The World of San Bernardino

The World of San Bernardino

The World of San Bernardino

The World of San Bernardino

Excerpt

It is not possible to live in Tuscany without becoming familiar with San Bernardino's emblem: its golden rays, encircling the monogram YHS, are still set on the front wall of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena but they may also be seen in much less stately places: above the doorway of small country churches, over wayside shrines, on the wall of some crumbling farm or castle, or on the vault of what was perhaps once a chapel and is now a stable or a cellar. This is where San Bernardino came, the emblem tells; this is where he spoke.

His face, too, is almost equally familiar. He lived in an age of great painters and - since he was canonized only six years after his death and the cities and convents in which he had preached all wanted a picture or a statue of him as soon as possible - his portraits were painted by men who had known him by sight or, soon after, by artists who scrupulously followed these models. Sassetta, perhaps the most Franciscan in spirit of the Sienese painters, was working during San Bernardino's lifetime in the Convento dell'Osservanza near Siena which he had founded, and only seven months after the saint's death, painted a portrait of him in the oratory of the Ospedale della Scala, where he had nursed the plaguestricken in his youth. This, however, has unfortunately been destroyed and the only extant portrait certainly painted from the living model is the one by Sassetta's pupil, Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio, when the saint, although only forty-six years old, had already the looks of an old man. (Plate 1). This, with a wooden bust by an anonymous contemporary and the pictures by Sano di Pietro and Vecchietta, are the models on which subsequent portraits of him were based. In all of them we see the same small spare figure, the straight thin neck above the wide cowl, the hollow cheeks -

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