This mid-fifteenth-century altarpiece once decorated a church in Tuscany, Italy. Its form and structure characterize Italian altarpieces from the Gothic period. The altarpiece originally consisted of multiple wooden panels before it was dismantled in the nineteenth century. The five central panels are in the Metropolitan Museum, while the remaining are in other collections or have been lost. These include the structural base, or predella, five smaller panels at the top, or pinnacles, and two columns, or pilasters. Together these elements resemble the architectural shape of Italian Gothic cathedrals.
Gothic Italian altarpieces feature vivid imagery designed to encourage spiritual contemplation. They typically show the Virgin Mary with the Christ child in the central panel, surrounded by her court of saints. In this altarpiece, St. John the Baptist stands to the Virgin's immediate left. He may have been the patron saint of the person who commissioned the altarpiece, and his story unfolds in the panels along the base.
At the top of the altarpiece, the pinnacles depict Jesus, at center, giving a blessing, and the four evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—writing at their desks. The central statuesque figures are shown against a gold background. The use of gold had a practical as well as aesthetic application: in dimly lit Italian Gothic churches, it reflected candlelight well. In the flickering light of this sacred space, a worshiper may have sought comfort and consolation from the Virgin Mary.
The pinnacle panels are courtesy of the Salini collection, Italy.
The pilasters belong to La Pala di Staggia and are courtesy of the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena. Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le attività culturali. Foto Soprintendenza B.S.A.E di SIENA & GROSSETO.
The predella panels are courtesy of the National Gallery, London, and Art Resource.
In the nineteenth century, the five main panels were owned by a collector in Cortona, Italy. Michael Friedsam donated the panels to the Metropolitan Museum in 1931.