About the artwork
- Accession number: WAG 2758
- Medium: Tempera paint on canvas transferred from wood
- Size: 32 x 79.2 cm
This picture was painted about 25 years after the death of the subject, Saint Bernardino of Siena. What we see is therefore not only the earliest portrait in the Walker Art Gallery's collection but also, and very unusually, an accurate portrait of a real saint. We are certain that it is a portrait as St Bernadino’s death mask survives in L’Aquila in Italy and his features are identical to those shown in this picture.
This painting, done in oil paint on a wooden panel, is a so-called “predella” panel, probably one of a group of three similar narrow pictures originally displayed in a line under a much larger rectangular panel. The group was possibly contained in an ornate carved wooden frame, possibly painted gold. Altogether these four or possibly more pictures formed a complete altarpiece. There exist two other St Bernadino pictures, similar to this in size - one in a museum in Munich and one in the Vatican. The Walker picture was possibly the central panel in this group.
The likeliest place that this picture was painted is Siena; the city in which St Bernardino was brought up, and the Italian city which had the greatest devotion to his name. Although the setting is almost certainly imaginary, there is a striking similarity between the architecture of the church, visible behind St Bernardino, and a little chapel in Siena called the Oratory of St Bernardino.
While Francesco di Giorgio is named here as the artist we do not know for sure who painted this picture. Pietro di Lorenzo, an artist who worked in the studio of Vecchietta, is another possible candidate. Vecchietta was a leading Siennese artist who flourished in 1430-1480. He made a number of paintings of St Bernardino.
Bernardino is shown in this picture with the letters ‘IHS’ inscribed on a disc in front of his pulpit. These letters are an abbreviated representation of the name of Jesus. Bernardino characteristically used this motif of the Holy Name of Christ to accompany his sermons. He encouraged his audiences to have a special devotion to the name of Jesus.
Bernardino’s congregation in this picture is split into men and boys on one side and women and girls on the other. A low curtain separates the two groups. In the left and right foreground are two processions of people. These are very possibly portraits of real people - perhaps the family who commissioned the altarpiece and wanted their own portraits included in order to suggest their devotion. The picture may originally have featured in their family chapel.
This picture originally belonged to William Roscoe, the Liverpool banker, philanthropist and scholar whose collection forms the core of the early Italian and northern European pictures in the Walker. He bought it in around 1812 from a dealer and paid about five pounds for it. It was described at that time as being by Masaccio.
The Franciscan monk Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380 -1444) was, during his lifetime, one of the most successful and popular preachers in Italy. He often gave sermons to audiences that were so large that they could not be accommodated within churches. On many occasions he preached outside in squares and marketplaces, from pulpits especially constructed for him as appears in this picture. St Bernardino visited all the major northern Italian cities. His sermons were recorded by a number of people and collectively they form a fascinating document, not only about religious beliefs but also about everyday life in 15th-century Italy. Bernardino was fond of using everyday and sometimes very down to earth stories and parables to drive home his moral message. Within six years of his death Bernardino was made a saint by Pope Nicholas V.
As a Franciscan monk, Bernardino emphasised the virtues of poverty and charity, as had St Francis, the founder of his order. He was regarded by some almost as St Francis reborn; come to tell the world of the need to live simply and virtuously. From the evidence of his sermons it seems that Bernardino was attractive to audiences because he told a good story and was both amusing and engrossing.
As shown in the painting Bernardino preached to audiences in which the sexes were divided. To modern sensibilities Bernardino's sermons seem rather harsh. His attacks upon luxury clothing, the vanities of women, the duties of children to their parents, the vices of homosexuality and the obligation of parents to beat their children into good conduct do not add up to an obvious and attractive message, and one wonders at times why he was so popular. It would seem that his principal appeal to 15th-century people lay in the emphasis he placed on compassion and his attacks on moneylending and profiteering. Despite his restricted view of a woman's duties he nonetheless emphasised the importance of love and fairness in a marriage, and had, for his time, reasonably advanced views on female education. However his attitude towards witches and Jews was extremely intolerant.