Discovered by chance during an inventory, this painting by the Master of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, an artist active in Siena in the early 14th century, looks set to be the star of the auction.
Master of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, active in and around Siena between 1305 and early 1330. Calvary, c. 1315, diptych section, panel painted on the reverse, egg tempera and gold background, 31 x 22.5 cm/12.2 x 8.9 in.
The chrysalis has turned into a butterfly. Purchased in Valenciennes as a simple icon in 1984, some 40 years later, this painting is now being offered for sale as a Sienese work of the early 14th century. It is an Italian early Renaissance work of great rarity, whose imperfect condition and missing parts are easily forgiven. The slightly rounded panel has a damaged original frame, which now reveals the canvas. The original gold background, although worn, is still present; the double black border framing the scene was repainted with foliate motifs at a later date. A trace of a hook on the lower right-hand side, together with the quatrefoil motifs on the back of the panel indicate that it was part of a diptych. This composition representing Calvary must have been previously associated with a Madonna and Child, as was the custom. The Christ's cross stands on a rocky mound on which a skull can be seen: a reference to Mount Golgotha outside Jerusalem. This Aramaic word (calvarium in Latin) can be translated as "the place of the skull". A striking detail: blood flows from the holy cross onto the hillock and even spurts from the wound on Jesus's torso. This bright red is echoed in the clothes of the two haloed Biblical figures standing by Christ: the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist. Their faces are deeply marked by emotion—especially that of Mary, draped in her traditional dark blue mantle, who has a look of despair. The thin, tortured body of Christ, whose mid-length hair is held back by the Crown of Thorns, is only covered by a perizoma (loin cloth).
Master of Emotions
This Calvary, making its first appearance at auction, was quickly compared by Turquin’s experts with the works of the Master of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. This specialist in small paintings for private devotion, mostly in the form of diptychs and triptychs, was named as such by the expert Cesare Brandi in reference to a triptych of the Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints now in the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, south of Siena. A series of six compositions with the Calvary theme is attributed to him. They feature various stylistic characteristics, particularly the one belonging to the former Corsi Collection in Florence: a scene reduced to three figures, similar attitudes of affliction and, as the historian Luisa Vertova writes, the "same elongated heads, brown shadows and color range limited to blood red, deep blue and ochre" that distinguish the art of this master, especially early in his career. Not forgetting the small punched dots visible around the cross, and the punched double border, which are genuine trademarks. The Turquin experts date this work to c.1315, at a time when the artist was still under the influence of Ugolino di Nerio (1280-1349), himself a student of the famous Duccio di Buoninsegna. We thus see a prestigious line of early Renaissance Sienese artists, who marked the shift in European painting.