The already poor populations of the North of Europe are devastated by starvations; rumbling in repeated conflicts, the growing rivalries between the English and French crowns are soon going to break out into a boring war which will last 100 years. In the aftermath of the last crusade and a merciless inquisition against Catarhi, Jews, Muslims or whatever the forms of heresy are, corrupted and consumed by internal disputes, what has been the indisputable spiritual guide of Western Europe, the Catholic Roman Church, begins to stumble. Its offensive wealth is contested in the North of Europe, and its plenitudo potentatis is called into question by the devouring appetite of European monarchies. In 1309, the pope deserts Rome for a "Babylonian Captivity" in Avignon, leaving instability and disorder in the extremely prosperous Republics of the Pontifical States. It is there, in Italy, crossroad of all commerce and influences, on the remaining of the Roman Empire, that the first changes activating the autumn of the Middle Ages society will be initiated. This is the beginning of the 14th century; Pietro Lorenzetti and Bernardo Daddi witnessed those times and were among the actors who transformed them.
A crowned Virgin Martyr, 1340
Bernado Daddi, Italian (Florentine) 1290-1349
Tempera on panel, M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco
The overall appearance of this wood panel instantly demonstrates to the observer the different influences it synthesizes. First the pointed arch sheltering the three-quarter standing figure suggests the rib-vault style of a Gothic cathedral. Then the glittering golden background on which the figure is set off recalls Byzantin standards. It seems however that the painter has used of those styles as artistic conventions in order to emphasize, by contrast, the lively presence of his figure. As it is in a Byzantin icon, the position of the body's figure is frontal and the head is inclined; but here, with a slight and gentle rotating movement, the figure offers a three-quarter profile and directly plants her gaze in the viewer's eyes. The cloak, which finishes on the round shoulders by a simple dark outline, amplifies the massiveness of the body, as to anchor it in the ground. Going on in a delicate curve, the outline first underlines the strength and solidity of the neck, enfolds the delicate oval made by the figure's face, and finally finishes into a complex pathway of heavy breads wisely maintained by a sumptuous jeweled crown. Even if the position of the Crowned Virgin Martyr fits to the Byzantin schemes, the consistency given to her body has nothing to do with the ethereal appeal of the Byzantin characters: she is real, she is human. This is what her stare confirms: by an almost provocative glance, she instates an equal personal relationship, like an intimate dialogue with the viewer, a "courtoise" confrontation, emphasized by the slightly skeptical upturn of her mouth.
The background of the panel is not plain and does not emit a complete radiating brilliance. A mat decorative pattern set off against the gold follows first the contour of the rib-vault window and then, in the form of an aureole, encloses the figure's head. This background, like a stained glass in a Gothic Cathedral would do, filters the light, whose shining is skillfully controlled by the painter. Bernardo Daddi directs the light as an instrument which reveals details or creates shadows. Like a sculptor modeling his figure, he chooses either to carve the abrupt contrasts made by the folds and falls of the cloak or to render smoothly the graceful traits of the figure's face. Manipulating the light allows him to make prominent certain parts of his composition, and to disclose, touch by touch, the whole sensuality of his subject: a soft sparkle placed on the golden crown enhances the beautiful almond-shape eye of the model; the paleness of the neckline is diffused with tenderness in the folds and hollow of the neck; the modeled hands show elegant and Byzantin-like fingers or an almost childish plain hand; the nacreous reflections of the fabric lining brings attention to the discreet manner with which the model holds her cloak back. Here, the Gothic light does not elevate the figure in spiritual and mystical spheres as it is supposed to do. On the contrary, by providing details, depth, volume, Bardi makes his subject more real: the Crown Virgin Martyr is tangible, she is made of flesh and bones.
This observation is reinforced by the gap existing between the title and what the painting describes. The viewer is supposed to look at a Crown Virgin Martyr. And yes, indeed, all the symbols supporting this appellation are present in the scene. The jeweled crown, the palm tree leaf, the book of wisdom, even the cloak as a symbol of protection, are significantly shown to remind the viewer that what he is observing is a Christian scene. But where are the humility and the sense of veneration the figure's expressions should inspire? Is there anything in this whole depiction which transcends death and sacrifice leading to an Heavenly afterlife?
Once again, it seems that for Bernardo Daddi, the Christian context and attributes are nothing more than an appropriate and natural decor setting to frame characters of his time. However, there is no irreverence in Bardi's style. On the contrary, by doing so, Bardi proves to reflect the cultural spirit flourishing in the extraordinary independent Florence, his Republic-city. He is just a man of his time, at mid-way between Dante's Divine Comedy and Boccace's Decameron.
Saint Margaret or Saint Cecilia
Pietro Lorenzetti, Italian (Sienese)1306-1344
Tempera on panel, Museo-Tesoro della Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi
What strikes instantly the viewer's eye is the intense luminosity emanating from this Pietro Lorenzetti's painting. Like a wave, the burning light radiates from the incandescent orange tunic. But this is in the feverish gaze of the figure that the energy is concentrated and finds its force and power. The painting, which borrows some of the Byzantine standards such as gold background, Greek-like pattern along the sleeve and the collar, elongated fingers, is a model of clear and sober composition. Under a rounded arch, an half-size figure stands in a three-quarter position suggesting a movement toward a left-side destination. The figure's head is turned, perpendicular to the body's direction, and its slight inclination allows the figure to glance back, breaking off the body's movement and creating a privileged suspended moment.
The main surface of the painting seems to be occupied by the flamboyant cloak, almost completely covering the figure's body. From the collar rises up a long and gracile neck and thin delicate hands emerge from the sleeves: their position, palms inward, as in a sort of abandon, increases the feeling of total dedication the figure conveys. The left hand holds a light Christian cross which, bent toward the left side, precedes the body's movement and seems to show the way. On the contrary, the right hand immobilizes the fall of the tunic in a gesture which lets appear the whiteness and purity of the alb. The folds and fall of the draperies are told with an economy of details, like a sober play between plain color surfaces and narrow shadowed lines. Instead of contradicting each other, the principles on which this simple composition rests -movement, statics, color, lines- act as complement one to another and contribute to create time, space, calm and silence.
This harmony sounds like a day without breathe, as if to focus the attention onto the spiritual dilemma the figure faces. The barely discernable aureole "printed" in mat on the brilliant gold and surrounding the figure's head confirms what the viewer already knows: he is looking at a sanctified Christian character whose piety makes no doubt. But Saint Margaret (or Saint Cecilia) seems to express by her hesitation regrets and melancholy to the renouncements of the earthly world. She is human and her choice of sacrifice, if obvious, is not a simple one. Unlike the hieratic Byzantin figures descending from celestial skies to the world, she is one of us elected to reach heavens. Depicted like what could be a pastoral sherpherdess, the painter lends her so much humility and humanity, that he amplifies the values of her sacrifice and devotion. Her blond hair, interlaced with a wild colored flowers crown, wisely follows the oval of her face and then descends along the curves of the neck, to finish in braids falling freely on ther shoulders. Her figure's traits are delicately drawn by lines and modeled by soft shadows, except where her brown eyes pierce the smoothness of the surface, and gives to her facial expression a melancholy which is underlined by the sadness of her mouth.
Pietro Lorenzetti made Saint Margaret for the lower church of San Francesco (Assisi): his composition is a beautiful and sensitive illustration of the Franciscan spirit, giving to humans a privileged place in the Christian drama.
Contrast and similarities
The date of Saint-Margaret is unknown, but the two painters were contemporary. The two paintings are tempera on panel and have the same dimensions. Though they share the same Byzantin influence, Bernardo Daddi has assimilated the Northern influence (earth tones, treatment of the light, Gothic forms, "courtoise" manner) while Pietro Lorenzetti's style, by the use of such brilliant colors, seems to remain resolutely Italian. It appears that both, taking distance with a god-like and may be too remote representation of Christian themes, lend an infinite humanity to their figures. But they do it in a different manner. With his sensuous and temporal Virgin Martyr, Bernardo Daddi brings down the supernatural to the earth. On the contrary, Pietro Lorenzetti transcends human emotions to a whole range of spiritual and divine aspirations. Bernardo Daddi is informative: he is concerned in rendering textures, motifs, plastic values. Less talkative, Pietro Lorenzetti is more symbolic, sparing details like a way to intensify the sense of simplicity and destitution. Both paintings establish closeness, immediate connection and personnel interaction with the observer. Here too, this result is differently approached: Bernardo Daddi adopts a conventional medieval pose, delineating a silhouette that he animates with subtle colors, light and direct eye contact ; Pietro Lorrenzetti places surfaces colors and lines, but introduces motion and stillness which define an intimate space. In their realizations, the two painters achieve the same feeling of permanence and perpetual presence: Bernardo Daddi evokes a divine presence becoming humanly mortal; Pietro Lorenzetti portrays a simple mortal becoming an angel.
Through the representation of a subject matter which still remains uniformely Christian, the skills, imagination and sensitivity of Bernardo Daddi and Pietro Lorenzetti translate more than the Roman Catholic Church dogma. The two painters involve themselves in their work, for they illustrate a personal, new vision of the society, closer to the men, and which will lay down the foundations of the world in which we are living today. Centuries after, not only the transcendent beauty of their art, but the force of their testimony are still impacting us.