SANO di Pietro
(b. 1406, Siena, d. 1481, Siena)

St Bernardino Preaching in the Campo

Tempera on panel, 162 x 102 cm
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena

On 20 May 1444 the celebrated Sienese Franciscan friar Bernardino Albizzeschi died in Aquila. Although unable to secure his physical remains, the Sienese government and the local Franciscan Observants immediately mounted an energetic campaign to have him recognised as a saint. On 7 June the prior and councillors of the Compagnia della Vergine were authorised to spend as much money as they deemed necessary for an image to celebrate the memory of Bernardino. The commission was given to Sano di Pietro on 28 May 1445.

The three principal panels of this altarpiece are now on display in the cathedral museum. They show the saint ascending into heaven, preaching outside San Francesco in Siena and preaching in the Campo. A plausible reconstruction of the altarpiece suggests that the three paintings once formed a triptych with the two portrayals of Bernardino's power as a preacher both framing and, through the emphatic diagonals of their compositions, focussing on the central image of Bernardino himself. Sano di Pietro represented the gaunt face of the saint in a particularly effective manner, with details that were almost certainly taken from Bernardino's own death mask and which appear consistently in later painted and sculpted representations of him.

Sano di Pietro's other major achievement in this altarpiece was to represent, in graphic detail, one of the principal reasons why Bernardino was revered by the Sienese. He painted two highly descriptive scenes of the saint preaching in immediately recognisable locations in Siena itself (which also show how men and women were strictly segregated at these events). Each preaching scene alludes to a particular religious cult for which Bernardino was famed. Thus in the San Francesco scene Bernardino appears in the pulpit with a crucifix, as a reminder of his devotion towards the crucified Christ. In the Campo scene, meanwhile, he holds up the IHS monogram (an abbreviation of the Greek word for Jesus), a symbol that Bernardino made famous across Italy in his preaching.

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