(known 1394-1440 in Venice)

St Benedict Tempted in the Wilderness

Tempera on wood, 109 x 65 cm
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan

This scene is part of a series of four episodes from the life of Benedict of Nursia, inspired by the Vita Sancti Benedicti written by Gregorio Magno, divided between the Uffizi Galleries and the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan. They were probably part of an altarpiece dedicated to the saint, and despite their destination not being entirely known, they were most likely destined to the Benedictine order.

The four scenes are the following:

  1. St Benedict Makes his Nurse's Broken Sieve Whole (Uffizi)
  2. St Benedict and the Poisoned Wine (Uffizi)
  3. St Benedict Raising a Young Monk (Uffizi)
  4. St Benedict Tempted in the Wilderness (Poldi Pezzoli)

The fourth painting represents the episode when, having retired to live in a cave on Mount Subiaco, St Benedict was tormented by the devil in the guise of a blackbird, afflicting him with strong erotic temptations. To overcome desire, the saint stripped himself naked and rolled in a thicket of briars and nettles. The angel represents the divine enlightenment which helped Benedict resist the sin.

The anatomy of the saint, his loincloth, the blackbird and the leaves of the bushes are rendered with great naturalistic fidelity, as is the modulation of the light which models the volumes. By contrast, elegant Gothic touches define the figure of the angel with its brilliantly coloured wings and blue mantle.

Although studies cannot agree on a definitive author, the paintings seem to be the work of Niccolò di Pietro, one of the most important artists working in Venice and north-western Italy during the affirmation of international Gothic style. With regard to the stories of St Benedict and Niccolò's narrative and descriptive skills, it has been hypothesized that the ideation was aided by Gentile da Fabriano, with whom Niccolò di Pietro was certainly in contact in 1408.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.