Sunday, 12 March 2017

Giovanni di Paolo; "through the looking-glass"

St. John the Baptist goes into the wilderness,    Giovanni di Paolo, tempera on panel 1454 
 © National Gallery, London

This is one of my favourite paintings at the National Gallery.  I saw it on my first-ever visit, when I was taking a French pen-friend sightseeing; and I was beguiled by the diminutive figure of St. John the Baptist setting off into the desert and appearing undiminished, reading his book among those jagged threatening mountains.  There is a cinematic quality to its narrative, as St John leaves a towering fortified gateway enclosing a domestic style chimney and later we see far below the miniature fields and out-of-scale buildings of the world he has left behind.  And are those bordering roses pointing towards the new ethereal world awaiting on the horizon?

Although this small painting is well-known, I have hugged it to myself as a secret personal pleasure for decades, and only recently found out more about the artist.

Giovanni di Paolo (c.1403-1482) was a leading Sienese artist, working in the tradition of the masters of the previous century, particularly Duccio,  both as a manuscript illuminator and painter.  Records show an early commission for a Book of Hours for the wife of a wealthy Milanese family in Siena.     For the majority of citizens the equivalent of these luxury devotional books were the golden painted altarpieces in their churches, the central panel of Christ or  Madonna and Child surrounded by panels showing the Saints and their lives. Predella panels formed the base support.

This is another panel from his St John the Baptist series; they are thought originally to have been part of a Madonna & Child altarpiece now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Birth of St John the Baptist   Giovanni di Paolo, predella panel 1454 
© National Gallery, London

Siena in the 14th and 15th centuries was a cosmopolitan trading city with influences from east and west for its artists, and particularly the Papal court in Avignon, as well as the new Florentine artists and sculptors.   Giovanni was a leading painter of the Sienese International Gothic school, which followed the Byzantine influences of the 1300s, to distinguish Siena from its rivals in Florence, but incorporated the new sense of Renaissance perspective and modelling of  human figures.  Here Di Paolo has manipulated the perspective of the bed to lead the eye back to the figures of the newborn saint and his father Zacharias writing his name, John.

He was also influenced by Gentile da Fabriano and Fra Angelico, and his paintings with their handling of colour and line create a dramatic sense of other worlds.

Saint Clare saves the sailors  c. 1455    © Gemaldergalerie, Berlin

 Composite altarpieces with many panels like these formed a visual focus of devotion during the ritual of prayers at Mass, when the priest had his back to the congregation.  When after the 1560s the priest stood behind the altar table, facing the congregation with the Eucharist in plain view, these powerful altarpieces were no longer as important and were gradually moved, broken up and destroyed or sold.   Now they are in collections across the world, on public view again but in parts and dispersed their original setting.

Fortunately Giovanni di Paolo's manuscript paintings for Dante's Paradiso are together and intact in book form just as they were conceived.  Here are a few of them:

Dante's "Paradiso",  Christ in his chariot,  Giovanni di Paolo  c. 1444-50   © British Library

   Beatrice guides Dante to meet Peter Damian in the sphere of Saturn, Canto 21.   © British Library

Nebuchadnezzar recounts his dream to Daniel,  Canto 4.  © British Library

Dante with Apollo before Parnassus,  Canto 1.    © British Library

"Minerva breathes, Apollo steers" - Beatrice leads Dante up towards the moon, Canto 2. 

Looking at Di Paolo's images of the Paradiso, it is no surprise that John Pope-Hennessy says of Di Paolo's work that, "he plunges, like Alice, through the looking-glass.."

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