Lombardy 1450 /1490 – Crema 1544
Annunciation and Saints Benedict and Scholastica
[Annunciazione e i santi Benedetto e Scolastica]
portable altar: tempera grassa on wood panels
overall 46.2 (h) x 32.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Bequest of Giovanni Morelli 1891
Made for private devotion, this small portable altar is in excellent condition. On the exterior panels, as is customary, there is a representation of the Annunciation. When opened, the panels reveal two Benedictine saints: Saint Benedict himself accompanied by Saint Scholastica, traditionally considered to be his sister. They stand on rocky ground in front of a low parapet against a plain blue background. Scholastica is represented with the palm of martyrdom, and each saint holds a book—the Rule of Saint Benedict, a text written by Benedict which became a guide for all those entering monastic life.
The missing inner central panel was probably a representation of the Crucifixion or another important scene from the Life of Christ. The altar is still in its original ornate gilded frame, with the central panel surrounded by a cornice with egg and dart motifs and headed with elegant volutes. As well as the painted panels, it is very likely that the frame should be attributed to Vincenzo Civerchio, who is extensively documented as a sculptor.
The scene of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is composed across two exterior panels. Entering through an open colonnade on the left, and with the lecturn between them, Gabriel does not encroach upon Mary’s domestic space with its canopied bed. He holds a branch of lilies, symbols of her purity; while the dove of the Holy Spirit is about to descend in rays of golden light to effect the Immaculate Conception. The perspective is finely realised, with a surprising scene in the deep background viewed through the grilles of the arched windows.
The very first reference to Civerchio in art historical literature occurs in the notes of Marcantonio Michiel, written between 1520 and 1543, where he is described as a ‘painter, architect and perspectivist’, a reputation that is borne out by all elements of this portable altar. The presence of the Benedictine saints suggests that the patron may have been a Benedictine, with the altar commissioned for someone within the Order in Lombardy or the Veneto, the region where Civerchio worked. The attribution to Civerchio was made by Giovanni Morelli.
The work is usually dated within Civerchio’s first years as an artist because it closely resembles his Nativity with Saint Catherine of Alexandria, also dated early within his career. Morelli’s little altar cannot be any later than 1495, the date inscribed by Civerchio on the polyptych of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. A recent restoration of the polyptych revealed that the left panel, an image of Saint Sebastian, was painted and signed by Francesco Napoletano, an artist who worked in the style of Leonardo da Vinci. Collaborations such as this show that Civerchio was working in the full knowledge of developments elsewhere. He is a quintessential Lombard artist, whose formation is purely Northern Italian.
M. Marubbi, Vincenzo Civerchio: Contribuito alla cultura figurativa cremasca nel primo cinquecento, Milan: Il Vaglio cultura arte,1986.
Pinacoteca di Brera.
Pinacoteca Tosio-Martinengo, Brescia.