(b. 1439, Siena, d. 1502, Siena)

The Coronation of the Virgin

Tempera on wood, 337 x 200 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

The Sienese Francesco di Giorgio was a dominant painter, sculptor, and engineer of his generation in his native city. Additionally he was a leading architect and designer of castles and fortifications, so it is understandable why there are few paintings by his hand. Like his Florentine and Umbrian contemporaries, he was a student of perspective, which is imaginatively employed in the platform upon which Christ is crowning His eternally young mother.

This large and crowded altarpiece was Francesco di Giorgio's most ambitious undertaking in his work as a painter. About 40 characters, each one visually identifiable thank to the artist's careful graphic research, crowd into the main scene. Christ is crowning the Virgin on a strange podium which is held up by angels. Above them, Francesco uses steep perspective to include a whirlwind image of God the Father.

The altarpiece depicting the Coronation of the Virgin was painted for the Chapel of Sts Sebastian and Catherine of Siena at Monte Oliveto, hence the prominence of those two in the lowest zone of the picture. Considering Francesco di Giorgio's activity as an architect, it is surprising that there is so little convincing structure to the composition and that the spatial relationships are so difficult to decipher. No single, consistent optimal point of sight where the perspective operates effectively seems to have been planned. As a result, while one might expect to see the two kneeling saints from above or the central group of Christ and Mary from below, they are all seen almost straight on. Christ, the dominant image on the central axis, is in the act of crowning the kneeling and proportionally somewhat smaller Mary. His left arm, thrust across the body, forms a wedge below the nearly diamond-shaped head. A swirling God the Father, surrounded by zodiacal signs and angels, supervises the uppermost zone.

Mary and Christ rest upon a flat cloud bank shown in sharp foreshortening (although the figures themselves are not foreshortened). On a ledge in the same zone, seated figures - including St John the Baptist cross-legged on the left and crowned King David holding his lyre on the right - and handsome angels imply a semicircular distribution in space, a compositional innovation that will find reverberations in the following decades. Along the sides, hosts of saints are piled up in the narrow vertical strips, recalling a Sienese tradition that goes as far back as Duccio di Buoninsegna's Maestà of the early Trecento. The spaces are hard to reconstruct; the surfaces are overcrowded; the colour strong although unnatural.

Francesco had his artistic and cultural roots in Siena. But just as Sassetta experienced outside, non-Sienese influences, so too did Francesco di Giorgio. His personal style was modified and molded by impulses from two North Italian painters active in Siena, Girolamo da Cremona and Liberale da Verona, both of whom reflected Mantegna's innovative formal style. In addition, Francesco di Giorgio was keenly aware of what was unfolding in nearby Florence. Critics often point out the influence of Filippo Lippi and of Verrocchio, as well as that of the Pollaiuolo shop. Donatello and Ghiberti had left works in Siena which are also reflected by Francesco di Giorgio. The twisting, winged, nude putti of the Coronation, who help support the cloud bank, are modifications of Donatello's tiny angels in the Sienese Baptistery.

Francesco di Giorgio constantly disregards the structure of figures or their anatomy. Bodies are usually heavy, arbitrary, and abstract, without special attention to the light sources; for example, the St Dorothy standing on the extreme right edge of the picture with the flowers gathered in her garment. Her long face, accentuated by a strong chin and a wide-eyed expression, is curiously personalized, suggesting deep intensity and even an affliction, often found in Francesco's somewhat melancholy vision. Like Botticelli, his world consists more of fantasy and imagination than of a demanding observation of nature. In the Coronation of the Virgin the unity of the picture is sacrificed to an abundance of detail.