(b. ca. 1370, Siena (?), d. ca. 1425, Firenze)
Coronation of the Virgin and Adoring Saints1407-09
Egg tempera on poplar, 195 x 105 cm (left), 221 x 115 cm (central), 197 x 102 cm (right)
National Gallery, London
Piero di Giovanni became 'Lorenzo Monaco' (Lorenzo the Monk) upon taking his vows in 1391 at the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, Florence. This ascetic order had been founded in 1012 by a Benedictine monk, Saint Romuald, shocked at the decadent laxity of his own monastery, and named by him after the mountain locality of Camaldoli in Tuscany where he built a hermitage. Legend has it that he dreamed of a ladder stretching from earth to Heaven, on which men in white robes were ascending, and thereupon decreed that the monks of his new order would dress in white. For this reason, Camaldolese altarpieces such as this one always show Saint Benedict, the sixth-century founder of the Benedictines, dressed in white rather than Benedictine black.
Benedict is shown here on the extreme left, his book inscribed with the opening words of the Prologue of his Rule, which the Camaldolites as reformed Benedictines observed. In his left hand is the birch he used to chastise errant monks. At his side sit Saint John the Baptist and Saint Matthew with his Gospel. Equally venerable on the extreme right is Saint Romuald in his white habit, with no lesser personages than Saint Peter and Saint John the Evangelist beside him. These and other saints are witnessing the Coronation by Christ of the Virgin after her Assumption to Heaven, a scene first depicted in thirteenth-century France and at this period extremely popular in Florence, although it is not mentioned in the Gospels. Since the Virgin sometimes personifies the Church, Christ vesting her with a regal crown confirms the authority of Church and Pope, a suitable subject in this city politically allied with the Papacy. Angels make music below.
In its original form the altarpiece was not divided as a triptych but presented a single surface with a three-arched top, with gables and a predella. The main panel was divided into three parts sometime after 1792 and the side pieces and central scene entered the National Gallery at different times. They are now shown in a modern frame.
Viewing this attractive work in its present state and location, it is easy to forget its solemn liturgical function and institutional self-promotion - the way the founding saints of the Benedictine and Camaldolese orders are installed in Heaven on equal terms with Evangelists, apostles and the Baptist. It is even harder to remember that the artist who painted these calligraphic lines, delicious colour combinations - the Virgin's robe has faded from its original pinkish mauve - and courtly mannered angels was himself a member of that austere, white-clad community.