Lot 153
  • 153

Piero di Cosimo

1,000,000 - 1,500,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • Piero di Cosimo
  • The Madonna and Child enthroned with Saints Onophrius and Augustine
  • oil and tempera on panel


Otto Lanz, Amsterdam;
G.B. Lanz, Rennaz, Switzerland;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, December 9, 1987, lot 4, to Colnaghi;
By whom purchased for the present collector.


London, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., Discoveries from the Cinquecento, June 17 - August 7, 1982, no. 27.


M. Bacci, L' Opera completa di Piero di Cosimo, Milan 1976, p. 86, no. 8;
C. Whitfield, Discoveries from the Cinquecento, exhibition catalogue, London, P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., June 17 - August 7, 1982, pp. 56-8, cat. no. 27, reproduced p. 57;
J. Beck & A. Schultz, "The Origins of Piero di Cosimo", in Source, vol. IV, no. 4, Summer 1985, p. 13, footnote 12;
S. Fermor, Piero di Cosimo. Fiction, Invention and Fantasia, London 1993, pp. 121 ff.;
A. Padoa Rizzo, "Ancora sulla Madonna di Piazza", in F. Falletti (ed.), I Medici, il Verrocchio e Pistoia. Storia e restauro di due capolavori nella cattedrale di S. Zeno, exhibition catalogue, Livorno 1996, p. 72, footnote 14, reproduced p. 73, fig. 92;
A. Padoa Rizzo, "Arte a Pistoia nel Quattrocento", in C. D'Afflitto (ed.), L'Età di Savonarola: Fra' Paolino e la Pittura a Pistoia nel primo '500, exhibition catalogue, Pistoia, Palazzo Comunale, April 24 - July 31, 1996, pp. 43-44, and p. 49, footnote 23, reproduced fig. 22;
A.F. Tempesti & E. Capretti, Piero di Cosimo, Catalogo completo, Florence 1996, pp. 106-7, cat. no. 13, reproduced in colour p. 39 and a detail p. 40;
D. Geronimus, Piero di Cosimo, Visions Beautiful and Strange, London 2006, pp. 190-93, 282, and 328, footnotes 78 ff., reproduced in colour p. 191, fig. 148.

Catalogue Note

Piero di Cosimo was one of the most imaginative and idiosyncratic artists of his day, and this panel is one of only a handful of autograph works in private hands.1  This impressive altarpiece dates from an early stage in Piero's career, probably circa 1485-95.2  Its composition is simply – albeit carefully – composed and its design was clearly intended to be legible from a distance. The Madonna and Child are seated in the centre, flanked by the standing saints Onophrius and Augustine, each of whom is easily identifiable by his attributes. Onophrius is dressed in a loincloth made of woven palm leaves. He holds a rosary and leans on a stick. His long beard denotes his status as a hermit, as does the presence of the lion in the distance behind him. The bird flying above his head might allude to the crow which, according to legend, fed him by bringing him fruit. The sacra conversazione takes place before a classicizing arcade: the three arches that frame each figure so effectively are divided by trompe l'oeil pilasters, seemingly carved in relief and surmounted by Corinthian capitals. The rigidity of the architectural setting contrasts with the gentle movement of the figures: the Madonna turns slightly to one side and the Christ Child on her lap is in the act of blessing Saint Onophrius; he in turn points towards the central group, directing our gaze to the Child as well as to the lion in the landscape behind him; and Saint Augustine is shown in contrapposto, wearing his bishop's mitre and holding a crosier, leaning inwards towards the Madonna and Child. The tripartite composition echoes the traditional format of a triptych, with the Madonna and Child seated in the centre and the saints flanking them in the wings.

As Geronimus points out, the composition finds parallels in other works by Piero's contemporaries: in particular a Madonna and Child with Saints Onophrius and Anthony in the Spiritier collection, Amsterdam, attributed to Niccolò Soggi; a Madonna and Child with Saints Euphrosynus and John the Baptist, and Bartolomeo Canigiani as a donor in the Instituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, by Cosimo Rosselli and workshop; and Biagio d'Antonio's Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Jerome destined for the church of SS. Jacopo e Stefano in Gambassi.3  In Piero's own oeuvre, the altarpiece shows a stylistic progression from his Madonna and Child with Saints Lazarus and Sebastian in the church of SS. Michele Arcangelo e Lorenzo Martire, Montevettolini, which is datable to 1480-85 and commonly thought to be Piero's first commission of this type.4  Whilst the Montevettolini painting demonstrates the influence of Piero's teacher Cosimo Rosselli, as well as that of Filippino Lippi and Lorenzo di Credi, the present panel is more characteristic of Piero's own style, thus arguing for a date of execution some five to ten years later.

Like the Montevettolini altarpiece, this panel is executed in the mixed media of oil and tempera; a characteristic of Piero's technique in the early part of his career. As Geronimus has observed, by combining these two binding materials Piero could execute large altarpieces at great speed thanks to the different drying times of each medium. The paint surface may have suffered from water damage in the past but after its restoration in the 1990s its appearance has much improved. Although there are some areas of paint loss in the centre of the panel, most notably on the head of the Madonna and along the bottom edge, the condition of the Christ Child and the flanking saints is – as Geronimus says – 'superb'.5

A closely related pen and ink drawing is in the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.6  The sheet appears to be a compositional drawing for the altarpiece though it is primarily concerned with the figures and there is no hint of the background or architectural setting. The figures' poses are very similar to how they appear in the final painting, with the exception of Saint Onophrius who was substantially changed in the final composition; perhaps on the instigation of the patron. The circumstances surrounding the altarpiece's commission are unknown. The most likely scenario is that it was executed for an Augustinian order with a special dedication to Saint Onophrius, since the latter seems to be the saint to which the Madonna and Child specifically direct their attention. The hermit saint may have been included as a namesake for a particular confraternity or as a reference to a lay benefactor.7  Augustine was the patron saint of the pezzai (shoe leather-cutters) and Onophrius that of the cloth weavers and dyers. Three different possibilities have been put forward but no documentary evidence exists to support any of these hypotheses.Geronimus has tentatively suggested that the painting may have been commissioned for the small church and convent of Sant'Onofrio delle Cappuccine, founded in 1280 by the Arte dei Tintori (Dyers' Guild) with a special dedication to Saint Onophrius. Little of the original building survives and all works of art were either lost or destroyed after their removal from the church in 1720. A second possibility is that the pala was commissioned by the Franciscan nuns of Sant'Onofrio di Fuligno, but the convent was dissolved in 1800 and nothing remains of the original building except its refectory. The least probable destination for the work, but one which has been suggested nonetheless, is Pistoia, where it could have hung either in the church of San Lorenzo or in the monastery of SS. Onofrio e Basilio detta degli Armeni.9  As Geronimus points out, if the painting was indeed sent to Pistoia it would most likely have been seen there by Lorenzo di Credi, whose Madonna and Child with four Saints of 1510-12 today in the Museo Civico, Pistoia, owes much to Piero's composition.

Despite being one of the most inventive artists in Florence during the last quarter of the 15th and first quarter of the 16th century, Piero's reputation for eccentricity obscured recognition of his artistic merit for centuries. This was largely due to Vasari's biography of the artist in which Piero is described as socially deviant; a loner, living and working in solitude, irritated by 'the crying of children, the coughing of men, the sound of bells, and the chanting of friars'. Vasari's anecdote of Piero living on hard-boiled eggs instead of proper meals only served to emphasise the artist's eccentric lifestyle: 'he cared nothing for his own comfort, and reduced himself to eating nothing but boiled eggs, which, in order to save firing, he cooked when he was boiling his glue, and not six or eight at a time, but in fifties; and, keeping them in a basket, he would eat them one by one.'10  This and many other anecdotes were almost certainly exaggerations as Vasari was a ten-year-old boy when Piero died.

1.  Most of the sixty-one paintings that Geronimus lists as autograph are in museum or university collections (see Geronimus, under Literature, p. 281-82). Of those, ten paintings, of which this is the only multi-figure composition, remain in private hands and two of these were destroyed or remain untraced.
2. Tempesti and Capretti date the work to the early 1490s (see Literature, p. 106).
3. Geronimus, op. cit., p. 192, the Soggi and Rosselli reproduced figs. 149 and 150. Geronimus erroneously describes Soggi's altarpiece as showing Saints Onophrius and Augustine, but the young saint is clearly intended to be Anthony of Padua.
4. Geronimus, ibid., reproduced in colour p. 187, fig. 144.
5. Ibid., p. 328, footnote 79.                                                                          6. Inv. No. 1773, pen and brown ink (and black chalk) on paper, 168 by 209 mm., the verso of which shows two partial studies of a male nude and a study of a leg. The drawing bore a handwritten attribution to Perugino and Geronimus, and Griswold before him, consider the sheet to be a copy after Piero's preparatory drawing (see Geronimus, ibid., p. 328, footnote 80, reproduced p. 190, fig. 147). Tempesti and Capretti attribute the sheet to Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio (op. cit., p. 107, under cat. no. 13).
7. Beck & Scultz (see Literature) tentatively suggested that Piero's painting may have been commissioned in connection with a miraculous relic obtained for the Augustinian church of S. Spirito in 1392 by the bishop of Florence, Brother Onofrio Agostiano:as Geronimus observes, no support has been found in the archives for this suggestion however.
8. Geronimus, ibid., p. 193.
9. Mina Bacci (see Literature) suggested a Pistoian provenance for the work, noting that the painting's old attribution to Bernardino del Signoraccio (1460-after 1532), a minor painter from Pistoia whose son  Fra' Paolino also went on to be an artist, might lend support to this theory.
10. G. Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Painters Sculptors and Architects, translated edition by G. Du C. de Vere, New York 1979, p. 817.