Friday, 15 February 2013

The Problem of the Thebaid Panel and Monastic Art.

Att to Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina, Lorenzo Monaco and currently Fra Angelico, , The Thebaid, c. 1410, Tempera on wood, 80 x 216 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

In addition to excavating the historical record, stylistic analysis of specific works has tried to re-construct Angelico’s artistic origins. At the centre of this debate is a unique and brilliant panel that has been assigned to three painters over the years: Starnina, Lorenzo Monaco and Fra Angelico himself. According to Antal, the Uffizi Thebaid- a scene of hermits escaping into the Egyptian desert around Thebes- was painted by Starnina after his return from Spain about 1404, after fleeing from Florence after being implicated in a popular uprising. For Antal, the depiction of monastic hermits in the wilderness was the “observant ideal of life, seen somewhat from the angle of the lower middle class, which finds expression in Starnina much more than Lorenzo Monaco.”[1] Later evaluations of the picture placed the style as learnt in the circle of Lorenzo Monaco, in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It was only in the 20th century that the panel was attributed to Angelico himself, by Roberto Longhi in 1940; although as Strehlke points out, the picture “shows such a close dependence on Lorenzo Monaco that a model by him may stand behind it.”[2] More recently scholars like Lawrence Kanter have promoted the Thebaid unreservedly to a Fra Angelico autograph piece, along with several other panels in the Met and at Princeton, albeit with some reservations about Kanter’s arguments.[3]

[1] Frederick Antal, Florentine Painting and its Social Background: The Bourgeois Republic before Cosimo de Medici’s Advent to Power: XIV and Early XV Centuries, (New York, 1948), 321.
[2] Strehlke, “Fra Angelico Studies,” in Illustration in Florentine Painting 26.
[3] Pia Palladino, “Pilgrims and Desert Fathers” in exh. cat’, Fra Angelico, Lawrence Kanter and Pia Palladino,Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2005.

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