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Bill Thayer

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Images of Salvation


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The chapel: faux-marbre and trompe-l'oeil stucco (19c/20c?)
The triptych: oil, gold leaf, and camera flash on gessoed wood, 15c.

Immediately greeting us as we enter S. Barbara de' Librai, in the first chapel on the right, is this late-medieval wooden triptych of the Virgin and Child between the Archangel Michael and St. John the Baptist. It is regularly assigned to the year 1453; on what grounds, I've been unable to discover, since if the painting itself bears a date, I didn't see it. Of unknown authorship and provenance, the panels are painted to equally unknown specifications for a donor whom we see schematically portrayed kneeling right where that flash went off.

Let's start then by eliminating as much of the flash as we can:


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The beauty of the work lies in its classic composition, vivid colors, and overall sense of dignity and harmony rather than in originality or in force of expression. It has weathered the centuries well, the underlying wood showing thru only in two irregular patches, in the lower portion of the central panel and near Michael's face. I suspect that the dark navy blue of Mary's robe, nearly black in these photos, might originally have been of a more vivid azure; the winged dragon under the archangel's feet, probably not: maybe a dark green.

Mother and Child


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Jesus faces us more as the omniscient Christ than as a real baby: the depiction is essentially medieval, with the Renaissance still ahead of us. While there is some realism in the modelling of the flesh, the Virgin's long tapered fingers and stylized features still belong to the Middle Ages; look carefully, too, and you'll see that Jesus is not really sitting on his mother's lap. (If his body made any dent in Mary's robe, pigment deterioration, restorations, harsh lighting and poor photography might have masked it, but nothing can account for him floating about two inches above her knee.)

His halo is an equally conventional cruciform nimbus; his right hand blesses us, and only his left reminds us of his human nature, holding what looks like a cup-and‑ball, that favorite medieval toy: that too is fairly standard.

The Scales of the Archangel Michael


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The most Byzantine-looking of our four figures, appropriately, is Michael. His face reminds us of late antique Roman portraiture, and the leader of the heavenly host is dressed as a Roman centurion, seen mind you thru centuries of interpretation: no lorica segmentata ever looked like this.

The iconography stays traditional thruout: St. Michael holds the scales that weigh the bare soul, kneeling in prayer, against its own sins — the crouching thing in the lower pan. If the sins seem heavier, they're being pulled down by the dragon that the archangel has just killed. This too is a common motif: for a more detailed explanation, see another particularly beautiful fresco, in a very different style, in the oratory of S. Biagio of Spello (Umbria).

John the Baptist


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A bit more expression here than elsewhere: John is stern and gaunt, as befits a man who lived in the desert, eating poorly and preaching fire and damnation. An opportunity for realism has been passed by, though, since we see him not in his camel's skin but in a tunic and robe, hieratically pointing at the Lamb of God, or more precisely at a processional cross representing Him.

The details are clear and quite standard; but the intention of the painter is harder to divine, especially in the absence of any outside information: for example, who commissioned the painting and why.

Why is it these two saints and not others that flank the Madonna and Child?

The white-robed donor is echoed by the soul in the scales of judgment, very strongly suggesting that the donor had died, and that the work was intended as a form of intercession. Now John the Baptist might just possibly be accounted for quite simply, say if our donor's name was Giambattista; but I don't really think so.

Of the heavenly host, with the power, as shown here, of rescuing our souls from Satan the arch-enemy, the Archangel Michael is the greatest; if you need convincing, see this article of the Catholic Encyclopedia. And of earthly saints — Jesus himself said this (Luke 7.28):

"Amongst them that are born of women there is none greater than John"

One is left wondering why the man who commissioned this work felt compelled to call on the "big guns". Despite the artist's every effort, we have a very human document before us.


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Page updated: 24 Dec 02