St. Anthony Abbot and St. Thomas Aquinas
About this piece
Giusto de’ Menabuoi (Paduan, active 1349–ca. 1390)
St. Anthony Abbot and St. Thomas Aquinas, 1363
Tempera on wood
28 x 19 1/4 inches (framed)
Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia; The Samuel H. Kress Study Collection
by Perri Lee Roberts
St. Anthony Abbot and St. Thomas Aquinas
Like the Master of the Loeser Madonna’s St. Clare, Fra Diamante’s Two Saints, and Paolo Schiavo’s Crucifixion, these paintings were originally part of a larger work, in this case a large multistoried altarpiece of many panels that at some point was broken apart. The only other piece of the dismembered polyptych that has been identified is the central panel, Madonna and Child Enthroned (Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Reale, Pisa), in which the base of the throne features the name of the artist, the date March 1363, and the name of the woman who commissioned the altarpiece, “suor [sister] Isotta de Terzago, daughter of Simon de Terzago.” It depicts Isotta in miniature, dressed in the habit of a Dominican nun and kneeling at the base of the throne with another nun.
It was commonplace in medieval and Renaissance Italy for wealthy lay individuals to contract artists to paint devotional works for local churches with the approval and oversight of ecclesiastical authorities. Isotta came from an old, noble Milanese family. Her father, Simon, probably paid for the construction and painting of the altarpiece as a votive offering on behalf of his daughter to commemorate her commitment to the spiritual life. The altarpiece was most likely painted for a Dominican convent in or near Milan.
One can determine the identities of the saints from their physical appearance, the objects that they hold, and the inscriptions on their halos. St. Paul the Apostle has his characteristic attributes of a sword (the instrument of his martyrdom) and a book. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Doctor of the Western Church, wears liturgical clothing and holds a crosier (or pastoral staff) that indicates his high ecclesiastical rank; his book is larger than Paul’s, reflecting his status as the author of important theological works. The female saint is the virgin-martyr St. Catherine of Alexandria, known for her erudition and wisdom. Her crown alludes to her royal birth, and she holds a miniature wheel, a gentle reminder of the gruesome fact that she was condemned to be tortured on a spiked wheel. John the Baptist wears his characteristic tunic of animal skins and carries a scroll inscribed “Ecce Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata [mundi]” (“Lamb of God, you who take away the sins [of the world]”), derived from the saint’s reference in John 1:29 to Jesus (“Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”). Like Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225–1274) was one of the four Doctors (scholars) of the Church whose theological writings, symbolized here by the open gospel book, form the basis of much of Catholic doctrine. He is dressed in the habit of the Dominican order: a white tunic and scapular (a large length of cloth worn over the shoulders) beneath a long black mantle with a hood. The star on his breast symbolizes the gift of divine inspiration. Considered the founder of Western monasticism, the hermit St. Anthony Abbot has a monk’s cloak and cowl and holds a crutch symbolic of his solicitude for the elderly and infirm.
As the paintings are framed today—with modern moldings—it is difficult to imagine their original configuration. Based on physical features of the panels and the direction of the saints’ bodies and glances, scholars have suggested that the Madonna and Child was flanked by St. Anthony Abbot, St. Thomas Aquinas, a missing saint (perhaps St. Dominic), and St. John the Baptist on the left, and by a missing saint (perhaps St. Peter Martyr), St. Catherine of Alexandria, St. Paul, and St. Augustine on the right. Additional missing parts include panels with three-quarter-length saints from the second register and roundels in the interstices between the figures in the upper register. Other than the Dominican Aquinas, it is not known why certain saints were chosen for this ensemble of holy figures; they may have been selected because they were patron saints of members of the de Terzago family or special protectors of the convent church where the altarpiece was displayed.
The artist who painted these six saints, Giusto de’ Menabuoi (active 1349–ca. 1390), was born and trained in Florence but spent his career in northern Italy, initially in Milan, then in Padua. Inspired by the example of the innovative Florentine master Giotto (1266/7–1337), Giusto created weighty figures who stand firmly on their feet by employing foreshortened limbs and objects, drapery folds that curve around the body, and subtle shading to achieve the illusion of three-dimensionality. The overall compositions of the paintings are simple, but Giusto clearly differentiated the solid ground from the gilded, ethereal realm of the background and paid careful attention to naturalistic detail in rendering the saints’ various attributes and elements of their clothing.