MASTER of the Osservanza
(active 1430-1450 in Siena)
St Anthony Goes in Search of St Paul the Hermitc. 1440
Tempera and gold on wood, 48 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 final episode, it is revealed in vision to the ninety-year-old Anthony that an even older hermit exists - 'one more excellent than thou art'. He sets out to find him, his passage through the landscape charted in the final panel. At top left, mantle slung over his shoulder, he comes into sight along the path, which then vanishes behind a mountain, emerging again from the trees on the right. At the next turn, Anthony, wearing his mantle, asks directions from a centaur who seems to be a kind of guardian of the forest. The path plunges on into a wood, whose foliage is patterned in small clusters of dotted marks, until, at last, it arrives at the mouth of a cave, where Anthony is lost in the embrace of St Paul the Hermit, their overlapping haloes a kind of consummation. The two old men (whose heavily veined hands and feet receive special emphasis) have cast down their yellow staffs at the moment of meeting.
This panel was rediscovered in 1931 by the British art historian, Ellis Waterhouse, in a bathroom in Piccadilly.