesture departs from the artist’s more usual tendency to show him either recumbent or kicking and reaching toward his mother. The pose seen here is repeated very closely in a handful of works postdating Sellaio’s death: these include a colmo
attributable in this writer’s view to Sellaio’s anonymous follower the Master of the Douai Adoration (sold Auktionhaus P. B. Schwerin, January 31, 1946, no. 70) and another by his son Arcangelo (formerly Florence, Moretti Gallery). It is also found in three tondi by Arcangelo now in Southampton, New York (Southampton Arts Center, Parrish Collection), Rockingham Castle (Saunders-Watson Collection), and San Miniato (Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di San Miniato). Furthermore, the Virgin’s pose was reused for the figure of Mary Magdalen in an altarpiece of the Pietà
(Florence, Galleria dell’Accademia), completed by Arcangelo between 1491–98, perhaps on his father’s design. The Met’s picture—or more probably, its preparatory drawings—must therefore have been accessible in the workshop in the final years of Sellaio’s activity: the years around 1490.
Christopher Daly 2021
 Vasari devoted just a fleeting sentence to Sellaio in the biography of Filippo Lippi. His testimony about Sellaio’s apprenticeship is substantiated by a document from April 10, 1454 in which Lippi, then at work on the murals of the Prato Cathedral, sent an assistant named Jacopo to Florence to retrieve blue pigment. For the document, see Eve Borsook, “Fra Filippo Lippi and the murals for Prato Cathedral,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz,
19 (1975): p. 81 n. 35.
 The unpublished document mentioning Sellaio and Biagio’s alliance in 1469 was referenced by Virginia Budny and Frank Dabell, “Hard at Work ‘di note chome di dì’:A Close Reading of Cosimo Rosselli’s Career with Some New Documents,” in Cosimo Rosselli: Painter of the Sistine Chapel,
ed. Arthur R. Blumenthal, Winter Park, Fla, 2001, p. 33.
 On Sellaio’s partnerships with Filippo di Giuliano and Zanobi di Giovanni, see Nicoletta Pons, “Zanobi di Giovanni e le compagnie dei pittori,” Rivista d’arte
, 43 (1991): pp. 221–25. Despite repeated attempts to associate the former with the heterogeneous group of paintings currently assigned to the Master of the Fiesole Epiphany, the extant works of both artists remain unidentified.
 On Arcangelo, see Nicoletta Pons “Arcangelo di Jacopo del Sellaio,” Arte Cristiana
, vol. 84, (1996): pp. 374–88. For the only known notice of Giovambattista, see Dennis V. Geronimus and Louis A. Waldman, “Children of Mercury: New Light on the Members of the Florentine Company of St. Luke (c. 1475–1525),” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz
, 47, Bd., H. 1 (2003): p. 156 n. 21.
 For the most recent reconstruction of this altarpiece, see Christopher Daly, “Una proposta per una predella del Sellaio,” Studi di storia dell’arte,
vol. 30 (2019): p. 139.
 On Sellaio and the Florentine confraternities, see Nicoletta Pons, “Jacopo del Sellaio e le confraternite,” in La Toscana al tempo di Lorenzo il Magnifico
, Pisa, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 287–95.