AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIÆVAL ART X: Simone Martini’s Saints

It was standard practice in the trecento artist’s workshop for the master to paint the important figures (or at least their faces), while studio assistants filled the peripheral and marginal areas—pinnacles, spandrels, borders, soffits, etc with a large cast of saints, angels, and prophets. While these figures are usually identifiable by attribute or inscription, they tend to be generic in physiognomy and appearance, and were not meant to draw the viewer’s attention away from the principal images.

The startling exception to this rule is the work of Simone Martini (c. 1284 -1344), many of whose secondary and marginal characters are individuated as fully as the protagonists. The range of facial expressions, moods, postures, and degree of personalization is astonishing, given the fact that it has no immediate narrative context. The subtlety, imagination and attention invested in these figures is such that it is hard to imagine Simone himself was not responsible for their execution, just as Orson Welles often directed insignificant reaction and establishing shots himself, normally left to the second unit director.

Saints usually look benign or blandly joyful. Simone Martini’s heavenly host suggests, however, that beatification is not without its trials and annoyances. From the Angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel, who comes crashing into the Virgin’s bedroom, impatiently pointing upwards and frowning at her reluctance to become the Mother of God, to the weary and bored John the Baptist wishing he hadn’t worn sandals to the Maestà; from to the glaring St Martin of Tours who is about to fling the cardinal and donor of the chapel over his shoulder for some unmentioned lapse in protocol to the angry St Joseph chiding the sulking Christ, never have the the saints or the Holy Family seemed so irritable, truculent, disdainful, bored, embarrassed, sarcastic or angry. Everyone is on the verge in Simone’s world.

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