(b. 1280/85, Siena, d. 1344, Avignon)
Polyptych of Santa Caterina (Pisa Polyptych)1319
Tempera on wood, 195 x 340 cm
Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa
In 1319 a polyptych was commissoned for the convent of Santa Caterina in Pisa. This polyptych, now in the Museum of San Matteo, is without doubt the most important and grand of Simone's signed paintings: forty-three busts of apostles, martyrs, bishops and prophets are placed in the cusps and under the trefoiled arches of the panels. The altarpiece consists of seven elements, each one in three parts: a cusp, a smaller panel divided into two sections, and a larger panel depicting a single saint. There is also a predella consisting of seven smaller size panels.
Over the centuries the polyptych has been reconstructed according to many different theories, but presently it is arranged as follows: in the cusps, next to the Blessing Redeemer, we find David playing the harp, Moses with the Tables of the Law and the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezechiel. On the level below, on either side of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael in the middle, we find the apostles, arranged in pairs below trefoiled arches: each one is carrying a copy of the Gospel and is identified by an inscription on the gold background. From left to right, Thaddaeus, Simon, Philip and James the Less, who are talking animatedly about the Scriptures; they are followed by Andrew and Peter.
Then, on the other side of the archangels, Paul and James Major (a shell in relief has been placed between the letters of his name); Matthew writing his Gospel, resting the book on the frame of the panel, together with Bartholomew, followed by Thomas and Mathias. On the middle level, together with Mary Magdalene, St Dominic, John the Evangelist, the Madonna and Child (and above the frame there is the inscription "Symon de Senis me pinxit"), and John the Baptist, we find Peter Martyr and Catherine of Alexandria.
The reconstruction of the predella, on the other hand, is much more certain. It revolves around the central panel where the Man of Sorrows is assisted by the Virgin and St Mark. At the sides, from left to right, we find Saints Stephen and Apollonia, Jerome and Lucy (?), Gregory and Luke, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, Agnes and Ambrose, Ursula and Lawrence.
With a composition so full of movement, the Pisa Polyptych is extremely innovative, especially in its structure. The seven elements, the predella panels and the ones on the upper level, each consisting of two sections, not only allow the artist to include a vast number of characters, but they also allow him to describe each one with a wealth of iconographical details. For this reason, alongside characters who would traditionally be included in any polyptych, we also find figures connected to the religious Order who commissioned the altarpiece: Jerome, Gregory and Augustine as well as more recently canonized saints, such as the founder of the Order, Dominic, and Peter Martyr. Notice that Thomas Aquinas is portrayed with a halo, whereas he was not actually canonized until 1323.
There is a wide range of different connections between the various characters, although they are all portrayed here as part of a vast propaganda programme, aimed at spreading the ideological message of the Dominicans. Just one example. Preaching is the primary activity of all the monks portrayed; scrolls, parchments, books (half hidden, half open, fully open like the text Thomas Aquinas is holding, very small ones like the one of the Child) are a subtle reference to the evangelizing mission of this Order. In all, there are 27 books in this polyptych.
Simone's absolute mastery of volumes and shapes, obtained thanks both to Duccio's chiaroscuro technique and to his own recent experience in Assisi, is here blended with a very fluent use of vertical lines, of subtle and elegant modelling. The Gothic mood that Simone is here interpreting in terms of light, with a wide range of bright colours, creates a new relationship between image and space, between each individual measurement and the proportions of the whole composition.