November 2010: Fra Angelico "Saint Anthony Shunning the Mass of Gold"

Published on: 03 / 11 / 2010

Authors of this entry:
  • Magdalena Palica

The painting depicts an episode derived from the legend of Saint Anthony, listed by St. Athanasius and popularized in Jacopo de Voragine's Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend). Fra Angelico had pictured the Holy Abbot while being tempted in a desert by the demon that had taken shape of a gold clump. The depiction had been diffused in Itaian panel and fresco painting, within the third decade of the 15th century, firstly as part of cycles dedicated to that Saint, secondly as a single scene, often placed in a predella, including scenes from lives of other Saints.

The scene constituted undoubtedly a part of a larger depiction and by its execution, the participation of workshop assistants can’t be excluded, albeit the Saint himself must have been painted by Fra Angelico personally. So far several suggestions of dating the painting have appeared, most researcher have situated the painting’s execution between 1435 and 1440, mostly depending on proposals of the altarpieces’ reconstruction, whose one of the predella elements was supposed to be the presented panel. However its high artistic value, clearly differing from other predella paintings of the reconstructed altarpieces, has inclined the scientists to further researching. An interesting solution of the question was suggested in 1996, by a connoisseur of Fra Angelico’s painting, Caroline C. Wilson. She had indicated a woodcut, now being housed in the Museo Civico in Pavia, executed undoubtedly at the base of the lost Fra Angelico’s painting, depicting Saint Anthony in the central part, surrounded by scenes from his life. In the etching, the scene Saint Anthony Shunning the Mass of Gold has its indubitable pattern in the presented panel and in a large-scale painting depicting the Saint’s figure frontwards (known only from an archival photo), discernible in the etching’s central part. At this basis Wilson claimed that the paintings had constituted a structure (the so called vita retable), similar to the one illustrated in the cited etching. Depictions of that type were common in Italy, since the 13th century, they consisted of a whole-figure effigy of a Saint, surrounded by small-scale paintings depicting scenes from the Saint’s life.

The painting by Fra Angelico had appeared in the collection of count Gustav Adolph von Ingenheim before 1826, for that it had been exposed in a temporary exhibition in the Vitzthum Palace in Dresden, where the collector had presented his most precious artworks. In the review, written by an accomplished art critic Carl August Böttiger, the painting had been claimed one of the most supreme artworks presented at that time, and it has to be remembered that at the time the panel had been presented among paintings by the masters, such as Botticelli or Taddeo Gaddi. Even nowadays the researchers are justly delighted with this small-scale painting. The distant Tuscan landscape, stretching behind the Saint’s back, in one of the most exquisite that had ever been painted by Fra Angelico.

Project co-financed by Ministry of Labour and Social Policy under Government Project – Civic Benefit Fund.
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