|TUSCANY - Florence|
|FILE : Church of Orsanmichele 4|
|TITLE : The Miracle of the Unchaste Abbess|
LOCATION: Bay nI, panel 1a
DIMENSIONS: Poly-lobed lunette ca.140 x 165 cm. In the same bay are two other poly-lobed lunettes (1b, 1c; ca. 140 x 165 cm.), three six-lobed medallions (2a, 2b, 2c; diam. 50 cm.), two double six-lobed medallions (3ab, 3bc; diam. 85 cm.), and a rose window (4b; diam. 140 cm.).
PROVENANCE: Original location.
CHRONOLOGY: Like the other stained glass windows in this bay, panel 1a was glazed during the first glazing campaign (ca. 1380 - 1400).
AUTHOR: Niccolò di Pietro Gerini (?) designs; Leonardo di Simone (?) execution
PATRONAGE: Compagnia di Or San Michele
SUBJECT/ S: As in the other two lunettes of bay nI (panels 1b, 1c), depicting the Miracle of the Drowned Sacristan and the Last Communion of a Dying Woman, respectively (see Firenze C. di Orsanmichele 5,6), this episode is part of the cycle of the Miracles of the Virgin, a series of Marian legends intended to promote the popular cult and symbolize the spiritual and political role of the miraculous image of the ‘Madonna of Orsanmichele’. In particular, the episode belongs to a group of merciful interventions to rectify acts of immorality. The subject is treated in two Marian legends which narrate how the Virgin saved a pregnant abbess: "Bishop Comes Unexpectedly to an Abbess" and "Betrayed Confidence of an Abbess"; in the second version, the Abbess confides her secret to a nun who in turn reveals her condition to the archdeacon, but just before an investigation by the bishop, the abbess is saved by the miraculous intervention of the Virgin (see Index by Subject: Miracle of the Virgin).
In the three smaller medallions are depicted busts of Prophets; in the two larger medallions, busts of Angels (stopgap head in 3ab?) surrounded by floral motifs; and in the rose window, a small head (?) enclosed in a quadrilobe from which radiate spokes depicting cherubim and seraphim.
CRITICAL NOTES: van Straelen is credited with the first systematic study directed at identifying the personalities of the artists who prepared the designs as well as the glaziers who executed the windows. Basing herself on documents published by Milanesi, van Straelen proposed a series of correlations between the stylistic characteristics of the windows of Orsanmichele and documentary sources for glazing activity not only at Orsanmichele but at the Cathedral of Florence and the church of Santa Croce. According to Milanesi, Niccolò di Piero Tedesco glazed designs by Lorenzo Monaco in 1409 for unspecified windows in Orsanmichele and was repeatedly employed at Orsanmichele; therefore, van Straelen infers a continual collaborative relationship between the two artists for the windows of Orsanmichele. And pointing to precise chromatic analogies between the Assumption in the facade of the Cathedral, executed by Niccolò di Piero Tedesco (1412-1415), and the lunette in Orsanmichele depicting the Annunciation to Joachim (see Firenze C. di Orsanmichele 13), van Straelen was the first to recognize in this window the collaboration, which she hypothesized from documents, of Niccolò and Lorenzo..
Based on this preliminary attribution, van Straelen extends the collaboration between Lorenzo and Niccolò to other panels; the Miracle of the Drowned Boy and the Miracle of the Unchaste Abbess (see Firenze, C. di Orsanmichele 3, 4). She supports those attributions with stylistic observations regarding quality of color, which are not always sustained in a coherent manner.
Marchini, based on the presumption that the stylistic qualities of a stained glass window are attributable to the painters who designed the cartoons, of which the master glazier is a mere executor, searches for the authors of the cartoons from among the artists called to decorate the Oratory, among whom Agnolo Gaddi, Niccolò Gerini, Ambrogio di Baldese, e Lorenzo Monaco. He justifies the difficulty in reaching a precise identification by alleging that the various personalities would have been obscured by the glazing of the cycle by a single workshop or, at the most, two. In particular, his stylistic investigation hits upon only a few lunettes; dwelling upon this lunette and the other two of this same bay, Marchini is of the opinion that they can be assigned to the artistic current of academic giottismo, with reminiscences of Niccolò Gerini.
Reconsidering the stylistic analyses and documentary contribution put forward by van Straelen, Burnam groups the stained glass in bays nI-nII and sI-sII on the basis of iconographic and typological similarities and, based on documents published by Poggi, asserts that this first cycle of windows for Orsanmichele dates back to 1380. Evidence that the cycle could already have been undertaken by that time results from payments that reveal that the tracery of several bays was complete and that the acquisition of lead and iron to support the windows was underway. From December 1389 to October 1400, the progress of the glazing is not documented, nevertheless, indirect confirmation for ongoing glazing activity is found in the fact that in February of 1398, the Capitani of the Oratory received from the Signoria authorization to spend the sum of 720 lire annually for the next three years on decoration for the Oratory, for the vault and ceiling frescoes, as well as for the stained glass windows. Therefore, Burnam asserts that the first cycle of windows was protracted until the beginning of 1400, a terminus shared by Finiello Zervas.
With regard to the beginning of the work, Finiello Zervas, on the basis of previously unpublished payments to Niccolò di Piero Tedesco for a window of unspecified location in Orsanmichele (March - December 1388, OSM, 209, ff. 5, 35), pushes the onset of the first glazing campaign to 1386. As to the problem of attribution, it is still not fully resolved since it is made all the more complex by the difficulty of characterizing the relationship between the artist who prepared the cartoons and the master glazier who translated them into glass. A relationship generally depicted as the clear preeminence of the artist creator of the cartoons over the master glazier, considered a mechanical executor. This preeminence, in reality, needs to be re-evaluated, since many stylistic results depend upon technical choices attributable to the interpretation and abilities of the master glazier in going from the cartoon to the stained glass medium: choices such as the linear rhythm assigned to the leads and armature, the highlighting effects achieved with silverstain, use of damascene, and so on.
In support of this methodological approach, Burnam addresses her research principally at recognizing the contribution of the master glaziers, not only in the figurative details of the compositions, but also in the decorative repertoire of borders, rose window spokes, and "straforamina", all choices ascribable to the master glazier alone. Therefore, Burnam undertakes a careful examination of the stylistic solutions adopted by Leonardo di Simone and Niccolò di Piero Tedesco in S. Maria del Fiore for their stained glass nave windows depicting Saints with Baldachins (and by Leonardo for his S. Maria Novella sacristy window). Striking analogies with the glass in the four Orsanmichele bays persuades her to assign the execution to a single glazier of the Cathedral works, proposing for all twelve legends of the Miracles of the Virgin (though with some hesitation for the lunettes in bay sII) the authorship of Leonardo di Simone. She ascribes the stylistic inconsistencies she has observed to the intervention of assistants. The attribution is not accepted by Finiello Zervas who, on the basis of the discovered payments, assigns the group of windows to Niccolò di Piero, without following up with stylistic verification of that attribution. It should also be noted that the sum of the payments in question correspond to 46 lire, 5 soldi, and 8 denari; a small amount and barely enough for a single lunette. Her archival discovery, rather than guarantee a conclusive attribution, places in evidence the competition, not yet clarified, between the master glaziers who in varying circumstances operated in the two keeps, that of S. Maria del Fiore and of Orsanmichele, and leaves the problems of attribution open.
According to Burnam, the creation of the cartoons can be assigned to various artists. The revealing element is the compositional approach used in depicting the scenes; the typology of the architectural structures shows close affinities to those in the stained glass window of the Annunciation in the sacristy of S. Maria Novella, executed from designs by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, to whom has also been attributed the window in the Certosa del Galluzzo (see Firenze Certosa di Val d’Ema 9). Numerous analogies persuade Burnam to propose for the cartoons of the bay nI episodes the authorship of Niccolò di Pietro Gerini who, in fact, was active in the keep of Orsanmichele. The attribution is taken up by Finiello Zervas.
Condition: Fortunately, the stained glass complex of Orsanmichele has not been altered by invasive restorations as has happened for the windows of S. Croce. According to documents, in 1918 ten roste istoriate were taken down and placed in crates to protect them from possible war damage; and already on that occasion de Matteis, in his estimate for the removal of the windows, emphasized the poor condition of the panels, in which numerous cracks pervaded the compositions. Nevertheless, their restoration was conducted much later, from 1929 to 1939, by Armando Bruschi, who employed some stopgaps (fortunately not many) described as "vetri ricavati dalle vecchie finestre".
In the years 1969-70 the windows, by then in an advanced stage of deterioration, partly due to damage suffered during the flood of 1966, were restored by S. Papucci of the Guido Polloni Studio. The windows were also in danger because, in some instances, the painted, interior side was reinstalled facing out, and therefore it was exposed to atmospheric agents. In the course of Papucci’s restoration, the stopgaps were eliminated and substituted with modern pieces of glass labelled with the letter "P". The panels were cleaned and releaded.
The heads in this panel are well-preserved and retain much original grisaille. Some of the grisaille was strengthened during the last restoration.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: See Bibl. Orsanmichele
PHOTOGRAPHIC REFERENCE: R. Burnam Archive
CONTRIBUTOR: Caterina Pirina January 2001