Art of Simone Martini (Page 3)

1. Biographic outline 2. Milestones 3. Simone's style
4. Early works 5. Maestą 6. Frescoes in Assisi
7. Altarpieces 8. Guidoriccio 9. Late works

Frescoes in the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi

1. History 2. Dating 3. Frescoes of Saints
4. Plan of the frescoes 5. Overview of the decoration 6. Stories from the Life of St Martin


The consecration and decoration of the chapel of San Martino in the Lower Church in Assisi were commissioned in 1312 by Gentile Partino da Montefiore, a Franciscan friar who was made Cardinal with the title of San Martino ai Monti, which explains the subject matter of the fresco cycle - the life of St Martin. Cardinal Gentile left the friars of Assisi the considerable sum of six hundred gold florins. He had been a powerful prelate, always very active in Church affairs and closely connected to the House of Anjou: it was thanks to his good offices that Robert of Anjou's nephew, Charles Robert, was made King of Hungary. But the relationship between the Anjou of Naples and the Franciscan Order, or more precisely that part of the Order that favoured a more rigid interpretation of the vow of poverty, the Spirituals or Fraticelli, had been good and close for a long time. Louis gave up his throne in order to take his vows in the Order, and he was a very strict observer of the original Franciscan Rule of absolute poverty.

The eight saints painted on the underside of the entrance arch help us determine the patron who commissioned the frescoes, since the influence exerted by the House of Anjou is clearly noticeable here: together with the saints of the Franciscan Order there are other saints connected to Robert of Anjou.


The frescoes that decorate the chapel of San Martino in the Lower Church in Assisi were attributed to Simone Martini only in the late 18th century. As far as the dating is concerned, scholars have still not reached an agreement. The most convincing suggestion is that the frescoes were finished by early 1317. This dating is solidly supported by stylistic comparisons with the older sections of the Maestą and with the contemporary Altarpiece of St Louis of Toulouse (probably painted in 1317) as well as by a careful reconstruction of the historical events involving the House of Anjou (who commissioned the frescoes) and Simone himself around this period.

A discrepancy has been pointed out between the iconography of the fresco cycle (which is clearly a celebration of the life of St Martin of Tours) and the frescoes on the underside of the entrance arch depicting eight saints: these figures are like an autonomous cycle celebrating a special event. They were not part of the original programme and were painted in 1317 in honour of St Louis of Toulouse who had just been sanctified, and the figure of St Louis, with his shining halo (on the right of the picture), stands out. According to normal decorating procedures, the underside of the arch would have been the last part of the chapel to be frescoed so that by that year (1317) we can presume that the chapel was already painted. Further elements supporting this dating have been supplied by studies on late mediaeval clothing: the female costumes, and especially the necklines, are of the shape and size popular in the first twenty years of the century, so that 1317 is more likely to be the year the frescoes were finished, rather than the year in which they were begun.

Frescoes of Saints

The eight saints painted on the underside of the entrance arch are Saints Francis (at right) Clare (at left), and Anthony (at left) - tributes to the Order that administered the Basilica -, as well as other saints connected to Robert of Anjou: Louis of Toulouse (at right), his older brother; Elisabeth of Hungary, the aunt of his mother, Mary; Louis IX (at left), King of France, his great-grandfather; Mary Magdalene and Catherine, saints his father Charles II was particularly devoted to.

The group of saints painted alongside the altar dedicated to St Elizabeth in the right transept of the Basilica is a further expression of the political and religious feeling that bound the House of Anjou to Hungary and the Spirituals. Scholars have found plausible historical explanations for their presence and identified them. Proceeding from left to right, after Saints Francis, Louis of Toulouse and Elizabeth of Hungary, we find St Margaret: this figure had always been identified as St Clare, until a recent cleaning revealed a small cross, the symbol of St Margaret. Next to her is a young and very beautiful saint, who is probably Henry, Prince of Hungary (and not Louis IX of France, as had been suggested: how could he be a king without a crown?), the son of St Stephen, shown on the next wall with St Ladislaus and the Madonna and Child. The presence of all these members of the House of Anjou in the frescoes in Assisi is justified, in other words, by the close connection existing between the Order and the royal family, and it is quite suitable that they be placed here, in the chapel of Cardinal Gentile da Montefiore who was both a Franciscan and a good friend of the Anjou.

Overview of the decoration of the Chapel of San Martino

The plan of the decoration is shown on the diagram. Next to the eight saints on the underside of the arch (A-D on the diagram), on the entrance wall we find the scene of the Consecration of the Chapel. A mood of deep humility pervades the whole scene and provides the psychological link between the two characters: Cardinal Gentile is shown in humble adoration at the feet of St Martin who is gently helping him to get up. The very ecclesiastical setting, depicted in a perspective seen from below consists of a splendid ciborium, a Gothic construction with a trefoiled ogival arch and corner pinnacles, and a polychrome marble balustrade in the background. The pictorial decoration continues with ten episodes from the life of St Martin, each surrounded by a frame consisting of geometric ornaments that originally contained inscriptions with commentaries for the scenes; unfortunately, the inscriptions have almost totally faded and are now illegible.

Starting from the entrance, from left to right and from top to bottom, the side walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling are frescoed with scenes from the life of St Martin: on the lower level, the Division of the Cloak (1), the Dream (2), St Martin is Knighted (3) and Renounces his Weapons (4); on the middle level, the Miracle of the Resurrected Child (5), Meditation (6, on the ceiling), the Miraculous Mass (7) and the Miracle of Fire (8, on the ceiling); on the top level we find the last two episodes, Death (9) and Burial of the Saint (10).

Placed inside the small trefoiled aediculae (very similar to the ciborium in the Consecration) in the jambs of the two-light windows there are eighteen busts of saints. They are very difficult to identify, especially since the inscriptions have almost totally disappeared. Figures of men of the church alternate with laymen. Those on the central window would appear to be by Simone himself, whereas the others seem to be almost entirely the work of assistants.

The stained-glass windows also deserve mention. We know nothing about who actually carried out the work, although it is quite likely that Simone designed them, and they show considerable analogies with the older parts of the Maestą in the Palazzo Pubblico and the stained-glass windows in Assisi, so we can assert that the windows of the chapel of San Martino date from around 1312. The suggested date is based on the dates of external events. In 1312 Gentile da Montefiore not only commissioned the decoration of the chapel, he also spent a few months in Siena: he probably met Simone and chose him as his "personal" painter. The procedures normally followed in the building and decorating of churches also suggest an early date. In areas which were going to be frescoed the windows were put in first, because the coloured glass changed the colour of the lighting, altering the effect of the frescoes.

The chapel's decoration is completed by a wide marble wainscoting with white and red inlay that runs around the bottom of the walls, as well as vermilion granite columns and ribbing with geometric decorations; the deep blue ceiling is dotted with gold stars.

Stories from the Life of St Martin

The spirit in which the Stories from the Life of St Martin are recounted is totally new and personal. The Saint's life unfolds in a lay and secular atmosphere, with courtly emblems, knights, grooms and musicians clearly recreating the setting of 14th-century aristocratic Courts, in particular the Anjou royal palace in Naples. And in any case the story of St Martin was quite well suited to this iconographic interpretation; before devoting himself to religious matters, Martin had been an officer in the Roman army and he would have continued in his family tradition (his father was an infantry commander) had he not undergone a profound religious conversion in 344. The courtly characteristics of the layman Martin are all included and stressed: as well as the scene of the Investiture, there are two other episodes depicting Martin in his role as Roman miles. Obviously, the chivalric element, a fundamental element in the hierarchical division of mediaeval society, appears to be more important than other aspects of the story. For example, no mention is made of Martin's period as a disciple, as a hermit, nor of his monastic life (events that cannot really be considered minor, especially in the life story of a bishop saint!). But we must remember the nature of the patrons who had commissioned the frescoes, as well as Simone's innate inclination towards courtly circles; bearing this in mind, we can explain the very worldly and mundane characteristics of the cycle. The four scenes on the lower level deal with the period in Martin's life before his conversion in 344. He is portrayed as a man of the world, dressed as a layman and with long, flowing hair (his fair hair shows under his cap in the scene of the Dream, too).

The first fresco depicts the famous episode of the Division of the Cloak, the story for which Martin is best known: having come across a beggar dressed in rags on a cold winter morning, Martin gave him half of his cloak. To the left, the city of Amiens, where the incident occurred, with its crenellated fortifications and defence towers. To the right, in the upper section, a head: to try and justify this strange presence we must examine the synopia of the fresco in the Museum of the Basilica. Originally Simone had planned the composition differently: the beggar was shown with his arms outstretched towards the cloak and the city gate was on the opposite side. This helps us understand the position of this solitary profile, very close and parallel to the side frame. But then Simone changed his mind, covered the wall with another layer of intonaco, drew a new synopia and with a brushstroke of blue paint cancelled that first face which has now resurfaced.

Martin's generous gesture is followed by a Dream, in which Christ reveals to him that he was really the beggar. Wrapped in the cloak, and pointing at Martin, Jesus addresses the host of angels accompanying him: some are shown praying, others listen to him with their arms crossed, while the mass of gold haloes helps give a sense of depth to the architectural setting. Meanwhile, Martin is sleeping under a blanket of typically Sienese fabric and Simone's realism is evident from one detail in particular: the border of the white sheet and the pillow are decorated with an embroidery called "drawn-thread" work, very fashionable at the time. The rigidity of the outstretched'body is intended to convey an intense spiritual participation in the message of Christ, and the way Martin's hand rests on his chest reveals excitement, as though he really were listening to the voice of the Lord.

The stories of the life of St Martin that Simone could have used as sources, although none of them mention an actual investiture, do contain references to his military promotions. We can therefore suppose that our painter, surrounded by a world of tournaments and hunting expeditions, pictured a Roman soldier rather like a mediaeval miles and simply transposed a ceremony typical of his times to the late classical world. It is not merely a matter of Panofsky's "theory of distance," according to which mediaeval painters made characters from the past appear more immediate and closer to their public by placing them in Gothic architectural settings and dressing them in l3th-century costumes. Simone (and even more so his patrons who had commissioned the frescoes) used the scene of Martin's investiture to focus attention on courtly and aristocratic customs. Musicians, singers, equerries with weapons and falconers all witness the scene taking place inside a palace with loggias and wooden ceilings. Nothing could be more secular than the figure of the Roman Emperor fastening the sword, the symbol of his newly acquired dignity, around the knight's waist. The Emperor's immobile profile, with his half-open mouth and fixed gaze, is reminiscent of the portraits carved on ancient Roman coins, which Simone probably used as a model: even though it must be Julian the Apostate (and historically it could not be any other emperor), it has been suggested that the features are actually those of Constantine the Great.

In the next fresco we see Martin, as an officer in the Roman army face to face with the enemy, announcing his decision: "I am a soldier of Christ and I cannot fight." To the left, the Roman camp, with Emperor Julian, a group of soldiers and the treasurer distributing money to the mercenaries. To the right, waiting for the battle, behind the hill, the barbarian army with their armour and their spears. Martin (still a knight, but carrying a cross and shown in the act of blessing) is looking towards the Emperor but walking towards the enemy. His battle is the struggle against paganism, and his only weapon is the word of Christ.

The episodes depicted in the middle level illustrate the last part of the saint's life, after 371 when Martin was nominated Bishop of Tours, as we can see from his mitre. In the bay to the left of the entrance we find the scene of the Meditation. In a state of profound spiritual ecstasy, Martin sits on a simple faldstool (the same one that Emperor Julian was sitting on in the scene of Martin renouncing arms), while two acolytes try to bring him back to reality so he can celebrate mass in the chapel nearby: one of them is shaking him gently, and the other is handing him his missal. The two architectural spaces, parallel but of different depth, are geometrically so simple and bare that they appear to reflect the Saint's mood of profound absorption in prayer: the only decorative elements are the horizontal Greek key design on the wall and the quatrefoiled ornament in the arch above the mullioned windows.

In the bay to the right we find the scene of the Miraculous Mass, an episode that is only very rarely included in Italian fresco cycles. This was the first time it was depicted. The event took place in Albenga and was similar to what happened in Amiens. After having given a beggar his tunic, Martin is about to celebrate mass. During the elevation, the most deeply spiritual moment in the mass, two angels appear and give Martin a very beautiful and precious piece of fabric. There is extraordinary spontaneity and beauty in the deacon's expression of surprise, in his almost fearful gesture: his astonishment is so great that he instinctively reaches out towards his bishop. The scene is a masterful composition of volumes and shapes with the linear elements (the candlesticks and the decoration of the altar-cloth) alternating with the solid structures of the altar and the dais, beneath a barrel-vaulted ceiling.

To the left of the Meditation is the fresco of the Miracle of the Resurrected Child; like the Miraculous Mass, this episode had never been included in a fresco cycle before. While Martin is praying he is approached by a woman holding her dead child in her arms; she begs him to do something and the Saint kneels in prayer. Amidst the astonishment of those present the child is resurrected. It was pointed out that Simone does not follow the official biographies (which all report the incident as having taken place in the countryside around Chartres), but blends this event with a legend that was popular in Siena at the time. This legend was a longstanding oral tradition, which we know of from a 1657 source; it tells the story of Martin stopping in Siena while on his way to Rome on a pilgrimage. In Siena he performed a miracle so great that a church consecrated to him was built in the city. The miracle was a resurrection and this is the connection that justifies Simone's blending of the two episodes and changing the setting to Siena. The city centre is symbolized by the building to the right: the square-topped battlements, the three-light mullioned windows on the piano nobile and the Sienese arch above the entrance door help us identify it as the Palazzo Pubblico. This is how the town hall appeared before 1325 when the bell tower, the Torre del Mangia, was added to the left. The need to make the event recounted more immediate, to modernize an episode that had occurred almost a thousand years before, made Simone go even further. The crowd does not consist only of pagans, as the written accounts of the event described it; Simone portrays a most varied group of onlookers. A plump friar is shown looking up at a tree above the scene: he looks very much like Gentile da Montefiore. Some of the figures are praying devoutly, while others, such as the knight in the blue hat, express astonishment and even scepticism (notice how the other knight looks at him frowning, as though in reproach).

In the scene next to the right bay Simone has painted the Miracle of Fire, a fresco which, like the scene of the resurrected boy, is very badly damaged. The scene illustrates the event immediately after the miracle, when a tongue of flame burst down from Emperor Valentinian's throne after he had refused to grant audience to the Saint. The sovereign, more 14th-century than his colleague Julian, is shown stretching out towards Martin, as though about to embrace him. The figure at the far left is very natural, covering his mouth with his hand in astonishment. The scene is composed of several different architectural structures, including a variety of arches: pointed arches, round arches, four-centred arches. The two-light mullioned windows also appear in two versions: the ogival Gothic variety and the more typically Romanesque. The pilasters, battlements and loggias create an effect of movement and dynamism.

The frescoes of the Death and Funeral on the upper level are the last scenes of the cycle. Animated by light, colour and spatial depth, both these scenes have the same composition, with a crowd of acolytes and followers witnessing the events. The same characters, with the same features but depicted in different poses and with different gestures appear in both scenes: the priest celebrating the ritual of the deceased in the scene of Martin's Death appears in the fresco of the Funeral between the two figures with haloes; the tonsured acolyte dressed in green and red who in the Death is gazing meditatively upwards, in the Funeral is shown holding the celebrant's dalmatic. And lastly, notice how much the knight under the little aedicula in the fresco of Martin's Death looks like the portrait of Robert of Anjou in the Naples Altarpiece. Another interesting element is the way the architectural style of the scenes follows the mood of the events: while the building in the scene of the Death of St Martin is a severe geometrical structure with bare walls, the Funeral takes place in a Gothic chapel with graceful and delicate decorations.

The most important and noticeable element in these frescoes is the spatial construction of each scene. As far as the construction of volumes and perspective is concerned, Simone certainly owed a great debt to the Florentine Giotto. The Stories from the Life of St Francis in the Upper Church in Assisi (see Guided Tour #3) are the prototype of the spatial organization of the cycle of the life of St Martin. And Giotto's influence is noticeable in the subject-matter of the frescoes as well. Some of the episodes of the story of St Martin (Division of the Cloak, Martin Renounces his Weapons, Miracle of Fire) are clearly modelled on scenes from the Franciscan cycle (Francis Donates his Cloak, Renounces his Worldly Possessions, Trial by Fire), as though Simone wanted to attribute to Martin the role of predecessor of the more recent mediaeval Saint. Giotto's compositions become almost involuntary quotations in these frescoes, but Simone does not simply use and exploit this great model, he elaborates on it and transforms it. The art of the northern Gothic civilization attracts Simone and draws him into a new world of sophisticated colours and lively naturalism which, thanks to his talented personal interpretation, succeed in creating effects of wondrous beauty.

| Previous Page | Top | Next Page |