Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas, Sebastian, Roch and Martin

WAG 2780


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. 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.