MASTER of the Osservanza
(active 1430-1450 in Siena)
St Anthony Distributing his Wealth to the Poorc. 1440
Tempera and gold on wood, 47 x 35 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
In 1940, several panels, until then universally attributed to Sassetta, were reassigned by Longhi to another hand, today generally known as the Master of the Osservanza (active c. 1430-50). The most striking are scenes from the Life of St Anthony which were commissioned by the Augustinians. They held Anthony (251356) in special esteem as the founder of Christian monasticism, whose example converted St Augustine (Confessions, Book VIII).
In the second scene, St Anthony Distributing his Wealth to the Poor, Anthony returns home to his Sienese palazzo: seen first in profile as he comes downstairs, purse in hand, and then out in the street, still in his fur-lined crimson finery, but this time among the needy - the barefoot, the stooped, the widow in her patched gown, begging for her children. Two blind men are about to pass one another, one of them bravely led by a patch-marked, wire-haired smiling terrier. Although the staging of this contemporary street seems so simple, no previous artist had so tellingly choreographed the movement of passers-by, nor the engagement of a patrician with the common people.
This typical Sienese palazzo, with its colonnetted Gothic windows and colour-washed facade in burnt sienna, is enlivened by constant invention: shutters, plants, metalwork sconces, interior glimpses. To compare this street scene with Duccio's Healing of the Blind Man is to recognize both a shift towards naturalism, and a real continuity.