About the artwork
This picture, originally from Lucca Cathedral, shows four Saints, the Virgin Mary and the Christ child and was painted either in the city of Lucca or in Florence around 1475. The four Saints are St Martin, St Nicholas, St Sebastian and St Roch (in Italian, San Rocco). St Martin is the patron saint of Lucca and Lucca Cathedral is named after him. St Sebastian and St Roch are both plague saints. St Roch can be easily recognised because he is invariably shown displaying a plague sore on his upper inside leg.
It is possible that this altarpiece was commissioned in thanksgiving for recovery or escape from the bubonic plague, either by a family or by a group of individuals. It is also possible that whoever commissioned the altarpiece had a strong personal devotion to St Nicolas. Originally the picture was in Lucca Cathedral possibly on a side altar in the nave or in a chapel.
The picture's wooden gilded frame is 18th or 19th century in date. When the picture was first made it was probably in a rectangular frame made up of two gilded wooden pillars or pilasters - one on each side - supporting an entablature above. Above this entablature there may also have been an arched semicircular or rectangular frame containing another picture. There may also have been one or more narrow pictures – so called 'predellas'- beneath the bottom framed edge of this picture. This type of late 15th century altarpiece often had episodes in the life of one of the important saints in the main altarpiece depicted on narrow predella panels below. One can imagine that with this altarpiece there might have been, for example, pictures showing scenes from the life of St Martin or St Sebastian or possibly episodes in the life of the Virgin Mary. It is not unusual for wooden panel pictures from this period to survive in a partial or fragmented state. There are several other altarpiece fragments in the Walker's collection.
Lucca was an independent Italian state until it was conquered by Florence in 1400. Once it came under Florentine control, artists from Florence were employed to paint the most important commissions in the city. The great Florentine painter Ghirlandaio made an altarpiece similar in structure and composition to this one and which can still be seen in Lucca Cathedral. Some art historians have suggested that the Walker's picture was possibly done by an artist from Lucca who was influenced by Ghirlandaio's picture. However it is also possible that it was painted by an artist in Florence and then delivered to the Cathedral. We do not know the name of the person who painted it. He may even have been one of the many pupils of Ghirlandaio, although it is certainly not by his most famous pupil - Leonardo da Vinci.
Fashions change and it is quite usual to find altarpieces being replaced by something more up-to-date. Also chapels within cathedrals and churches have to be maintained and repaired. The structural and decorative upkeep required the periodic spending of money by the family, trade guild or religious fraternity who owned or sponsored the chapel. There are written records that show that in 1595 the Lucca Cathedral authorities sold off a number of altarpieces after they had been replaced by more up-to-date examples. This picture may have been one of this group. Lucca Cathedral was already over a century old when this picture was painted and it may itself have replaced an earlier altarpiece possibly painted directly onto the plaster surface of the walls. After being on show for over a century this picture may have been a victim of changed tastes or the taking over of the decoration and maintenance of its chapel site by another group of people. On the other hand it may have been relegated to a corridor or another religious building within the Cathedral complex and then sold off sometime in the 18th century. What we do know is that in 1886 it was bought by the Liverpool merchant Philip Rathbone and bequeathed by him to the Walker when he died in 1895. It had probably been on the art market for about a century before that.
In the picture the throne upon which the Virgin Mary sits is made to look as though it is carved from stone. It reflects the most up-to-date and fashionable taste in architectural decoration of the 1470s and together with the original frame design may have formed an integrated stylistic whole. The carpet in front of the Virgin is Turkish in origin and is intended to indicate wealth. Mary has been painted in blue - partly because it was the most expensive of pigments. The other expensive parts of the picture are the curtains in the top corners made using real gold leaf. Tonally, Mary is separated from the other four Saints by being slightly darker.
The poses of the four Saints to the left and right of the virgin's throne are deliberately contrived. Their elongated forms with emphatic wrist and hand gestures and raised and lowered arms are characteristic too of late 15th century Florentine fashion in figure construction - most famously seen in, for example, contemporaneous pictures by Sandro Botticelli.