The saint's depiction displays Ambrogio’s remarkably naturalistic approach to figure painting. Saint John’s countenance simultaneously projects a sense of serenity and intensity, expressed with the quiet restraint that characterized later works by the artist. The sparse mound of earth and slender tree in the background at left serve to remind the viewer of the saint’s solitary life in the wilderness. His unkempt hair and beard and his disheveled hair shirt are painted with a miniaturist’s precision and he expertly juxtaposed with the smooth silk of his violet mantle. Ambrogio represents the folds of the cloak, knotted carelessly at Saint John’s neck, with subtle transitions in color and its luxurious gold lining is denoted by a fine line of mordant gilding applied along its edge.
Perhaps the most famous work by Ambrogio Lorenzetti is the extraordinary series of six frescoes representing the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, decorating the Sala dei Nove in Palazzo Pubblico, Siena (fig. 1). Painted in 1338-39, these moralistic scenes of Sienese government were intended to promote peace and warn against the rise of tyrannical politicians. Despite this high profile civic commission, the majority of Ambrogio's works, the present panel included, were intended for religious devotion.
The roundel, likely dating to the 1340s, once formed part of a larger pictorial complex, and would have been positioned between two larger wings of a polyptych. During this period in Siena, it was typical for one such roundel to sit between each panel, though occasionally they imitated Florentine models, incorporating two. Rather than framed or affixed as individual elements, these saints would have been integral to their larger panels. Remnants of stippled tooling are still visible beyond the raised perimeter border at the right edge of this panel, demonstrating the manner in which the decoration would have radiated outwards from the roundel. A jewel-like object of significant beauty, this fragment holds its own as an individual painting and has as much impact alone today as it would have had as a single element forming part of a larger complex.
We are grateful to Professor Laurence Kanter for endorsing the attribution to Ambrogio Lorenzetti, based on first-hand inspection.
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