MICHELINO DA BESOZZO
The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine, St John the Baptist, St Antony Abbotc. 1420
Tempera on wood, 75 x 58 cm
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena
In spite of the signature "Michelinus fecit" it was a long time till scholars unanimously accepted the fact that the panel was not the work of a Northern master but of Michelino da Besozzo, the eminent Lombard miniaturist, fresco-painter and delineator of animals. It is emphasized even today that side by side with inspirations from Venice and Verona, the work reflects the influences of the art of Burgundy and the Rhineland. This opinion is partly due to the fact that even in the period of the International Gothic such a representation lacking any spatiality was very rare in Italy.
Appropriate to its theme (which is a mystic vision and not an episode that took place in reality), it is in the irrational idiom of the former that the picture evokes the marriage of the Child Jesus and St Catherine of Alexandria. The figures are improbably floating in shining, golden space. There would be no point in discussing surroundings or space, since the ground, the throne and the airy background are all of the same immaterial radiance. Nothing interprets their relationship to one another. We cannot see the back of the throne, nor the spot where it touches the ground, or whether it has a pedestal and if so what it is like. Only the decorative contours of its arms are discernible in front of the dark areas provided by the figures of St Antony Abbot and St John the Baptist. Since the milieu is undefinable we cannot state where the figures touch the ground. With one exception we cannot see their feet, indeed, even the hems of their garments seem to have a life of their own, floating in waves, instead of spreading on the ground. By this Michelino da Besozzo intensified up to the point of absurdity the homogeneity of the background, which can be seen in Stefano da Verona's picture too. However, a vision is convincing only when it contains realistic elements too. And what we can see in this picture, namely the five figures, are depicted with delicate transitions of value from light to shade, which convey the soft features and the soft body of the Child Jesus. Their complexions display a wide variety of snow-white, pale pink, golden brown and dark-brown tones.
The rhythmic arrangement of shapes and colours results in an extraordinarily well balanced composition. The Virgin's head, rising in the middle, is surrounded by the semicircle of the other four heads. At the same time the dark draperies of the three figures in the back enclose the light areas of colour displayed by the body of the Child and the face and garments of St Catherine, thus presenting a fine equilibrium of colours in the composition.