Virgin and Child with Saints Francis, Andrew, Paul, Peter, Stephen, and Louis of Toulouse

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Six Christian saints occupy arched panels on both sides of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus, as angels peer down from above. Jesus reappears in the center of the upper tier, surrounded by Hebrew prophets. This painting’s rounded panels and triangular pinnacles suggest the architecture of its original location—it was made for the altar of a church. Altarpieces like this one, with gold backgrounds that would have reflected flickering candlelight, were designed to encourage churchgoers in their devotions.

This important altarpiece was the first major acquisition by the Clark Art Institute after the deaths of Robert Sterling Clark and his wife, Francine. The artist, who was a follower of Duccio, the great Sienese master of the early fourteenth century, is known by relatively few works—all of exceptionally high quality. The [Virgin and Child with Saints Francis, Andrew, Paul, Peter, Stephen, and Louis of Toulouse] is characterized by simplicity of composition, psychological directness, and opulent materials, such as gold and ground semiprecious stones.

Largely illiterate, the faithful of the fourteenth century depended on images for the lessons they learned; this altarpiece symbolized the promise of redemption. The saints flanking the Virgin and Child each bear an attribute as a means of identification. Many of these attributes are still recognizable to viewers in the twentieth century. The figure at the left is perhaps the most immediately identifiable—Saint Francis, who shows the stigmata, the wounds resembling those of the crucified Christ, on his raised hand and his side. Paul, the soldier saint, has a sword. Peter holds a key, and Louis of Toulouse has the miter and crosier of a bishop. The latter figure offers a clue to the dating of the altarpiece: Louis of Toulouse was canonized on April 7, 1317, which is, therefore, the earliest possible date for the execution of this work.

 In the gables above the saints are Old Testament prophets, each holding a scroll with a message of the Incarnation. They are, from left to right, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Moses, David, Daniel, and Jeremiah. Christ the Redeemer is in the center.

— Steven Kern, excerpted from The Clark: Selections from the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Steven Kern et al. (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1996), pp. 16-17.

Ugolino di Nerio

Italian, active c. 1317–1339/49

Virgin and Child with Saints Francis, Andrew, Paul, Peter, Stephen, and Louis of Toulouse

c. 1317–21

Tempera and gold on panel

64 7/16 x 134 7/16 in. (163.7 x 341.4 cm) Width of central panel: 23 7/16 in. (59.5 cm) Smaller panels: 50 7/8 x 15 3/4 in. (129.3 x 40 cm)

Acquired by the Clark, 1962